Self-Criticism and Self-Compassion: Only One Hinders Your Goals
Criticism and compassion, failure and success– We’ve got it all backwards with our goal-setting and motivation. We think that we can badger ourselves into doing more and doing it better. We think that we can criticize ourselves into improving, and we believe that we can shame ourselves into trying to be kinder, smarter, and more successful.
But that’s not really how it works, is it?
THE DYSFUNCTIONAL WAY: SELF-CRITICISM
Contrary to popular belief, bashing and being hard on yourself for not being where you want to be in your pursuit of your goals doesn’t motivate you to change for the better.
I repeat– bashing and being hard on yourself does not motivate you to change for the better.
Self-criticism, research shows, only leads to a depressed mood, more stress, and less self-confidence. Plus, if self-criticism was effective, wouldn’t we all be maximally successful, intelligent, kind, witty, sexy, and anything else we’d hope to be by now?
If you are one of the many people currently starting to notice that your new year’s resolutions aren’t manifesting according to plan and that your best intentions were just that– intentions not really acted upon, I invite you to fight the urge. Fight the urge of self-criticism. Fight the urge of self-judgment. Fight the urge of self-hate. Not by pushing it away but by replacing it with something else… something that feels better and that gets you more of the results you really want. Behavioural psychology, after all, makes clear that stopping a non-conducive habit can be quite challenging; it also makes clear that doing so becomes quite easier when you’ve got something to replace it with.
So if changing for the better is your goal and you find yourself opening up to the idea that badgering and judging yourself probably won’t get the job done nearly as well as you’d hoped, what do you replace your long-time companions, self-criticism and self-blame, with? If self-criticism doesn’t help you to do more and do it better and if shaming and blaming yourself into being kinder, smarter, and more successful doesn’t cut it, then what does?
THE FUNCTIONAL WAY: SELF-COMPASSION
Some call it self-love, others call it self-kindness, and in this article we’ll call it self-compassion. No matter what you call it, it’s that ability we all have inside of us to feel and understand our emotional experience without criticism… to offer understanding to our pain, inadequacies, and failures sans judgment.
The way to get “there” (i.e., to self-compassion) from “here” (i.e., self-criticism) is to understand and recognize how both self-criticism and self-compassion may show up for you. When you can get a grasp of how these different ways of responding to your unmet expectations of yourself may show up for you, you can first of all learn how to spot self-criticism, and second of all learn how to stop it in its tracks by using your newly honed skill of self-compassion! The next few minutes of reading are devoted to just that. So sit back, relax, and join me for some good ‘ol inner exploration as we get familiar with what self-criticism and self-compassion may look, sound, and feel like for you.
SELF-CRITICISM LOOKS LIKE–
Self-criticism looks like conditional self-worth. It looks like self-confidence that is contingent on external things like achievement and appearance. It looks like dwelling on your faults… Like an endless pursuit of improvement… Like you are a project and need to be worked on constantly. It looks like there is an ideal version of you that has yet to be achieved… Like keeping track of your failures and mistakes… Like being at war with yourself, and treating yourself as if you are the enemy. It looks like noticing that your flower isn’t blooming as you’d hoped and choosing to punish it for not meeting your expectations by tearing out its leaves and roots, thereby not giving it a chance to bloom at all.
Look inside yourself. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
SELF-COMPASSION LOOKS LIKE–
Self-compassion looks like patience for your journey. It looks like respect for yourself and where you are in life. It looks like extending compassion to yourself in any moment of trouble, especially in those moments where you perceive failure or inadequacy. It looks like having compassion for your imperfections, even those that may be hard to look at. Like nourishing yourself with kindness… Like making friends with yourself. It looks like forgiving yourself for past behaviours rather than bashing yourself for not knowing better. It looks like forgiving yourself for all the judgments you internalized about yourself over the years and forgiving yourself no matter how many times you fail to meet your own expectations.
Self-compassion looks like courage… A kind of courage that sees the very tempting voice of self-criticism peeping in, bringing with it the false promise of motivating you to reach your dreams, and that acknowledges yet doesn’t succumb to it. Self-compassion looks like self-confidence that has nothing to do with achievement or the lack of it. “A person truly comfortable in his skin doesn’t say, “I am a worthy human being because I can do such and such,’ but says, ‘I am a worthy human being whether or not I can do such and such’ (Gabor Maté). It looks like noticing that your flower isn’t blooming as you’d hoped and becoming curious as to why, investigating the environment for what might be going wrong, looking for ways to modify the environment and plan for creating the conditions that will best support it to bloom in its own time.
SELF-CRITICISM SOUNDS LIKE–
When it realizes you made a mistake or thinks you failed in some way, self-criticism uses the situation to define your worth. It says “you really effed up”, “you’re no good”, “how could you do this?”, and “I always knew you were a failure”. Self-criticism waits for evidence of your worth; it says “I will be worthy when I accomplish this”, “I’m no good unless I achieve that”, and “I will be loveable only when I am loved by this or that person”. Self-criticism also says, and often loudly, “You’ve got to change, please change, you can’t keep being as you are. Change, change, change now. Change as soon as you can”.
SELF-COMPASSION SOUNDS LIKE–
Where self-criticism says “You suck” and “you’re a failure” when you make a mistake, self-compassion acknowledges that it doesn’t have to believe the thoughts of the inner critic that resides inside of your head. Instead, self-compassion says, “I know that I am worthy of my own support and kindness. It makes sense that I feel scared as I forge toward this goal– I know that I’m not the only one who feels like this at times.” Self-compassion acknowledges too that all your inner critic or mind bully is really trying to do is to protect you. It gets curious and spends time– with gentleness and undivided attention– getting to know your source of self-criticism. It wants to know what your inner mind bully is trying to protect you from when it engages its voice of criticism. It acknowledges that there may be feelings of shame and of “not good enough” lurking around that a bit of self-criticism might help to temporarily deflect, or perhaps a deep feeling of sadness or loss that self-criticism can prevent you from having to feel right now. It spends time letting self-criticism know that it too has your back and that it can help you reach your goals in a kinder, gentler, more loving, and, coincidentally, also more effective way.
Where self-criticism says “You are full of imperfection and should be ashamed”, self-compassion says “We are all imperfect, and so am I”. It guides you to ask “What can I do in this moment to care for myself, and perhaps to motivate myself– from a place of self-love and -care– to take one step forward? Self-compassion professes “No matter where I am on my journey, I am worthy right now. I am loveable right now. I don’t need to wait to love and appreciate myself until I am “smarter”, “better”, or “stronger”.” Self-compassion boldly whispers “Don’t change. I love you just as you are.”
SELF-CRITICISM FEELS LIKE–
Self-criticism feels like self-loathing… Like being hurt by someone you love. It feels like a stab in the chest… Like regret… Like hopelessness… Like there is nowhere to go and no possible way forward. It feels like a sense of not belonging and purposelessness– like your reason for being alive has been sucked out of you, remnants nowhere to be found. It feels like repeatedly stepping on an ant, crushing it again and again and again, making sure that its zest and vigour for life have been fully lost. And realizing that you are that ant.
Being hurt by someone hurts. In the instance of self-criticism, it is you hurting yourself, time after time after time whilst hoping for things to get better.
SELF-COMPASSION FEELS LIKE–
Self-compassion feels like patience; it feels like appreciation; it feels like self-respect. It feels like being looked at by someone who loves and wants only the best for you. It feels like unconditional love… a love that boldly states “perfection isn’t necessary in order to love, value, and respect you”. It feels like unconditional support. No matter if you are experiencing success and achievement or loss, hurt, and conflict, self-compassion is that feeling of warmth and belonging that perpetually lives inside your heart. Because it doesn’t need you to change and doesn’t force you to change, it feels like serenity. You can relax and be as you are.
IF BEING HARD ON YOURSELF DOESN’T WORK, WHY NOT TRY BEING GOOD TO YOURSELF?
Having listened closely to the sounds, looks, and feelings of both your inner critic and your compassionate inner self, it isn’t hard to see (right?) why it’s self-compassion– and not self-criticism– that is really the ultimate motivator in our journey to achieving our greatest goals. When you feel shut down and out, unworthy, and unlovable (the effects of constantly listening to and believing the voice of your inner critic), it becomes evermore difficult to move forward. After all, how can you move forward when you are busy hating yourself and making yourself out to be the enemy? But when you feel appreciated, welcomed, and loved as you are (the effects of listening to and believing the compassionate voice of your inner self), it becomes substantially much easier to take and achieve the next step in your beautiful life journey.
So pause right here, and ask yourself ‘Which do I want to nurture?’ The inner critic who makes me feel like a failure and incapable of reaching my dreams, or my compassionate inner self who reminds me of my worth and lovability and with whom I feel like I can achieve anything my mind and heart desire?
Know that you can learn to recognize and exercise the difference. You can learn to pivot accordingly and switch to self-compassion rather than cycling repetitively through old patterns of self-criticism. In doing so, you can lead yourself to experience the kind of love, attention, and affection that help you to become the kind of person who easily contributes to the well-being of everyone around you– which, I venture to say, is the greatest goal and achievement of all.