6 Acts of Self-Compassion to Help Calm Your Inner Critic
The unfortunate truth: We’re all our own worst critic sometimes.
If we’re lucky, that means we occasionally say some not-so-nice things to ourselves when we mess up or feel like we’re not doing enough. But for many of us, the self-criticisms are monthly, weekly, perhaps daily occurrences. And it doesn’t just throw us off in the moment—it can also have some harmful long-term consequences.
According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a pioneering self-compassion researcher, author, and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s educational psychology department, self-criticism can work as a motivator—but only to a point.
“A lot of people actually get fairly far in life with this harsh inner critic,” Neff tells Shine. “The problem is, it has a lot of adverse consequences. One of the things harsh self-criticism does is shame yourself, and shame is antithetical to learning. It’s like the opposite of a motivated state because you lose your motivation, you may shut down, you withdraw into yourself.”
There are lots of potential repercussions of this, including anxiety and diminishing self-confidence, both of which can undermine success and create a fear of failure that’s so big we procrastinate or stop trying all together. “And when you keep putting yourself down,” Neff warns, “it actually makes you start doubting yourself over time.”
Luckily, there is an alternative: Motivating ourselves from a place of self-compassion instead of criticism. Neff is quick to point out that self-compassion does not equal complacency; rather, it’s about recognizing your failures and accepting them as part of being human, rather than associating them with whatever you perceive your shortcomings to be.
In the end, her research shows, self-compassion will not only help us feel less fearful, but also more willing to go after the things we want.
“If you care about yourself, you’re not going to want to fail,” Neff explains. “You’re going to want to reach your goals. It’s not caring that makes you want to give up.”
So, how do you actually walk the walk? When it comes to actually practicing self-compassion, Neff says there are two sides: Yin and Yang, based on the Chinese philosophy that dual forces can be complementary.
The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion
The Yin side, she explains, is the more tender side. “We validate our pain, how things are for us, we comfort and soothe ourselves when things are difficult or when we fail or feel inadequate,” she says. “It’s kind of like unconditional self-acceptance.”
The Yang side, however, is more about taking action. “The Yang side of self-compassion protects from harm, creates boundaries, it says no, it provides for one’s own needs,” Neff says. “It says, ‘OK, this is what I need to do to take action to give myself what I need instead of just subordinating my needs all the time,’ which women especially tend to do.”
Both sides account for different but equally important components of not just practicing self-compassion, but being motivated by it. In fact, there are actually six self-compassion “acts”—three on each side—that we can engage in to help us be more compassionate with ourselves. Neff breaks it down.
Validate, Comfort, and Soothe
The first three acts fall under the aforementioned Yin side of self-compassion and center around acceptance and understanding.
Validation—taking note of your pain and recognizing those feelings as real and worthy of acknowledgement—is an important first step. Followed by comforting and soothing yourself to help with the acceptance process.
Neff suggests starting with some positive affirmations like “It’s going to be okay, I’m here for you, I support you.”
Here we start to transition into the Yang piece of self-compassion, and it starts by saying no to the things that are unhealthy for you.
For instance: “Saying ‘It’s not OK for me to be treated this way’ ...that would be a very protective action,” Neff says. “And actually, if you want to look at the larger picture, I think the #MeToo movement worldwide is like the collective arising of female Yang. That’s mama bear saying, ‘No, we’re not going to take anymore. It’s not OK to harass me or pay me less or sexually abuse me or whatever you're doing.' It’s like the fierce side of self-compassion.”
This act is all about creating balance in your life so you can meet your own needs. “It’s understanding that, if I just give and give and give and don't ever meet my own needs, I am going to burn out and have no resources to be able to give,” Neff explains.
Knowing how to set boundaries, prioritize, and provide for yourself is key.
Now that you’ve acknowledged, accepted, and learned from the thing that made you feel critical of yourself in the first place, you can set a new intention for moving forward.
“Maybe you’re doing a behavior that’s really harming you and you don’t want to keep suffering,” Neff hypothesizes. You might realize: “I need to change because I care about myself.”
Validate, Comfort, Soothe, Protect, Provide, Motivate—consider it your toolkit for being kind to yourself. If self-compassion doesn’t feel easy at first, know that’s OK. It will get easier the more you practice it.
And, when in doubt, you can always go with the tried-and-true method of simply treating yourself the way you’d treat a friend.
Neff recommends thinking about it this way: “What would a mentor or a really good friend say to me? That gives us some perspective to allow in a more mature, wiser part of yourself that usually is more able to motivate with this constructive, compassionate voice.”
Remember: The goal isn’t to get rid of your inner Regina George (we will always have an inner critic!) but to greet it with self-compassion. “We really have to honor the efforts of our inner critic to keep us safe,” Neff says. “When this part of ourselves actually feels heard, it relaxes a little bit so that other parts of ourselves, the more compassionate, supportive part of ourselves can be heard.”
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