How To Conquer Self-Criticism For Greater Happiness

The Challenge: We expect ourselves to be perfect and we get down on ourselves when we’re not.
The Science: Self-criticism actually makes us feel and perform even worse.
The Solution: The astonishing science of self-compassion shows that it boosts our well-being and success!

Are you highly self-critical? Do you beat yourself up over failures? Do you work too much and push too hard without giving yourself time to breathe or relax? Do you feel the need to compete, outperform others, and move ahead of the pack in order to succeed? Do you live with shame, self-criticism, and sometimes a sense of just not being good enough? We live in a society that regularly sends us the message to achieve more, work harder, win, be perfect, surpass, and be the best. There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with having goals and dreams to pursue. However, most of us don’t stop to consider whether our self-critical and competitive attitude is actually helping us achieve our goals and dreams or whether it might actually be standing in our way. New research suggests self-compassion may be a far superior alternative.

Self-Criticism: A Self-Defeating Tendency

Kristin Neff, associate professor at the University of Texas and pioneer of research on self-compassion (and Fulfillment Daily author!), has shown that when our self-worth depends on out-competing others, we actually become more insecure and anxious: if we fail, we become highly self-critical, adding to our misery. Faced with criticism, we become defensive and feel crushed. We give up in the face of challenge. Moreover, competition fosters disconnection: rather than building social connection which research shows is essential to well-being, we view others as obstacles to overcome, and we ultimately feel more separate from others. The primary goal of our desire for success is to be successful, to belong, and to be loved yet ironically self-criticism and competition end up having the reverse effect.

Self-Compassion: A Healthy Alternative that Reaps Results

Where self-criticism leaves us powerless and distraught, self-compassion is at the root of empowerment, learning, and inner strength. With self-compassion, we value ourselves not because we’ve judged ourselves positively and others negatively but because we are intrinsically deserving of care and concern, just like everyone else. Self-compassion means treating ourselves as we would a friend. Rather than berating, judging, or adding to a friend’s despair, we listen with empathy and understanding, encourage them to remember that mistakes are normal, and validate their emotions without adding fuel to the fire. Neff defines self-compassion as “being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them.” (See The Three Elements of Self-Compassion, below).

Self-critical over-achievers are not the only ones who lack self-compassion. Some of the kindest people do as well. Neff’s work confirms this observation:  There is no correlation between the trait of self-compassion and feelings of compassion towards others. Many people, women in particular, are far more compassionate and kinder towards others than to themselves. Fortunately, self-compassion can be learned. It is a practice that can help us all become less self-critical and, by preventing the stress and turmoil thereof, allow us to be happier, more successful, and of greater service to others.

Self-Compassion Leads to Increased Strength

Self-compassion does not mean we stop working hard and aiming for success.  Instead, it is a change in attitude and is linked with greater well-being as well as superior performance outcomes. Nor does self-compassion imply self-indulgence. For example, a parent who cares about her child will insist on the child eating vegetables and doing her homework, no matter how unpleasant these experiences are for the child. Similarly, taking it easy on yourself may be appropriate in some situations, but in times of over-indulgence and laziness, self-compassion involves toughening up and taking responsibility.

Self-Compassion Leads to Increased Productivity

When you are motivated by self-compassion, you understand failure not as a painful indicator of defeat but as a learning opportunity from which growth can follow. Whereas self-criticism leads to painful and self-defeating emotions in the face of failure, Self-Compassion, therefore embraces challenge. People with higher self-compassion are therefore more likely to improve their performance after failure! Moreover, by preventing the defeating effects of self-criticism, self-compassion allows us to maintain peace of mind and thereby retain our energy. By remaining calm and understanding in the face of rejection, failure, or criticism, we develop level-headedness, strength, and emotional stability which allow us to have higher well-being and to be more productive and successful.

Self-Compassion Leads to Decreased Stress

Though research into the physiology of self-compassion versus self-criticism is still pending, Neff hypothesizes a simple model. Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream. When this sting has a hold on us, we cannot learn from and engage with the kernel of truth that may be there to serve us. Also known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is released in lactating mothers during hugging and sex and is associated with feelings of well-being, trust, and loyalty.

Practices for Boosting Self-Compassion

1) Write Yourself a Letter:  Take the perspective of a compassionate friend so you can imagine that you are this other person. What would a compassionate and kind friend say to me right now? What would their words be? Later, come back and read the letter and receive it from yourself.

2) Write Down Your Self-Talk: If you are self-criticizing because your jeans don’t fit or you said the wrong thing in a situation, write down the self-critical words that come to mind and then ask if you would ever say these words to a friend. What would a friend say?

3) Develop a Self-Compassion Mantra: Neff suggests developing something that is easily memorized so that when something difficult happens, you can go to your phrases. They are not positive affirmations but reminders. Here is the self-compassion she developed for herself: “This is a moment of suffering, suffering is part of life, may I be kind to myself in this moment may I give myself the compassion that I need” Neff’s son has autism and when he would have a tantrum in public, she would immediately turn to her self-compassion mantra partly as a focus for her mind but also because what she needed most at that moment was emotional support for herself so she could deal with the situation calmly and with more grace.

4) Meditation: Meditation is a process by which, through contemplation and relaxation, we can begin to loosen the grip of self-critical thoughts and emotions. There are many forms of meditation practice from mantra meditations to breathing practices, mindfulness to yoga, or nature walks. Find a practice that works for you and allows you to create space and quiet in your mind.

Emma Seppälä
EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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