“It’s time to stop beating yourself up.”
When I speak to groups of students or educators, I make sure to touch on self-compassion as an important part of mindfulness practice. Typically, I begin with the statement above, shortly followed by, “…it’s not working, nor is it doing what you think it is.”
I start my overview of self-compassion with this because the experience of mentally beating oneself up is rather universal in our culture. Just about everyone does it, and I would guess that you do, too. (If you don’t, that is fantastic – keep at it!)
Negative self-talk and the inner critic are so pervasive because many people see it as useful. Some people even resist being gentler with themselves because they think self-flagellation is how they “hold themselves accountable” or “stay in line” or “teach themselves a lesson” when they mess up.
What occurs, in truth, is that we activate our stress response - our heart rate rises, blood pressure goes up, and our cortisol (the stress hormone) levels increase. This elevated state is not one where you can learn any sort of lesson.
Beating yourself up is a learned habit, and I would like to invite you to change this habit by doing the following:
• First, begin to notice when this habit kicks in.
• Try to view this mental behavior as objectively as possible (don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up).
• See it for what it is (an unproductive and unhelpful habit).
• As best you can, loosen your attachment to this familiar pattern and choose to let it go.
Think about the people in your life who you care for. Would you ever say the cruel, belittling and abusive things to them that you might say to yourself? Probably not. Most of us would not even say these things to someone we didn’t like. For whatever reason, we tend to reserve this level of criticism for ourselves.
Our dear friends are so supportive and kind to us. Here are two ways you can use these close friends as an inspiration for shifting your self-talk in a way that is more compassionate and kind.
What would a good friend say?
When you notice the negative self-talk, ask yourself what a dear and loving friend would say to you in this situation. Odds are they would offer words of compassion and kindness, telling you that you’re only human and that mistakes and challenges like this happen to everyone. Allow yourself to hear their voice in your head and internalize the message they would send.
What words of comfort would you offer to a friend?
The flip side of this approach is to imagine a dear friend of yours experiencing the same issue or problem you’re experiencing. What kind words would you offer to him or her? What would you say to be of comfort? Picture yourself saying this to them, and then offer these words to yourself with that same spirit of sincerity and compassion.
Remembering you’re only human
There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best version of ourselves. However, holding ourselves to some kind of perfectionistic ideal is both unrealistic and potentially destructive. When you realize you’re being really hard on yourself, remember that you’re only human like everyone else, and that part of the human condition is to make mistakes, fall short of our expectations, and be faced with challenges that can throw us for a loop. (Full disclosure: I really struggle with this and understand how hard it can be – don’t give up!)
Strengthen your self-compassion “muscle”
In order to become more skilled at something, it is a good idea to practice. In addition to the exercises above, I recommend practicing self-compassion meditation regularly. While the meditation invites you to extend compassion to others, it typically begins with an intentional offering of compassion to oneself.
This is not something most people are familiar with, so it may feel strange at first to send kind wishes to yourself. Just do your best to offer warm wishes to yourself with the same generosity that you would offer to others.
Are you ready?
Negative self-talk is a difficult habit to break, but doing so will give you a sense of ease and acceptance that benefits you and the people in your life. Being less hard on ourselves isn’t a form of self-indulgence, nor does it encourage self-pity. Instead, it allows you to extend some gentleness to yourself so you can bounce back from life’s pitfalls with more grace and resilience.