I’ve had a loud inner critic for as long as I can remember. A negative internal voice that has affected my self belief and held me back – all under the guise of protection and motivation. But self compassion has allowed me to finally make peace with my inner critic and find a more effective way to motivate myself: rewiring my brain for kindness.
In Kristin Neff’s book, “Self-compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself”, Neff describes the three core elements of self compassion as mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. Each of these offers us a different approach to managing our inner critic. Practicing all three builds our capacity for self compassion – a practice that can transform how we feel about ourselves and others, and how we encourage ourselves forward.
The popularity of mindfulness (using meditation, yoga, colouring books, even sea swimming) has risen dramatically in recent years, and for good reason. Research has demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, reduce innate biases, and improve how we feel about our bodies, amongst many other benefits.
The modern world offers us constant distractions – visual stimulation all around, our phones, the needs of others – and that means we’ve fallen out of the habit of being fully present with just our single human experience. Mindfulness allows us to bring that back into focus.
At its heart, mindfulness is simply the practice of being present, aware of all we are experiencing and feeling, without judgement. It’s the ability to bring ourselves into the current moment, instead of spiralling off into regret of the past, or fear of the future. When we are being mindful, we can bring our attention to our senses, notice what we are feeling, and the impact this has on us – without judging this. We are able to see the realities of the present moment more clearly.
In a state of mindfulness, we can take a step away from our inner critic. Instead of simply accepting those negative internal criticisms as they come, we can observe them. We’re able to take a more objective perspective. We can notice patterns, unrealistic expectations and unhelpful comparison. In a mindful state, we can become curious instead of critical.
When your inner critic pipes up, TRY THIS…
Bring yourself into a more mindful state by pausing and ask yourself one or more of these questions, in a spirit of curiosity.
- What can I hear, see, smell, taste and touch in this moment?
- What sensations am I having in my body right now?
- What emotions am I feeling?
Then try to take this same observational perspective as you listen to your inner critic. Notice the words that your inner critic says, and how that makes you feel. You don’t have to change anything, just observe what’s going on – because simply stepping into this position of observer can reduce the impact of your inner critic.
Self kindness is about finding a kinder voice with which to speak to ourselves. It’s also about practicing self acceptance and good self care.
With self kindness, we can start to move from mindful awareness of the inner critic towards finding another way to talk to ourselves.
If like me, you have an inner critic who provides a constant stream of negative chatter, speaking to yourself with kindness will probably feel uncomfortable to start with. When we try practicing self kindness, we have to learn a whole new way of talking to ourselves – and of tending to our own needs instead of pushing them away.
One of the blocks to releasing our internal criticism is the belief that our inner critic is useful to us in some way. Probably, at some point it was – but it’s very unlikely that it’s helpful now.
Although we may now be able to see the negative side of our inner critic speaking unkindly to us – deep down, we believe that this additional pressure encourages us to be better, do more, work harder. In truth, it often has the opposite effect. Being unkind to ourselves makes us feel less capable, less courageous, and less able to enjoy the simple joys in front of us.
Think about how we encourage our children, friends and colleagues – when they struggle, we’re more likely to help them to see their strengths than focus entirely on what went wrong while pointing out their many flaws. Instead, we use supportive language, and acknowledge how hard it is for them. We witness and name their feelings, identify the challenges they have faced so far, point out their successes and strengths, and encourage them forward.
When we do that, it helps them to see their situation more clearly. They feel seen and supported, and as a result, they’re able to move forward with greater hope and resilience. It’s far more effective than being mean.
We can use exactly the same approach to motivate ourselves effectively. Amazingly – having practiced self compassion for several years now – I now find that when I make a mistake, my first reaction is more often compassionate than critical – my kind inner voice is louder than my inner critic. We can retrain our brains to speak to ourselves with compassion. Practicing self kindness regularly has created new neuron pathways in my brain – different patterns for my thoughts to follow.
When your inner critic pipes up, TRY THIS…
Capture some of the words or phrases that it says to you – you might like to write them down, or say them aloud to a friend. Then ask yourself whether these things are reasonable or fair? Are they something that you would say to someone you love?
If the answer is no, come up with some kinder words you might say instead.
If you find this hard, think about someone you love – if they were speaking to themselves in this way, what would you say to them?
Say these words aloud to yourself. This is pretty much guaranteed to feel really awkward and uncomfortable to start with, but keep going, our brains are wonderfully flexible – that’s how your inner critic got established in the first place.
In many ways, common humanity is the simplest of all three concepts, and yet it can be the hardest to grasp. Common humanity is the experience of seeing our own humanity and understanding that this connects us to others.
It’s an appreciation that we are not the only person suffering, feeling grief or anger, or making mistakes. Or indeed, wrestling with our inner critic again. Common humanity allows us to see our vulnerability and imperfections as something that we all experience – rather than something that marks us out as ‘wrong’, an ‘outcast’ or a ‘failure’. It reminds us that just like everyone else, we’re a flawed human – and that’s OK. In fact, it means we’re as worthy as love as the next person.
In a moment of suffering – when our inner critic is out in full force – common humanity is another route we can take to overcome our inner critic. It’s also what allows us to reach out for help when it all gets to much, and what inspires us to offer help to others when they too are struggling.
When your inner critic pipes up, TRY THIS…
If you’re feeling alone and unloveable, and your inner critic is telling you that you’re a failure – try taking a moment to practice common humanity.
You might like to put your hand on your heart, and acknowledge that this is hard. Speaking to yourself with self kindness once more, remind yourself that this moment of suffering is part of being human.
This feeling of ‘failure’ or imperfection is evidence that you are not alone. Humans have been feeling this way for as long as we’ve been on this planet. Right now, somewhere around the globe, someone else will be feeling this way too. It is these very difficulties, these challenging emotions and daily struggles, that connect us all to each other.
Even the experience of having an inner critic is something that many of us share. While you sit over there trying to speak more kindly to yourself, I’m likely doing the same thing over here. None of us are alone in this big human adventure.
Finding Help To Practice Self Compassion
I created Sea Soul Blessings – simple cards that offer you words of self compassion every day – to make it easier for you to bring mindfulness, self kindness and common humanity into your daily routine. The practice of drawing a card every day and using that to build self compassion helps to rewire your brain, making it easier to find compassion for yourself when your inner critic pipes up.
Kristin Neff, whose book inspired me deeply, has a great selection of self compassion resources on her website – guided meditations, self compassion practices and more. I also really recommend her book.
Putting all three of these self compassion tools into practice can feel very strange at first – but the more you practice, the more possible it becomes. In time, you can learn to motivate yourself with kindness. And eventually, you’ll even be able to find compassion for that mean old voice in your head.
To celebrate the upcoming launch of their new sustainable box set, Sea Soul Blessings are currently hosting their biggest ever giveaway – and EVERY entrant is guaranteed a prize!
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Pippa Best is the founder of Sea Soul Blessings. By creating simple transformative tools that combine self compassion, mindfulness and the power of nature, Sea Soul Blessings provides resources to change our own lives, and the world around us, for the better. Find out more at www.seasoulblessings.com