In an earlier blog post, and in Bridges to Consensus, I’ve written about humans’ instinctive resistance to being made wrong (criticized or the like). Yet, some of us are only too quick to criticize ourselves, often unjustifiably and to ill effect. Various factors can spawn self-criticizing—childhood experiences, temperament, and perhaps most often, acculturation.
Women, in particular, are often acculturated to feel that it’s their job to make everything work out, especially during interactions with others. So when something goes wrong, their first thought might be, I must have screwed up. And if you must have screwed up, it’s not hard to generate ideas about what you did wrong. Does your boss seem angry? Maybe it’s because your report was an hour late. Did your spouse cheat? Maybe you need to lose weight or get sexier nighties or bake more cookies.
Men, on the other hand, may be acculturated to view life as a perpetual contest in which one can never do enough. You get a promotion and raise. Now what do you do for an encore? If a colleague at your level gets a further promotion, and you don’t, a nagging little voice that originates, not in your head, but in your gut, whispers that you are a failure, just not good enough.
Of course there is equal-opportunity self criticism, practiced by people of every temperament, culture and gender, such as the ever-popular “If only I had…” You decide to take the freeway to work and run into a huge traffic jam. You beat yourself up with, “If only I had taken the surface streets!” But you didn’t have a crystal ball, and for all you know, you would have met with a worse jam on the surface streets.
Then you apply a judgmental term you’d never utter to a friend, “That was stupid of me.”
An impromptu experiment I do in my classes shows that self-criticism can actually reduce the strength of a person’s arm. (See Bridges to Consensus, p. 38) Her confidence going into a persuasive or consensus-seeking conversation ebbs along with her physical strength. A legitimate self-compliment has the reverse effect, boosting strength and confidence.
A recent article in Scientific American reports the health benefits of self-compassion. It helps us cope with major life crises, such as divorce, and recover faster. Self-compassion also motivates us to work toward our goals and attain them, while our instinctive self-criticism is actually counterproductive.
The article also clarifies the meaning of self-compassion: “Self-compassion is distinct from self-esteem, a trait that can shade into narcissism. Nor should it be confused with self-pity or self-indulgence. ‘Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness and care you’d treat a friend,’ says Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion.”
O, the Oprah Magazine suggests three techniques for turning those self-criticisms around. First, challenge any absolute terms. If you think, “I never exercise enough,” question that head talk. Have you really never completed a workout? Have you never worked out four or five times in a given week?
Second, “Channel your compassion advisor.” Your compassion advisor is someone you see as kind and empathetic, perhaps a relative, a former teacher, or a dear friend. Imagine you are speaking to that person and voice your self-criticism aloud. Then, put yourself in the shoes of your advisor and respond as she would, again aloud.
Third, write out any fearful or worrisome thoughts. This can actually give you a sense of diminishing and controlling them. I like to make two columns and write the fears in one column, then rebut them in the second column, so this ties back in with step 1.
These techniques can help greatly, but the Scientific American article suggests a practice I like even better, and I think you’ll like it too. Research at the University of California, Berkeley showed that compassionately supporting others increases your compassion toward yourself. It is especially helpful to reach out to support others when you are going through a tough patch of your own.
This also works in reverse. Developing self-compassion also boosts your compassion for others. The two forms of compassion synergize in an upward spiral. In other words, compassion for anyone boosts compassion for all–a true win-win.
So your resolution for August is to try one or more of the above techniques whenever you detect critical head talk. I will be interested to hear which techniques work best for you.
 “Self-Compassion Fosters Mental Health, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=self-compassion-fosters-mental-health
 “How Kind Are You to You?” Aug. 2012, p. 152