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The Self Critic

What do we mean when we talk about the self critic? Too many of us are quietly, privately, hard on ourselves. We walk around with an inner critic, telling us we’re not ‘good enough’ and never amount to anything. It shouts at us after a difficult run in with our boss: “You are a total idiot! Why did you say that? He will sack you now!”

What would it be like to have no self critic? People can worry that without that mean voice keeping tabs on them, they might become lazy or lack motivation, but this is not true. If you think about something about yourself that you don’t like – the wrinkles on your skin, or the way you get irritated if a friend turns up late. Now imagine the self critic is outside of you saying nasty things – “You look so old and haggard!” “You are grumpy, no-one likes you.” 

The nature of the self critic

What does it look like? sound like? Is it a real person from your past? Is it a small cartoon character? What emotions does it have for you? Is it angry, disappointed, deeply hostile? How does it feel to be on the receiving end of those emotions? Obviously it feels horrible – and life is tough enough without having to suffer this internal battering. Does your self critic have your best interests at heart? No – what it is doing is stimulating your threat system – making you feel stressed. Do you deserve it? No. Does it help? NO!

Another type of messenger

Let’s look at another kind of internal messenger. One that would only send positive, supportive messages at those times when you feel you have messed up. One that really wants you to do well despite all kinds of tough challenges, one that would pick you up when you fall over, soothe you when you are feeling hopeless and helpless,  one who would let you be content with who you are NOW? That is your compassionate self! Instead of the threat system being activated, the compassionate self activates the para-sympathetic nervous system, the grounding, calming, “rest and digest” system. 

Not a fight, but a deliberate choice

 We aren’t going to fight with the critic, we’re going to start to BUILD your compassionate self. Paul Gilbert, from the University of Derby (link to his webite below), who has spent his academic career researching compassion makes this comparison:

He says we might imagine that there are two possible school where we could send our child –  one  has a hostile critical atmosphere, the other a supportive and kind atmosphere – which one would you send your child to? Obviously, it’s a no brainer. Just like that supportive and kind school, our own internal self compassionate voice has at its core, a real desire to help both us and others to be at our best. It would help us to deal with life’s challenges. It would strengthen inner wisdom, strength, authority, groundedness and stillness – it would be deeply committed to the care and validation of ourselves and others.

A choice that takes practice and deliberate focus

Replacing the self critic with a kind voice takes practice. You might imagine a whole Compassion Committee with multiple characters sharing the taks – a kindly coach there on the sidelines gently urging you on when times get tough, or a warm cuddly bear-like character who is great for the all-enveloping hugs. 

Self compassion is not self-care

Self-compassion is not self-care, in the superficial chocolates-and-bubble-bath sense – nor is it simply reasoning ‘What is this about, why do I feel this? And what would be the most helpful thing for me now?’” It goes much deeper than this. Neither is it designed to turn us into a saintly Mother Teresa-like figure. Compassion is where you go to to deal with all the BAD stuff – when you have to confront shame, trauma,  addiction with a deep commitment to healing. It involves repetition, continual practice, slowly building up neural pathways so that the compassionate voice becomes our default. 

Why do we have a self-critic?

Paul Gilbert’s research has shown that not only does the self critic make our lives rather miserable, but it often underpins problematic relationships with drugs, alcohol, food or work, in the attempt to find some relief, as well as mental health problems including depression and chronic shame.

He stresses that negative self-talk is not evidence of something “wrong” with us that needs to be fixed; it is a feature of being human. Evolution has given us what he calls a “tricky” brain. Our complex cognitive system – able to imagine, anticipate and conceive of an objective “self” – is equally inclined to dwell on negative thoughts such as “If only I’d …” and “I should have …” This triggers the same fight-or-flight, physiological response as an external threat.

Tune in to your thoughts

Many of us have become adept at avoiding uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions – whether it is because we are distracted by our busy lives, or simply unable to cope with what we might find. The first step towards self-compassion is gaining awareness of our inner world: what is most likely to trigger feelings of anger, fear or shame; how we instinctively react to them; the content (and tone) of our internal monologue.

Support your mind with your body

Gilbert stresses that this is not simply a mental exercise – we can use the body as a first step – via breath, muscle relaxation or mindfulness exercises. He recommends soothing rhythm breathing, which is shown to alleviate stress and anxiety through its effect on the autonomic nervous system. This is very simple and goes like this:

With your shoulders, back and chest open, slow and deepen the breath to about five breaths a minute. The key is to maintain the smoothness of breath: five (or four, or six – just be consistent) seconds in, the same again out.

A compassionate mindset is not just about US

Compassion has as much to do with our relationships to other people as with ourselves, says Gilbert. Fostering connection and ways we can care for others re-organises our “tricky brains” to draw meaning from these relationships, instead of the self. When we feel supported by others, and safe, we feel better able to extend that to others. The aim is to create a “compassionate mindset” where we not only feel compassion for ourselves and others, but are open to receiving it too. Gilbert puts it like this: “Self-compassion is really recognising what it is to be human: what our basic needs are, which is a sense of connectedness, and what moves us away from that.”     Paul Gilbert UK 

Guided meditations  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer Paul Gilbert


Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: Self-CompassionHow self-compassionate are you?Self-Compassion Tools