Self-Criticism–who isn’t familiar? In small doses, it helps us self-correct as we navigate our complicated world. It can open our eyes to where we said or did some harm. Or it can show us where we need to improve. In measure, it can give us the self-awareness needed to grow.
But when harsh self-criticism is our response to mistakes large and small, it takes on mammoth proportions. It hacks away at our self-confidence and makes taking risks hard or unthinkable. At this point, self-criticism is no longer discernment. Instead, psychologists say it can lead to self-doubt and accompanying feelings of shame.
In my own desire to avoid self-criticism, I’ve blinded myself to my shortcomings and opted to find them in others instead. As fun as that can be sometimes, my fun is usually short-lived. Back to the drawing board as I focus inward. I might see that I’ve fallen short in some areas. Maybe I’ve (gasp) made a mistake! Here come the rubber bullets of self-criticism, pelting my back, beaning me on the head. I run for cover, I explode, I implode.
Studies find that self-criticism and shame trigger feelings of fear. Fear stimulates the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system. The amygdala sends signals to our instinctive survival response of fight, flight, freeze, or submit. Adrenaline and cortisol course through our veins. Suddenly we are in survival mode. The negative chatter goes on and on. We feel bad about ourselves, we feel angry at others. The bicycle of shame or blame is speeding down the hill, no breaks.
Self-Compassion = the Breaks
We need something equally powerful to put a pause on our rapid fight, flight, fear, or submit response. That’s where self-compassion comes in!
Psychologists have found that compassion for self and others sets off a deeply programmed emotional regulation loop called “mend-and-befriend.” It supports feelings of affiliation, empathy, cooperation, and compassion.
The mend and befriend loop helps us survive and reproduce. Feelings of compassion and soothing help us take care of our young. They facilitate building secure attachments. Feelings of cooperation and affiliation form important, life-preserving alliances with others.
Compassion and Affiliation Regulates Our Response to Threat
In a 2008 study, it was found that humans make threatening situations manageable through social connection. Social bonding sets off our mend-and-befriend response, and that produces oxytocin.
All this Caring Cues Our System to Make Oxytocin
Oxytocin is a potent, ancient hormone that produces feelings of contentment, well-being and safety. A 2020 study of oxytocin found that it’s linked to preventing inflammation, healing damaged tissue, inhibiting cancer growth, and protecting the gastrointestinal lining in both children and adults.
Oxytocin Helps Manage Our Chronic Stress
A 1998 study discovered that oxytocin prevents us from freezing with fear in the face of ongoing stressors.
What if We Gave Ourselves the Same Caring and Kindness We’d Give a Close Friend?
That warm, wonderful feeling of relief we get when talking to an understanding friend about our troubles? We can provide that for ourselves with self-compassion.
We could actually trigger inner feelings of soothing, reassurance, and contentment for ourselves. We can feel that same happy feeling of being cared for by others by caring for ourselves.
Self-Compassion isn’t Self-Indulgent
We might think self-compassion is too self-centered, that it could let us off the hook for mistakes too easily. But it isn’t. Research shows that when we are kind to ourselves when we fail, we are naturally more motivated to self-correct. When we feel soothed and encouraged, we have strength to try again. We may feel soothed and safe enough to new things and change.
When we feel safer, our defensiveness decreases. It becomes much easier to admit our mistakes.
When we feel empathy for ourselves, we can access empathy for others.
Kristin Neff, leading psychologist and co-creator of the Mindful Self Compassion course defines self-compassion as having three important themes:
-self-kindness versus self-judgment
-a sense of common humanity versus isolation
-mindfulness versus over-identification when confronting painful self-relevant thoughts and emotions
Mindful Self-Compassion Training
With all of the proven benefits of self-compassion, Kristin Neff and Paul Gilbert created a Mindful Self Compassion Training course to teach self-compassion skills. It’s an eight-week course designed to help people who struggle with high shame and self-criticism.
Self-c0mpassion meditations and exercises are also available for free at www.self-compassion.org. Exercises like these can be used in daily life to provide immediate relief from self-criticism.
They can access our innate caring and befriending abilities and help us turn them towards ourselves. ❤️
Carter, S.C., Kenkel, W.M., MacLean, E.L., Wilson, S.R., Perkeybile, A.M., Yee, J.R., Ferris, C.F., Nazarloo, H.P., Porges, S.W., Davis, J.M., Connelly, J.J., & Kingsbury, M.A. (2020). Is Oxytocin “Nature’s Medicine”? Pharmacological Review 72:829–861. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1124/pr.120.019398
Kirsch, P., Esslinger, C., Qiang C., Mier,D., Lis, S., Siddhanti, S., Gruppe, H., Mattay, V.S., Gallhofer,B. & Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2005). Oxytocin Modulates Neural Circuitry for Social Cognition and Fear in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25(49):11489 –11493. DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3984-05.2005
Leaviss, J., & Uttley, L. (2015). Psychotherapeutic Benefits of Compassion-Focused Therapy: An Early Systematic Review. Psychological Medicine, 45(5), 927-945. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291714002141
Lucre, K.M., & Corten, N. (2013). An Exploration of Group Compassion-Focused Therapy for Personality Disorder. Psychology & Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 86(4), 387–400. https://DOI-org.scroll.lib.westfield.ma.edu/10.1111/j.2044-8341.2012.02068.x
Naismith, I., Santiago, Z.G., Feigenbaum, J. et al., (2019). Abuse, Invalidation, and Lack of Early Warmth Show Distinct Relationships with Self‐Criticism, Self‐Compassion, and Fear of Self‐Compassion in Personality Disorder. Clinical Psychology, Psychotherapy, 26:350–361. DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2357
Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Thomason, S. & Moghaddam, N. (2021). Compassion-focused therapies for self-esteem: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 94, 737–759. DOI: 10.1111/papt.12319
Please visit www.self-compassion.org for exercises in self-compassion