Is your self talk self-defeating?

How do you respond when you fail to meet your expectations? Are you pretty tough on yourself?

My guess is that you probably are. We are our own worst critics, after all.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of beating yourself up when things don’t go your way, telling yourself that you’re lazy or not good enough. The funny thing is, we’d probably never talk to our friends that way. When asked directly, most people report that they are kinder to others than themselves [1].

So why can’t we cut ourselves the same slack?


We tend to think that being kind to ourselves is a cop out. It’s too wishy-washy and makes us weak. We fear that, if we’re kind to ourselves, we’ll become lazy, self-indulgent, undisciplined and out of control [2]. Surely, if we’re too kind, we’ll achieve nothing, stagnate in life and never progress forward, right?

Just take a moment to think about the last time you were beating yourself up over a mistake or a perceived failure. Did it make you feel better? Did it motivate you to try harder next time? Was it helpful? Contrary to what we believe, self-criticism is negatively associated with goal-attainment [3]. It can lead to rumination or procrastination, which doesn’t exactly help us to work on our weaknesses.

So what’s the alternative?

Self-compassion.

You probably just cringed at that word and it wouldn’t surprise me - I did the same when I first came across it. Sounds a bit too soft, right?


Self-compassion is about developing a caring and accepting relationship with yourself, particularly when you face hardships [4]. Contrary to what we may believe, people who are kind to themselves and accepting of their own failures may actually be more motivated to improve [5]. Self-compassion gives us the safety needed to acknowledge our weaknesses, so that we are in a position to change them for the better.


[6]

Self-compassion isn’t about aiming low.

It has nothing to do with the goals we set for ourselves - it’s about how we respond in the face of setbacks. If you have lofty and challenging goals, you can probably expect a few setbacks along the way. It’s how you deal with those that matters. The difference between compassion and criticism is not one of aspiration. The difference is that self-compassionate people don’t crumble when they don’t meet their goals.


Self-compassion isn’t about giving up on yourself.

A key component of self-compassion is acceptance - unfortunately there are a number of misconceptions around this notion too. Acceptance is not the same resignation. Far from it. Acceptance does not preclude improvement, rather, acceptance precedes improvement. How can you improve upon something if you don’t have an accurate idea of where the issue lies? You can’t solve a problem that you’re not willing to have. It’s about recognising your challenges and understanding that failures are a part of being human. This does not mean a passive resignation to fate, rather, it is facing the way things actually are. This perspective gives you the freedom to strive for improvement.

If we are more mindfully aware of our thoughts and emotions during challenging situations, we may be more likely to select appropriate strategies to help ourselves cope adaptively. When we view our circumstances from a place of acceptance, as opposed to judgment, we may be more willing to identify areas for improvement. When we acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and encounters difficulties, we may feel more empowered to face challenges head-on, rather than dwelling in self-pity.


What are the stats?


A wealth of research has reported consistent associations between self-compassion and lower levels of body image concerns, ED pathology, and negative affect [7].


Self-compassion and self-esteem correlate positively with each other [8] and negatively with both depression and anxiety [9].


Self-compassion is uniquely associated with improved body dissatisfaction outcomes over and above the benefits provided by self-esteem [10].


Self-compassionate people have also been found to ruminate much less than those who lack self-compassion [11], presumably because they can break the cycle of negativity by accepting their human imperfection with kindness.


Individuals who treat themselves with kindness and without unfair criticism, and who refrain from over-identifying with negative internal experiences, are less likely to impulsively react to adverse situations [12].


Self-compassion tends to be positively related to adaptive coping strategies, such as acceptance [13] and positive reframing [14]. It is associated with fewer maladaptive avoidant coping strategies, such as denial, distraction, and behavioral disengagement.


Self-compassion enables us to admit and accept that there are negative as well as positive aspects of our personality, helping us to take responsibility for our roles in past negative events without experiencing as much negative affect [15].


Developing Self-Compassion

Practicing compassion involves four key elements:

  1. Awareness - Being attentive or sensitive to the fact that some sort of ‘suffering’ is occurring, whether it is emotional pain, mental pain, physical pain, or all of the above.

  2. Normalising - Recognising that experiencing this sort of pain is universal, we all experience pain at some point to varying degrees. The fact that we experience pain isn’t a fault or failing of ours, we are not to blame for our pain, and we are not alone in our pain.

  3. Kindness - Not shying away from or ignoring the pain, but meeting this pain with feelings of kindness, care, warmth and concern.

  4. Alleviation - Focusing our energy on ways to alleviate the pain, which may be via providing further comfort and caring actions, providing a helpful perspective regarding whatever the trouble is, or having the strength and courage to take other necessary actions to address the problem being faced.

For the majority of us, being kind to ourselves doesn’t come easily. Perhaps we weren’t shown a lot of compassion when we were growing up. If we didn’t receive much compassion from others in earlier life, then it is understandable that it can be more difficult to develop the ability to be compassionate to ourselves later in life. It is hard to learn something that we were never taught.

Another reason may be that our brain is hardwired to see the negative; it is our default attention bias that serves to protect ourselves from threats. Turning our attention to more self-compassionate endeavours is therefore overriding this attention bias, which is not something that comes naturally to us.

Finally, many of us may not be aware that we are struggling, or aware of the unhelpful critical ways we may be treating ourselves. We get tangled and stuck in our struggle, never pausing to consciously recognise we are struggling, and that maybe we could deal with this in the same way we might help others deal with something similar. It has just never even occurred to us that treating ourselves kindly is an option.

Self-criticism seems to roll off the tongue way more easily.

I am an idiot...I am useless and pathetic...I am so hopeless...

You shouldn’t have done that....why did I do that... you should have known better...

I never get it right... you may as well give up now...there is no point, why bother…

Self-criticism often involves the following unhelpful thinking styles:

  • Labelling: making global and derogatory statements about ourselves on the basis of our behaviour in a specific situation;

  • Shoulding: using "should" statements to put unreasonable demands or pressure on ourselves; and

  • Overgeneralising: taking one negative instance and concluding that this applies to everything.

I have written more about unhelpful thinking styles HERE.

To gain more awareness of your own self-critical thinking style, consider the following questions:

  1. What do you typically criticise yourself for?

  2. What sorts of things do you typically say to yourself/about yourself?

  3. When you criticise yourself, how does it make you feel?

  4. What do you think the negative consequences are of speaking to yourself like this?

What you think, and the thoughts that go through your mind, are very important in determining how you feel. You don’t need to just accept your self-critical thoughts as true. You can challenge them and develop a more compassionate inner voice which will help you strive for self-improvement.

Next time you feel yourself being critical, ask yourself the following:

  1. What advice would I give to a friend I deeply care about who was thinking and feeling this way?

  2. What are some other ways of viewing this situation that might be more realistic, kinder or more helpful to me?

  3. How will I feel about this in 1 week, or 1 month, or 1 year? (If it won’t matter much then, can I let go of it now)?

  4. What can I do to cope and look after myself now? Ask yourself: What do you really need?

With deliberate focus and attention, we can change the way we speak to ourselves. Don’t settle for a critical inner voice. Compassion will help you to go further. You deserve it.



[1] Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032

[2] Chwyl C, Chen P, Zaki J. Beliefs About Self-Compassion: Implications for Coping and Self-Improvement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. November 2020. doi:10.1177/0146167220965303

[3] Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self-criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), 826–840. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2007.26.7.826

[4] Wilson, A.C., Mackintosh, K., Power, K. et al. Effectiveness of Self-Compassion Related Therapies: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Mindfulness 10, 979–995 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-1037-6

[5] Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599

[6] Neff, K., & Germer, C. K. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive.

[7] Braun, T. D., Park, C. L., & Gorin, A. (2016). Self-compassion, body image, and disordered eating: A review of the literature. Body Image, 17, 117–131. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.03.003

[8] Neff KD, Vonk R. Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: two different ways of relating to oneself. J Pers. 2009 Feb;77(1):23-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00537.x. Epub 2008 Nov 28. PMID: 19076996.

[9] Neff, K. D. (2003b). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223–250.

[10] Wasylkiw L, MacKinnon AL, MacLellan AM. Exploring the link between self-compassion and body image in university women. Body Image. 2012 Mar;9(2):236-45. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.01.007. Epub 2012 Mar 7. PMID: 22406200.

[11] Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032

[12] Kelly,A.C., & Carter, J. C. (2015). Self-compassion training for binge eating disorder: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Psychology and Psychotherapy Theory Research and Practice, 88, 285–303. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/papt.12044

[13] Sirois, Fuschia & Kitner, Ryan & Hirsch, Jameson. (2015). Self-Compassion, Affect, and Health-Promoting Behaviors. Health Psychology. 34. 661-9. 10.1037/hea0000158.

[14] Neff, Kristin & Hsieh, Ya-Ping & Pisitsungkagarn, Kullaya. (2005). Self-compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure. Self and Identity. 4. 263-287. 10.1080/13576500444000317.

[15] Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 887–904. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.5.887

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