Have you found yourself in this situation: You’re working on treating yourself with more compassion. But then your inner critic starts: You’re enormous. Ugly. Stupid. Undeserving. Lazy. Are you sure you should be relaxing? Are you sure you want to do that presentation or ask for a promotion? Are you sure you’re good enough? You’re not.
And as these thoughts spill out, you feel disappointed, maybe even angry: Really? Why am I still so hard on myself? What the hell is wrong with me?
In other words, you start beating yourself up for beating yourself up. Researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D, talks about this in her article, “Why We Need to Have Compassion for Our Inner Critic.”
Which seems odd, doesn’t it? Why would we want to have compassion for something that makes us so miserable? For something that berates us so bitterly, so harshly? Shouldn’t we just ignore it or fight it or tell it to go to hell?
Think about how you feel when you’re talking but the other person isn’t listening to anything you’re saying. Instead, you’re being ignored, dismissed, brushed aside or outright insulted or provoked.
It hurts. It’s frustrating. You become more and more irritated.
That’s why Neff suggests we acknowledge and try to work with our inner critics. Anneli Rufus spoke with Neff, and features Neff’s insights in her book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself:
Until you accept it and understand it, the self-critic will feel angry and ignored, like its message isn’t being heard, like it has something to say and you won’t listen. Once it knows that you know it means well, it starts to loosen its grip.
And, while it’s hard to believe, our inner critic does mean well. Its ultimate goal is to protect us. According to Neff:
Our self-critic is trying to keep us safe. It’s trying to give us a protective message — ‘Watch out! You might be rejected! You might be left alone! You might mess up!’ No matter what the self-critic says and no matter where in our childhood it learned to say these things, its driving desire is to keep us safe.
So what does self-compassion look like?
It can look like listening to our inner critic. But that’s very different from taking the inner critic’s words as truth.
It’s similar to listening to another person. You don’t have to agree or internalize the information in order to listen respectfully. You simply listen. You give the person your attention and presence. You ask questions and try to get more information. Because that’s what anyone — including our inner critic — really wants: to be heard.
For instance, Neff suggests telling our inner critics: “Thank you! I see how hard you’re trying to help me. But is there another way I can feel safe besides hearing your messages?”
Here are other ways you can respond to your inner critic:
- “Thanks, but I’ve got this one covered.”
- I hear you. I appreciate your input. But I’m going to do the opposite.
- Thank you for trying to protect me. But I’m OK. I’m going to view this as a challenge that I’d like to face.
- You’re right: Making mistakes is scary, and sometimes embarrassing. But there are also lessons to be learned. So I’m moving on, even if I’ll make mistakes in the process.
- I know you only want to shield me from potential pain. But I can handle it. I’m ready to learn whatever skills I need to learn. And I can always ask for help.
- I don’t have to fulfill society’s standards when it comes to _________ (looks, weight, success, etc.). I know it might be easier to conform. But that’s not for me. I’d rather focus on what makes me feel fulfilled. Because at the end of the day, I’m the one who lives this life.
- What about this situation is scaring you?
- What are you trying to protect me from?
- What does being safe look like to you?
- What do you want me to know?
- These are the ways I’m going to feel safe in this situation… So, again, I’ve got this covered. Or Let’s try to brainstorm safe strategies together.
You might even want to write down your own statements, so you have several prepared responses when your inner critic starts roaring. Or you can write out a conversation with your inner critic about a certain situation, a dialogue, going back and forth.
Again, it might feel natural to fight your inner critic. But this only spikes your pain. Instead, try to listen to your inner critic. Try to hear it out. Which is very different from believing its insults or letting it dictate your actions.