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  • Writer's pictureEmily Brewster

Cultivating Kindness in Hard Times: 6 Ways to Teach Your Inner Critic the Healing Language of Self-Compassion


broken heart in sand with a light within

Some Thoughts on the Inner Critic:

It happened; life delivered a massive blow. Maybe you missed the mark, fallen short of your commitments, or relapsed. Your world has suddenly stopped in the wake of a divorce, an ending of your identity as you know it, or the death of a loved one. Your life path has been touched by adversity and you are left to make sense of the aftermath. Whether your life event is a painful mistake or is an upending crisis, our minds and hearts may quickly be eclipsed by a shadow of shame, dread, regret, and uncertainty. Faced with adversity, you may find yourself accompanied by an inner voice; one that is hypercritical, accusatory, or ruminates on perceived wrongdoing.


Although these self-critical voices may take the form of an enemy, it is often a misunderstood element of our being that desires to help us “stay in line” and avoid the pain of rejection. That voice believes, “If I’m hard enough, if I keep myself on the hook long enough, if I berate myself, this won’t happen again.” This part of you believes in the power of rigidity and forcefulness to prevent bad things from happening in the future. This voice believes this because, perhaps, it worked before.  


raindrops on a window

This hyper-critical voice often has origins in early life experiences during childhood. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver that was unsafe at times, unrelenting in their criticism and reactions, or overresponsive to mistakes. Maybe the very notion of expressing emotion meant you were “too much” or withheld attention. Deprived of the soothing balm of comfort and reassurance, this inner voice likely took form to avoid the shame of being noticed or failing in the eyes of those whose role was to care for, nurture, and protect you. That voice may have even learned to repeat the same, critical words that were spoken to you at vulnerable times. Painfully, this voice may have accepted unnecessary responsibility for the hurtful actions of others, because seeing sources of survival and connectedness

as fallible, meant your safety and acceptance were compromised.


These aversive experiences can extend beyond our families of origin. Experiencing bullying, oppression of any form (systemic racism, sexism, abuse, etc.), being victimized or experiencing trauma can be incredibly influential. These experiences may shape your beliefs, worldview, and how you see yourself. These core beliefs often declare “not good enough”, “failure”, “unlovable” or “reject”. Simple in their words, yet their imprint is often painful and lasting. Somehow this inner voice and its misunderstood drive to keep you safe or make sense of oppressive experiences can become an immobilizing force.



cave in the shape of a heart

Self-Compassion: Learning the New Language & What Gets in the Way

How can we begin to untangle a lifetime of old, critical messages and, more specifically, heal how this inner voice responds to pain and adversity? This voice, when recognized and nurtured, often has the capacity to learn a new, more nourishing language. This is the language and spirit of self-compassion. In addition to the distorted core beliefs this inner critic may buy into, we can also be faced with external messages that make the practice of self-compassion seem like being permissive, lazy, or “letting myself off the hook.” This can be bolstered by the belief that only “tough love” works or that ignoring our pain makes it go away (this is usually not the case). Your path to self-compassion may also be blocked by believing self-compassion is weak or soft, and overvaluing self-criticism as a motivator for change (even if it paralyzes you in an attack of shame). This is typically accompanied by a common double-standard: others deserve support and care to move forward, but I don't.


What Exactly is Self-Compassion:

Kristen Neff (2011), pioneer, author, and expert on the research of self-compassion, defines self-compassion by encapsulating its three core components:

 

1.        Self-Kindness: Neff (2011) describes this as treating oneself with a warm understanding, rather than harsh judgement. It involves turning to oneself with a gentle and supportive attitude in the face of pain and suffering. It’s the compassion you access, share, and feel towards others, only directed towards yourself. Treating yourself as you would your most beloved person in life, slowly dismantles the unworkable and limiting double-standard.

 

2.        Common Humanity: Acknowledge that suffering and shortcomings are a part of the shared human experience. All people fail, experience loss, hurt, and make mistakes. You are human; therefore, you cannot be immune to the inevitability of this (even if it hurts to admit). This lessens our isolation and can help reduce the pitfall of comparison and seeing others as superior or without their faults (usually a lonely endeavor).

 

3.        Mindfulness: This involves maintaining an open awareness to one’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences without rejecting or exaggerating them (2011). It involves non-judgmentally observing and holding your experience; a critical concept. We cannot hold compassion for our pain if we cannot first acknowledge and notice that it’s present. We also cannot nurture our pain if we avoid or reject it. This doesn't mean pushing away the inner-critic, rather acknowledging it and choosing the way in which we relate to it.


Self-compassion allows you to have a kind, open-hearted awareness to your experience (Neff, 2003). It’s like building a new relationship with yourself and growing in this way takes time and persistence. Like learning anything new, giving yourself permission to practice and get acquainted with the process is necessary to get the hang of it. Below are 6 actions to take toward learning to heal the inner-critic with self-compassion practices.



person holding heart shaped leaf

Practical Actions to Start on a Journey of Self-Compassion:


1.        Practice Affirming Self-Talk: Words matter. Practice offering yourself kind, reassuring words that bolster you, rather than tear you down. As simple as it sounds, it takes work. Especially if you are used to falling back on critical words, adopting new affirming phrases can take time. No pressure to adopt anything that feels too sticky-sweet or inauthentic. This isn't about wrestling yourself into toxic, discounting positivity (this has a way of backfiring sometimes). Simple, kind phrases that you may offer a friend or loved one can be phrases you can practice turning on yourself. Don't worry if this feels unnatural at first: you are learning a new language and you have permission to miss the mark and try again.

 

2.        Mindful Meditation: Creating opportunities where you can practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations can help build the muscle memory of mindful awareness. Dedicating 5 minutes to slowing down, breathing, coming back to the present moment and witnessing your experience non-judgmentally can cultivate a stance of self-compassion.

 

3.        Building Self-Care into Your Routine: Self-care can come in a variety of forms. Create a list of restorative practices that promote relaxation, recovery, and joy. This can include caring for your body by taking a bath, reading, spending time in nature, hobbies, eating nourishing foods, or treating yourself to a gentle ritual or activity. The options are endless. Remember, self-care isn’t something you have to earn. Be proactive about creating regular practices around self-care. It’s a useful way to practice self-compassion in an active way.

 

4.        Give Your Body Attention: Self-criticism has a way of activating our threat-state. This can be incredibly taxing on your body to be in overdrive or hypervigilance mode and self-criticism keeps this process going. Giving your body attention can be a way to soothe your nervous system and calm the threat state. Practicing slow, relaxed breathing, gentle stretching, and even placing a hand over your heart space can be kind, soothing gestures for your whole system. You can also be creative by swaying and moving your body gently, dancing, yoga, or using self-massage.

 

5.        Reach Out for Support: Asking for help can be challenging and can activate worries of being vulnerable, needy, or flawed. Practice vulnerability by asking for support and connecting with trusted supports. In connection, we find that others may relate to our struggle or can offer us nurturance to ease discomfort. You may reflect on this and acknowledge your common humanity (a key ingredient of self-compassion). Getting support from others, especially with those you can count on, can offer different perspectives that can help unstick your thinking and consider other possibilities. This can also look like working with a trusted therapist to support the development of your new skills AND that can hold space for your hurts.

 

6.        Embrace the Grey: The mind tends to think of things in polarized ways: good and bad, black and white, negative and positive. This can be a sticky situation when it comes to inevitably making mistakes or experiencing hardships. Practice living in the messy middle. Look for the nuance or grey area. Maybe you can take ownership of some aspects of a problem, but maybe not the whole thing. Perhaps you cannot agree with something AND appreciate it at the same time. Embracing uncertainty can free you from the rigidity of self-criticism. Instead of “I am a complete failure” the messy middle sounds like “I dropped the ball here AND I am still valuable as a person” or “I need to make changes AND I am doing my best.” Embracing the power of "and".


pathway in the forest with rocks

 

Getting Started

Self-compassion is a gentle, open-hearted practice of responding with kindness and tenderness, especially amidst life’s pain. Learning to soothe your inner critic through self-compassion and restorative practices can help to rewire your brain, develop more balanced core beliefs, and revitalize the relationship you have with yourself. It is never too late to learn the language of self-compassion. With patience, practice, and support, you can develop new patterns and make sustainable changes. Start small and build on these self-compassionate actions and practices.



Emily Brewster

Emily Brewster, MSW, LICSW, MHP

Emily Brewster is the founder, owner, & therapist at Light of the Moon Counseling, PLLC. Emily offers individual mental health therapy services via telehealth to adults dealing with depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma. She is a US Army Veteran and is passionate about educating others about mental health and effective strategies to find relief.



light of the moon counseling


References:

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.


Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. HarperCollins.

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