Written by Colette Mrazek, M.Ed., R.C.C.
Illustration by Sean Maxey

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It’s happened to all of us. There we were, an innocent young kid, trying to learn something new or struggling with a task and someone attempts to encourage us by being the tough-guy: “Oh come on, it’s not that hard! Why can’t you just focus? You’re not even trying! You can’t do anything right!” Maybe it was a classmate in school who teased us or called us names. Maybe it was a parent whose frequent impatient sighs made us feel stupid or bothersome. Maybe it was a coach who screamed at us when we fumbled the ball. Mine was a piano teacher who repeatedly called me lazy. Some of us recall these experiences vividly. Others may not recall them at all. Either way, most of us will encounter that same voice many times throughout our lives, when we find ourselves in a stressful situation.

That voice has been given a lot of names in the field of psychology, but is most commonly known as our inner critic. Its function – on a good day – is to look for all the things we do wrong so that we can correct them and improve our situations. But for many of us, it is overdeveloped and has become quite detrimental to our health – physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. That’s because our inner critic can become relentless and get very out of control.

How does it get so pronounced? Well, just as our muscles are strengthened through repeated exercise, our brain’s neural pathways are strengthened by the repetition of these messages. So the more we repeat certain messages to ourselves, the louder and more automatic they become. And the more we listen to them, the more space they take up in our minds, and the more difficult it can become to shut them down. In fact, some people find that in their quietest or most vulnerable moments, the inner critic can become unbearably loud, beating us down and persuading us to give up on the very things we want most in our lives.

It may sound strange, but some of us are quite attached to our inner critic and actually believe it is doing us a favour. “How else do I stay focused?” they argue, “I need to be tough on myself if I’m going to get through this challenge and achieve my goals!” But the research on this shows otherwise. While it is necessary to set goals and challenge ourselves, we can achieve them much more easily with the antidote to self-criticism: Self-Compassion.

Studies on self-compassion show that people who speak kindly and gself-compassionently to themselves are much happier and therefore have an easier time accomplishing tasks and achieving their goals. They encourage themselves throughout the process, applauding their efforts, celebrating small gains while simultaneously looking ahead and setting new goals. Failings or setbacks are met with kindness and understanding. They acknowledge the difficulty in their experiences and comfort themselves rather than turning against themselves.

Many think that self-compassion lends itself to feeling sorry for ourselves, or making excuses for ourselves, or being lazy… a technique used by those who are afraid of hard work. Not so.

As Paul Gilbert, an internally acclaimed leading researcher in the field of compassion explains: “Compassion is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity. It is difficult and powerful, infectious and influential. It is a universally recognized motivation with the ability to change the world.” (www.compassionatemind.co.uk)

It involves taking responsibility for ourselves, being honest with ourselves and exercising self-discipline. We simply learn how to do this with friendliness and compassion for ourselves.

So next time you hear that mean, self-critical voice emerging, try this exercise instead:

  1. Listen to the words it is saying – if you can, write them down (Why do you bother? You’re all thumbs, you’ve never been good at music; You idiot! Why do you say such stupid things?)
  2. Imagine what this voice looks like – if you can, draw a picture of it (eg. sharp, pointed face, looking down at me, hands on hip, expression of disgust …)
  3. Imagine yourself picking up this inner critic, look it in the eyes and say “thank you for your help, but I don’t need you anymore” – if you have a drawing of it, rip it up (or scrunch it, burn it, shred it, whatever feels most powerful to you)
  4. Brainstorm some new phrases that are kinder, more encouraging and more compassionate. Write them all down. (eg. It’s been a while since I’ve done this. It’s gonna be hard but at least I’m trying; This makes me nervous but I know I’ll get through this; Good for me! I didn’t want to do this but here I am, sitting down to practice)
  5. Experiment with the phrases you just wrote down: Close your eyes, put your hand on your heart and say each phrase to you, one at at time. With each phrase, take a few deep breaths and notice the effect the words have on you.
  6. Choose the compassionate phrase that feels most true for you. You may have smiled when you said it to yourself, perhaps you teared up or got a lump in your throat. Perhaps you felt a sense of relaxation or relief. As long as it was kind, loving and encouraging, you are on the right track.
  7. If you struggled with coming up with phrases, try again, perhaps with a friend who you find caring and empathic. If you continue to struggle, it may be worthwhile to reach out to a therapist to explore what’s going on for you. We can all become more self-compassionate, we just might need to do some personal work before we are able to speak to ourselves in this way.
  8. Once you have chosen your phrase, practice it over and over again (eyes closed, hand on heart, deep breaths). Do it before you begin something challenging or stressful.
  9. Whenever you hear that inner critic starting up again, thank it and tell it you don’t need it anymore (step 3). Then breathe deeply with your hand on your heart and say your compassionate phrase to yourself again. Repeat the phrase until you start to feel better.

Click here for a demonstration of this exercise.

There are many other useful exercises available to help you develop a more compassionate way of speaking to yourself. I frequently recommend the work of Dr. Kristen Neff, who has outlined a number of helpful exercises on her website: www.self-compassion.org.