Taming the War Within Using Kindness and Self-Compassion

What runs through your mind when you’re having a bad day? What kind of voices do you hear, and how do they sound?

Most of us are familiar with the distinct voice of the inner critic. This voice can undermine our efforts while reminding us of every little mistake or failure. Some people experience the inner critic during certain parts of the day, while others may hear it as never-ending chatter constantly re-playing through the mind.

When tamed, the inner critic can serve as a helpful guide and motivate us towards making positive changes. But if left on its own, the inner critic can become quite harsh, and even lead to or exacerbate symptoms of depression or anxiety. After all, this is the voice that might scream, “you’re such a failure” or “you’ll never succeed” after that embarrassing presentation at work, or in response to seeing a particular number on the scale.

Many people attempt to “appease” their inner critics by following orders and attempting to meet the critic’s unreachable standards. In the end, this approach can fuel feelings of shame, inadequacy, and insecurity; for even one’s best attempts to satisfy the inner critic’s demands often fall short. Soon enough, weary critic-pleasers find themselves trapped in the critic’s relentless pursuit of perfection.

Listening to a Different Voice

Instead of trying to satisfy the critic through one’s own works and efforts, research actually suggests an alternative approach. Self-compassion, or the practice of holding a nonjudgmental understanding of one’s own pain, suffering, inadequacies, or perceived failures, can help cultivate healthy and more empathetic attitudes of the self (Neff, 2003). While the research continues to evolve, self-compassion has been shown to reduce negative emotions and highly self-critical thinking across numerous studies.

According to Neff (2003), self-compassion involves the following components:

  1. Self-kindness — The practice of being kind and understanding towards yourself, rather than showing harsh judgement or self-criticism.
  2. Acknowledging a shared common humanity — Recognizing that everyone struggles with challenges, personal failure, and negative emotions at some point in their lives. No one is perfect, and suffering is part of this shared human experience.
  3. Mindfulness — Maintaining a non-judgmental, balanced awareness of unpleasant thoughts and emotions rather than running away from or over-identifying with them.

Each of these “faces” of self-compassion, as Neff states, mutually enhance one another in countering destructive self-talk or highly self-critical tendencies. People who regularly practice self-compassion tend to cope with negative emotions or events (e. g. rejection from others, negative evaluations, poor academic performance, fear of failure) in a more balanced, self-regulated way.

Alongside Kristen Neff’s work, Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy termed by Dr. Paul Gilbert, which also aims to alleviate human suffering through compassionate approaches (CMF). The following two-part exercise is adapted from CFT and Dr. Neff’s work, and it can help you cultivate a mindset of compassion, empathy, and understanding in the face of a harsh inner-critic.

Exercising Self-Compassion

First, close your eyes, take a breath, and start bringing to mind a compassionate image or figure. This image is unique to everyone, but ensure it embodies characteristics of wisdom, empathy, kindness, and a non-judgmental presence. As you bring this compassionate figure to mind, reflect on how it looks and sounds. What color is this figure? How does it sound? What tone does it have? This figure will represent to you a “counter” voice to your own inner critic — in that it will nurture and support you in the midst of tough decisions or negative emotions, rather than tear you down.

This image may look like an older, kinder version of you or of another supportive and loving person in your life. You may also imagine this figure to be a spiritual leader or divine presence, capable of speaking peace, love, kindness, and grace into any specific circumstances and struggles.

Once this comes to mind, try to discern what this compassionate figure might be saying to you. Try to view yourself from the perspective of this compassionate figure, and imagine this figure providing you with a warm and comforting embrace. Repeat calming phrases that come to mind from your compassionate figure, such as “peace,” “love,” or “you’re going to be OK.” Continue to reflect on what this figure or presence might be trying to communicate to you. It may even help to picture your compassionate figure speaking to your childhood self, as feelings of shame and inadequacy from the inner critic often find roots in early childhood experiences.

From here, try writing a letter to yourself from the perspective of this compassionate figure. This exercise can help reinforce kind and gentle messages and help you further tone down any harsh, negative voices from the inner critic. In your letter, focus on writing from a perspective of understanding and empathy towards your current situation and even towards your inner critic itself. Acknowledge the inner critic’s role in trying to “protect” you or help you cope with failures or disappointments while also recognizing that this approach is not always very helpful. Keep practicing this exercise on a regular basis, and you’ll likely find this compassionate voice becoming a bit more natural to you.

Go ahead, try it. Give yourself permission to be kinder towards yourself. Step away from being your own worst enemy, and start talking to yourself as you would a close, beloved friend. After a while, with practice, that nagging, highly critical, and insecure voice will no longer be the only voice you hear.

Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

Social worker. Anglican. Fellow Journeyer.

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