Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
"Look, if I love myself as I am, with all the mistakes I've made and all the ways I continue to screw up, it's like I'm giving myself permission to keep on destroying my life! If I'm nice to myself NOW, I won't know that I have to change. I need to be real with myself, or I won't man up and do better."
My client sat with his arms crossed, head hanging, a deep sadness beneath the surface anger in his voice. My heart went out to him. How well I know this feeling!
Valentine's Day is rough. My clients often come to counseling on this day carrying sadness, anger, regret, shame, and longing; as if these feelings aren't difficult enough, many of them add a heavy helping of self-criticism. There is nothing so terrible that a little self-criticism can't make it worse!
"I should have known better..."
"But then I went and made the same mistake again, which was just stupid..."
"Well, in a sense, I asked for it..."
"If I had been a better person, it may have worked out..."
"I completely understand why she left me, I mean look at me..."
Often when these difficult emotions show up, I counsel my clients to sit for a moment in self-compassion, noticing their feelings and thoughts without judgment.
Self-compassion can feel like an internal hug of the heart while the sadness or anger plays out; it can feel like being held gently and lovingly while the regrets and sorrows come spilling out; or it can simply be a sense of "having your own back" as you go through a difficult time, the way you would care for a dear friend or child who was struggling.
My client was having none of it today.
"I don't want to be gentle and kind with myself. I want to man the f*** up and change my life. I'm tired of making the same mistakes."
I watched him as he spoke to me; I could see how passionately he felt about what he was saying, but his eyes were directed firmly to the floor.
"What would happen," I asked him, "If every time you told yourself to 'man the f*** up', there was an inner voice that said "Wow, that makes sense. It must be really hard to fall short of your goals."
"That would defeat the purpose! I need to criticize myself so that I know what I'm doing wrong and choose to do better."
Now he was meeting my eyes, and I could hear how important this was to him. I could also see how deeply exhausted he was.
"You seem worn out by this. How long have you tried to change yourself by pointing out all the things that are wrong with you?
"It is exhausting. I've been on my own case since probably first grade!"
"And yet here you still are, thinking you need to change...that's a lot of years to be walking around convinced that you are a flawed being."
"If the shoe fits...I would be worse off if I didn't recognize that I need to change."
"I can hear how terrible it feels to fall short of your own expectations. But I also hear that this strategy isn't working, or with all that self-criticism you'd be the perfect human by now!"
We laughed for a minute.
Self-compassion is scary; my client hit the nail right on the head.
If I am kind to myself, if I end that ceaseless internal diatribe about all the ways I need to do better and be better and look better; all the internal comparisons and criticisms and lectures, won't I turn into a lazy narcissist who never achieves anything?
Can't self-compassion kill my self-improvement?
The foremost researcher on self-compassion today, Dr. Kristen Neff, has studied this and found the opposite to be true (you can read her research, and access some wonderful resources, at self-compassion.org).
Her work has shown that self-criticism actually IMPAIRS our ability to change, whereas self-compassion makes change less frightening and more attainable.
This makes sense, right? Change only lasts when it feels good. Study after study has shown that positive reinforcement (such as praise or a treat following the accomplishment of a task) is far more effective than punishment (castigating ourselves for doing something wrong).
The elegance of self-compassion is that it's positive reinforcement that's on tap, every day, free, completely aligned with your own value system, and requires nothing but your commitment.
This is important: if we were taught self-compassion as children, we would have greater resilience and greater compassion for others. We would attain the skill to soothe and comfort ourselves when others hurt us.
When we think of all the tragedies we have faced--historically and recently--it is heartbreaking to realize how many of them could have been averted if our society valued self-compassion and taught it early.
Not only that, but when Aristotle said 'We are what we repeatedly do', he was on to something. Researchers have found that people who are in the habit of mercilessly criticizing themselves tend to be more judgmental and critical of other people. Kindness and compassion are a habit; when you don't practice them inside your own head, they're harder to find when you are dealing with others.
So, your self-criticism can hurt the people you love!
Something else interesting happens with self-criticism. When we are chastising ourselves for not being better, we are putting the blame squarely on ourselves. But what if what's causing these feelings and emotions and mistakes has nothing to do with you? What if the endless loop of self-criticism is blinding you to the fact that you are in a dead-end job that saps your joy in life? Or that your partner is emotionally abusive? Or that your child's behavioral issues may be rooted not in your poor parenting but in a bullying situation at school?
When this happens, our self-critical habit can actually keep us in the very situations that are causing us the pain and blame in the first place!
My client was smiling and nodding now, so I asked him if he would be willing to try something this week:
All week, any time you catch yourself feeling bored, insignificant, angry, resentful, sad, confused, faulty...every time you are experiencing something uncomfortable or frustrating... take one moment to feel an inward presence watching you with compassion and non-judgment. Imagine a friend putting an arm around you if it helps find the feeling of compassion.
Then do two things:
1) name what you are feeling ('I am feeling angry and disappointed in myself') and
2) add internally "And that's the right way to feel."
How can something that sounds this silly work?
Compassionate observation of our feelings is often enough to derail the train of self-judgment and self-criticism that frequently spirals into an unending loop of uncomfortable feelings.
When we are pre-occupied with uncomfortable feelings, we are less likely to be making informed choices guided by our values, and more likely to go into avoidance behaviors that numb us out. Numbing out to avoid discomfort feels good in the short run, but in the long run takes us father from our goals than ever.
When, instead, we choose to compassionately notice the difficult thoughts and feelings, we rebound much more quickly and are far more likely to take actions that align with our values.
If you could, simply by witnessing your own thoughts and emotions with compassion, ensure that you are far more likely to build a life that is meaningful to you, would you do it?
My client shook his head at the exercise I'd offered, but he smiled and met my eyes as he stood up to leave.
"How are you feeling about this session?" I asked him.
"Hopeful," he said, "but also afraid that it won't work."
"And?" I asked. He smiled and waved as he called out the response:
"And that's the right way to feel!"
Self-compassion does not kill self-improvement. Self-compassion makes self-improvement more likely, more possible, and less painful.
Practice self-compassion this week by paying attention non-judgmentally to the thoughts and feelings that show up in your life. How would you treat a dear friend or a child who felt this way? Practice treating yourself with the same kindness.
You just might find your difficult emotions passing through more quickly, and your motivation for change increasing. I'd love to hear what you discover!
**gratitude to my brave and amazing client for his willingness to share his story. You know who you are!**
We've been on a bit of a blog hiatus as we plan for our sold-out H I B E R N A T E retreat (hooray for all of those wonderful people who are choosing self-compassion!) but will be back on track in March. Stay tuned for upcoming retreats, classes, and workshops offered by Inner Light Counseling Collective, or click below to join our mailing list.