“I should’ve done this!”, “What’s wrong with me?”, “I’m a fraud – I don’t deserve to do well,” “It’s my fault – I deserve this!”.There it goes again. Your judgmental and disapproving inner critic prodding at you, putting you down, and sometimes paralyzing you, telling you time and time again you’re simply not good enough.
We all have an inner critic. It allows us to recognize where we may have gone wrong and what we need to do to set things right. But, left untamed, it can break us down, shrouding our nurturing inner voices and affecting our mental health. It can trigger feelings of unworthiness, inferiority, failure, guilt, and a fear of disapproval. It can impact interpersonal relationships and our ability to achieve our goals.
Take Jan, for example. An exemplary medical student revising for his final exams, Jan had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. But, faced with the huge amount of material he was expected to learn for the exam, his inner critic took charge. “Don’t blow it. You’ve wanted this your whole life – you can’t mess it up now. If you fail, you will never get a job. Don’t be a loser.”
Despite being a star student, Jan didn’t do well in his exams. His inner critic paralysed him with fear. He couldn’t concentrate; he couldn’t sleep; and he struggled with diarrhea, stomach aches, and muscle tension. He failed his exams and lost the confidence to take up new challenges for fear of failing again.
Our inner voices have the ability to drag us down and drown out everything else. Fortunately, there’s a powerful solution to silence the inner saboteur, which IMI Clinical Psychologist, Marian Wong, shares here.
How to tame your inner critic
The key to soothing your inner critic: self-compassion.
“Self-compassion means celebrating and giving yourself permission to feel joy when things are going well without feeling guilty. And it means being kind and forgiving towards yourself when life is challenging or when you’re suffering any kind of distress. Self-compassion is particularly important when you are struggling, feeling afraid, depressed, angry, or lonely,” she advises.
With practice, we are all capable of developing greater self-compassion, notes Dr Richard Davidson, a world-leading neuroscientist who studied the effects of compassion on the brain. We all have a Care Circuit – a primary emotional circuit in the brain that creates happiness and wellbeing, and the experience of compassion, warmth and love. Through appropriate self-compassion training, we can activate and grow our Care Circuit to help us relate to ourselves with kindness and love. Once activated, our Care Circuit can reduce various forms of emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, and anger.
Marian shares the three steps to activate your Care Circuit and deactivate your toxic inner critic.
“To be self-compassionate, mindfulness is the first step – we need presence of mind to respond in a new way,” Marian advises. Mindfulness means being aware of our moment-to-moment experiences, allowing all thoughts, emotions and physical sensations to enter our awareness without resistance or avoidance. It invites us to be open, to turn towards and acknowledge we’re suffering, and it prevents us from over-identifying with our thoughts or feelings. We feel disappointed but we don’t feel ‘my life is disappointing’; we recognize we have failed in one thing, but we don’t feel ‘I am a failure at everything.’
Instead, we mindfully observe our pain, acknowledge our suffering without exaggerating it, and take a wiser and more objective perspective on ourselves and our lives.
2. Common Humanity.
A sense of inter-connectedness is central to self-compassion. We all fail, make mistakes, and face hardships in life. Often, we forget this and fall into the trap of believing things are ‘supposed’ to go well. This may lead us to feel alone in our suffering and alienated by our situation. When we remember suffering and setbacks are being part of the shared human condition and that many people are likely experiencing similar feelings in a given situation, every moment of suffering is transformed into a moment of connection with others.
When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we are more likely to beat ourselves up than put a supportive arm around our own shoulder. Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the same kindness, care, and understanding that we would offer to others when they suffer, fail, or feel inadequate.
“One useful way to do this is to ask yourself during this process: ‘what would I say to my friend if they were facing the same situation as me?’ Then speak to yourself in the same way you would to your friend. Self-compassion is a practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it most—to become an inner ally rather than an inner critic.
Why do we not practice self-compassion?
There are myths surrounding self-compassion, which Marian debunks here.
1. Self-compassion is self-pity.
While self-pity says: ‘poor me’, self-compassion recognizes life is challenging for everyone. Self-compassionate people are more likely to engage in perspective-taking, rather than focusing on their own distress, researchers note. They are also less likely to ruminate on how bad things are – one of many reasons why self-compassionate individuals have better mental health.
2. Self-compassion will make me weak.
In fact, the opposite is true. Studies prove individuals who are self-compassionate are better able to cope with tough situations like divorce, trauma or chronic pain. Self-compassion is a reliable source of inner strength that enhances resilience when we’re faced with difficulties, Marian explains.
3. Self-compassionate is self-centered and selfish.
Again, the opposite is true. Giving compassion to ourselves enables us to give more to others in relationships. Self-compassionate individuals tend to be more caring and supportive in relationships, more likely to compromise in relationship conflicts, and more compassionate and forgiving toward others, researchers advise.
4. Self-compassion is a demotivator.
Like Jan the medical student, many people assume we need to be tough on ourselves to stay motivated and achieve our goals. However, self-criticism tends to undermine self-confidence and lead to fear of failure. Research shows that self-compassionate people have high personal standards – they don’t beat themselves up when they fail. Instead, they see failure as an opportunity to learn. They pick themselves up, try again, and persist in their efforts to achieve their goals.
Of course, self-compassion is not a magic shield that will protect you from bad things happening or from you ever feeling sad. When faced with life’s inevitable difficulties, you can experience anxiety, frustration, and loneliness. But you can also experience peace, hope, and resilience. Acknowledge your pain, remind yourself that we all make mistakes, and show kindness to yourself.
About Marian Wong
Marian Wong is a registered clinical psychologist with almost a decade’s experience in the mental health arena. She specializes in the assessment and psychological treatment of children, adolescents, and adults with a range of mental health issues and psychological conditions. Marian is a Trained Teacher in Mindful Self-Compassion, and she has completed Foundation Training in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). She is also trained to conduct Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Marian often integrates mindfulness and compassion-focused approaches in her work with patients when their self-criticality has contributed to/maintained their presenting issues.