The first question to ask yourself is – what is my internal dialogue like? Is it calm, friendly, warm, encouraging, supportive and flexible or is it demanding, shaming, rigid, cold, critical and bullying?
Discovering my own inner critic
I still remember the first time I clearly became aware of the critical, shaming and demanding internal voice within me and just how much it was effecting my life. It was 5 years ago and I was sat in a therapy session with the woman who supported me to change my life. I’d come to her after what I can only describe as a break down (what I would later refer to as a break through). I’d spent years struggling between depression and anxiety and what I would later understand to be complex PTSD. I’d been working 15 hour days, 6 days a week in an extremely stressful job, I was experiencing yet another failed relationship and my dad had just been diagnosed with late stage leukaemia. I was falling apart and I didn’t know how to put myself back together.
When my therapist asked me to give her a ticker tape reading of the thoughts that went through my mind when I thought about myself she heard words like loser, lazy, shameful, useless, stupid, selfish, ugly, bad, worthless. When she asked me how I supported myself through challenging times I shared some of the (now I realise misguided) ways I would try to ‘motivate’, ‘improve’ or ‘fix’ myself, “Come on you stupid idiot”, “Stop crying, you are being weak”, “Come on stop it now, pull yourself together”, “You have no right to feel this way, what about all of the people in the world who have it worse than you”, “You are an embarrassment, you should be ashamed of yourself”.
“I was my own biggest critic, scrutinising myself and my performance in all areas of life”
As we worked together it became clear that instead of supporting and encouraging myself through the tough situations I was facing I was busy berating and beating myself up. I was habitually rejecting and invalidating my own emotions and experience, taking a punitive and derogatory stance towards parts of myself that were hurting and that needed my help. I was my own biggest critic, scrutinising myself and my performance in all areas of life. I had become so blended with this critical part of me, believing it was me, “that’s just who I am”, that I wasn’t aware that it was causing me problems. I didn’t yet understand that the critical voice in my head wasn’t ‘me’, but a part of me that had developed during childhood. I wasn’t born with a highly critical internal dialogue, it had been learnt and developed over the years.
What causes self-criticism?
“As I came to realise that chronic self-criticism was predominantly an environmentally programmed habit I began to understand that it was a habit that could be broken and replaced with a new healthier habit. The habit of self-compassion.”
Research has shown that high self-criticism is linked to a variety of mental health struggles including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addiction. This internal mental struggle can also manifest as physical psychosomatic conditions such as IBS, chronic pain and fatigue. Self-criticism takes root in early childhood experiences such as experiencing trauma, abuse, physical and emotional neglect. It can manifest when being raised in an overly critical environment, having caregivers who were overly authoritarian or shaming. It can also present when children are given the continued message that they should be seen and not heard. Prolonged bullying at home or at school can lead to the bullies words being internalised and if we had caregivers who were self-critical themselves this can become a learnt behaviour that is passed down.
“I was my own biggest critic, scrutinising myself and my performance in all areas of life”
As I came to realise that chronic self-criticism was predominantly an environmentally programmed habit I began to understand that it was a habit that could be broken and replaced with a new healthier habit. The habit of self-compassion.
The first step is awareness
The first step was becoming aware of how I was treating myself and what effect this was having on me, brining awareness to my inner world. To become aware of what triggered the inner critic and feelings of shame, disgust, self-blame and anger and how I was instinctively reacting to them, noticing the content of my internal critical voice. It was helpful for me to step outside of myself and observe what was happening and to view self-criticism as a dialogue between two parts of myself. There was a part of me that was attacking, blaming, hostile and angry and then there was a part that was hearing all of this and was feeling extremely hurt and upset.
“When we attack ourselves with self-criticism our mind and body detect danger as if an external bully were attacking us”
When we attack ourselves with self-criticism our mind and body detect danger as if an external bully were attacking us. Our automatic nervous system detects a potential threat and mobilises us to try and fight the threat or to run away from it (fight or flight). In this mobilised state we can experience anxiety, our thoughts are racing and our minds worry in an attempt to pre-empt and try to control for any imagined and potential dangers. We may experience feelings of resentment, anger or rage, sometimes this is internalised towards ourselves. If we are in flight our system may try to escape the threat through suppressing uncomfortable feelings and thoughts with external distractions. If we cannot escape our own self attacking then eventually the body will go in to the next stage of the survival response, a hypo-arousal (freeze) state. What follows is immobility. We feel helpless and our thoughts are hopeless in nature. We can become dissociated, shut down and depressed. When we are in a state of fight, flight or freeze access to higher levels of thinking such as logic, reason, observation, perspective taking and self-reflection go offline as our mind and body enters in to survival mode.
When our minds and bodies are in survival mode they are hypervigilant to cues of danger and self-criticism only furthers the feelings of unsafety. We are stuck in a vicious cycle as our constant self-attacking keeps us stuck in survival. A solution to break this cycle is to introduce self-soothing, self-nurturing and connection which brings cues of safety in to our system. Self-compassionate practices are a wonderful antidote to the survival state of habitual self-criticism.
How do I break the self-criticism habit?
“If you have experienced a barrier to self-compassion then you are not alone, this is very common”
How does one break the habit of self-attacking and cultivate self-compassion? Remembering back to my days in therapy, just the idea of being self-compassionate seemed selfish and threatening. If you have experienced a barrier to self-compassion then you are not alone, this is very common. I came to learn through experience that self-compassion was safe and effective. Awareness first helped me to un-blend from the inner critical part within me and to turn towards it with curiosity. To understand the (misguided) ways in which it was trying to protect me and what is was trying to protect me from. The next step was through practicing self-compassion and proving to the inner critic part that although it may have initially felt threatening, that self-compassion was safe and helpful. Like forming any new habit, it takes practice. Actively practicing self-nurturing and self-soothing.
How do we practice the skill of self-compassion?
Simply put, my therapist taught me to treat myself with the same love, encouragement and support that I so freely gave to others. To recognise when I was hurting, to validate my feelings and to reassure myself in the same way that I would reassure a loved one.
To give myself the same kind words that I would give to my best friend when she was feeling bad about herself, the same love and warmth I would show to my niece or nephew if they were crying and wanted a hug, the same encouragement and validation I would give to my partner who felt rubbish after a bad day. To live by the motto, if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, then don’t say it to yourself. Remembering to speak to myself with warmth and kindness. This can trigger the physiological memory of feeling safe. Cues of safety through connection and nurturing is a great way to regulate a nervous system that’s in fight, flight or freeze.
“Live by the motto, if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, then don’t say it to yourself”
If a part of you still believes learning the skill of self-compassion is a self-indulgent idea then it’s worth noting that by learning to be compassionate to ourselves research has shown that we are more easily able to give compassion to others, meaning our calmer, kinder, more empathetic approach can have a positive effect on others too. Learning to be self-compassionate won’t just change your life, but it can change the lives of the people around you as your compassion radiates outwards and becomes contagious.
One of the hardest parts in cultivating a self-compassion practice is giving yourself the permission to do it and accepting that you deserve to be at peace with yourself. The longest relationship you will ever have is with yourself, so ask yourself this one question. Would you rather spend your life with a highly critical, cold and shaming friend or with a warm, supportive and compassionate friend? Learning the skill of self-compassion completely changed my life. Perhaps it could change your life too.
If you need support the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and the Samaritans on 116 123.
Tiffany Carthy, MSc is an Integrative therapist qualified as a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, positive psychology practitioner and is currently completing her integrative psychotherapy UKCP training. Tiffany has a private online practice and specialises in trauma informed treatment and compassion based therapy. Tiffany is currently working with Sarah Wilkin, Hendrik Saare and Michael Carthy to develop a compassion based intervention to support people with their mental health.