How to find relief from self-criticism

Self-compassion combats self-criticism

We began the conversation in my first blog post, Flipping the Script on Your Negative Self-Talk, regarding how our negative personal messages drive us in directions that would deem us as more acceptable. For example, I proposed that I had the negative message: I am a failure. As a result, my actions as a workaholic would prevent anyone from discovering that I was a failure, underneath it all.

What happens when I did fail? When I lost my job? I felt as though I no longer had the means to demonstrate that I wasn’t NOT a failure and was exposed as one after all. What now?

Let’s look at a few things:

  1. I believe that I am a failure and am fearful of being perceived as such
  2. I am under the impression that my success at work paints a picture that I am acceptable
  3. So long as I have this job, I am not a failure
  4. I have lost my job, therefore I am a failure
  5. When I feel like a failure I am unmotivated, depressed and angry as a result

In short, I have been performing in specific ways to keep my distance from my self-hatred and the heavy feelings therein. So long as I am working hard and achieving then I do not feel like a failure. When something happens, like losing my job, confirms my self-hatred the more emotional distress I will experience.

Can you see how this can become a bit of a hamster wheel? So long as our self-hatred is propelling us to perform in such a way that we avoid the difficult emotions associated with it, we are stuck in a cycle of performance and distress. My mood, self-worth and well-being becomes dependent upon my pursuit of perfectionism, what other people are thinking or fears therein.

Now what? I don’t have a job. I still feel like a failure.


Enter self-compassion

I first read about self-compassion in Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfections. She referenced Kristin Neff, PhD, and her life’s work on the subject. I jumped at the opportunity to attend her Self-Compassion training in Bloomington, MN in April, 2016. It was here where she lead an exercise that addressed the inner-critic. We were asked to write down what words the inner-critic used and how it felt to be on the receiving end of such harsh critical words. She asked us to extend compassion to ourselves as a result of our experience with our inner-critic. Then we were guided to explore the motives of the inner-critic. Why was he or she so critical?

As I explored this question the light bulb went off.

My inner-critic is trying to help me, she is trying to protect me. Albeit, dysfunctionally, it was protective nonetheless. What would come to mind if you lost your job? What would your critic say?

“You idiot. You knew this was going to happen. You didn’t try hard enough. You should have done more to show that you’re not replaceable. You can’t let this happen again!”

If we frame this  in the context of the negative message, the fear of failure, it would make sense how that inner-critic is going to attempt to keep us as far from failure as possible and beat us upside the head if we do fail. The self-criticism is driving us with fear, but it isn’t helping. It is only making things worse.

Kristin Neff explains it better from her book, Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, “So why is self-compassion a more effective motivator than self-criticism? Because its driving force is love and not fear. Love allows us to feel confident and secure, while fear makes us feel insecure and jittery. When we trust ourselves to be understanding and compassionate when we fail, we won’t cause ourselves unnecessary stress and anxiety. We can relax knowing that we’ll be accepted regardless of how well or how poorly we do.”


Self-compassion in action

Acknowledging that there are circumstances beyond our control, that pain is a part of life and things do not always go as planned is a small step toward self-compassion and a step away from self-criticism. We do not have to take so much personally. You still have value and worth that cannot be taken away from you. When you find that you’re being hard on yourself and can’t seem to shake it, consider how you would treat a friend who was going through the same circumstance. What would you say? How would you comfort them? Can you offer that same gesture to yourself?

More information about Kristin Neff, PhD, and her resources can be found here.



Ashlee Secord-Ashlee Secord is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Thrive Therapy. Ashlee specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and specializes in treating clients who struggle with anxiety, low self-esteem and relationship issues. Contact Thrive Therapy today if you are interested in reducing your symptoms of depression or anxiety.