Last week I was facilitating a weekly group for six of my clients—all very high-functioning 20 and 30 something women. All of these women have successful careers, multi-faceted interests, and numerous accomplishments. All of them tell themselves they are not good enough.
“I’m so lazy.” Heads move up and down in knowing nods around the circle—not in judgment but in recognition. “I’m not good enough.” More nods. As each of the group members shared the voice of their inner critic, the other group members heard the familiar chatter of their own critical voice echoing back.
We all know that listening to and fueling our inner critic is unhelpful and counter-productive. So why do we do it? Some of my clients say that they’ve always talked to themselves this way…they don’t know how to muffle that inner voice. Others say they use self-criticism in order to motivate themselves. They are afraid that if they let go of their negative self-talk, they will engage in overindulgent behavior or become complacent. However, research shows just the opposite effect—self-criticism takes the wind out of our sails.
Peterson (2014) explains: “To the extent that self-criticism does work to direct and motivate behavior, it’s because we’re driven by the desire to avoid self- judgment when we fall short of expectations and standards; however, when we know that failure will be met with a barrage of self-criticism, sometimes it can be too frightening to even try.” The bottom line? The self-criticism you think will motivate you to take action is, in reality, stopping you from even trying.
Think about the people that inspire you most in your life—perhaps a supervisor you’ve admired. How did this person motivate you? I would bet that they encouraged you, recognized your strengths, and celebrated your successes. That person probably also gave you constructive feedback when things weren’t going so well, and supported you in getting back on track. What if every day when your supervisor walked past your desk she yelled “you idiot. You can’t do anything right.” Would this motivate you to work harder? Would you even stick around? I hope not. Most of us wouldn’t dream of speaking to someone else the way we speak to ourselves.
When someone repeatedly criticizes us, our physiology is negatively affected. In fact, research shows that harsh words have a very damaging effect on our body, and this phenomenon holds true whether the criticism comes from someone else—or our own minds.
When we experience a threatening situation, our fight-or-flight response is triggered and adrenaline and cortisol (aptly referred to as the “stress hormone”) are released. Throughout evolution, this response has allowed humans to respond quickly to predators or other threats in the environment. Interestingly, research shows that our physiology responds similarly to physical as well as emotional attacks.
So what is the antidote to self-criticism? Self-compassion. Tender touch such as hugs and back rubs and soothing words actually decrease our cortisol levels (Rockliff et al.) and engender oxytocin (widely referred to as the “love hormone”) in our system. And studies have linked the release of oxytocin with a decrease in cardiovascular inflammation. So when you are compassionate, it is literally good for your heart!
Researcher Kristin Neff echoes, “When we soothe our painful feelings with the healing balm of self-compassion, not only are we changing our mental and emotional experience, we’re also changing our body chemistry.”
The women in my group were not surprised to hear other women speaking so negatively about themselves. Unfortunately, we hear comments like these every day, and it’s only natural to internalize the comments we hear others make about themselves. “If she thinks she’s disgusting…then I must be…” To quiet the inner critic and to become more self-compassionate takes practice. If you’re having trouble with the concept of being kind to yourself, one way to begin this process is to change how you talk about yourself in front of others. If we are compassionate toward ourselves, we give others permission to do the same.
For more ways to practice self-compassion, click here.