If your inner voice has ever said: When will I learn?! How stupid can I be! or something as stern as, You're not good enough! then you likely have self-critical tendencies. If so, you're not alone. Look no further than the popular saying,"We're our own worst critic," or the best selling book series, "For Dummies" to realize that self-criticism is prevalent in our society. Most of us experience it and few of us question what it is or whether it can be overcome. Recent research reveals, though, that self criticism may be a dysfunctional outcome of our ancient fight/flight instincts reacting to a less threatening world and there are signs of hope as individuals are healing the resulting mental and physiological damage through Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC).
Our fight/flight/freeze mechanism was useful in hunter gatherer history when we needed to flee or fight for survival. In fact, some studies suggest that its importance led to the development of a neural system called the default mode network one function of which is to keep us focused on problems, explained Bartja Wachtel, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Mental Health Professional at Virginia Mason Neuroscience Institute in Seattle and Mindful Self-Compassion Trained Teacher. "In Neuroscience and NeruoPsych research, when they take a human being and put them in a room by themselves with nothing to do, the first thing the mind does is to identify a problem and then ruminate on how to solve the problem." he said. "Our neurological system and especially our mind tries to keep us safe from "problems" by setting off an alarm that says, "It's time to fight!" or "It's time to freeze!" or "It's time to run!" This is great when we actually needed it for physical danger, but in modern society we are constantly distracted, and threats to "self" often come in the form of thoughts, feelings of not measuring up, shame, resentment, or that we were treated unjustly. This stress response is bad for us when it is sustained through our lives for long periods of time. The vast majority of the time we are not in immediate danger, but the alarms are going off, pumping out stress hormones that decimate our cells and tear down the cells in our body. "
Therapist, Dan Robert echos that in his blog, "How self-criticism affects your mental health." He writes, "When you engage in self-critical thinking, calling yourself an idiot, or saying you are stupid or useless – especially if your internal dialogue has an harsh or hostile tone – MRI scans show the same threat system lights up in your brain as if someone else was shouting at or scolding you. It's no surprise that this kind of thinking is closely linked with depression, problems with anger and anxiety, as well as a lack of confidence or low self-esteem.
When our mental focus on identifying threats identifies ourselves as the problem, ie: I'm not good enough, then we create a loop of constant self-criticism. As a dysfunction, self critical reflexes lead us to escapes, flights from our perception of self as problem, stress, disorders, and mental health issues. We're probably all familiar with those responses. There's an alternative if you're ready to try something different. Consider taking a self-compassionate break. How? Follow the Self-Compassionate Break audio narrated by Kristin Neff, the leading PHD researcher on Mindfulness Self Compassion and co-developer of the Mindfulness Self-Compassion curriculum. As you'll hear in the 7 minute segment, "it's one of the most effective exercises...because it's something that's very portable and can be used in daily life whenever you encounter difficult moments."
The first step in healing self criticism is to cultivate kindness toward your feelings and direct your caring nature toward the comfort of yourself. The second step is to realize that mistakes, accidents, frustrations etc are part of the common experience of life. We're not alone in our suffering. We're connected by it. Thirdly, exercise affectionate awareness. Notice when you're criticizing yourself and ask yourself how you feel or and what you need."Be' with your experience. That's a departure from the usual way our self critical loop functions as Neff explains in the video below, “In the moment, when you just blew it at work, or you had someone reject you or something really bad happens in your life-- what happens non-rationally is that we get very ego-centric. We feel like why me? This has somehow happened to me. I’m the only one who is messed up. I’m the only one who is going through that difficult time. We feel cut off from others…When we feel isolated or cut off from others physiologically that’s very frightening.”
Shauna Shapiro, a clinical psychologist at Santa Clara and an internationally known expert in mindfulness illustrates how self criticism functioned in her life in the video below. After traveling to Thailand to learn mindful meditation she became frustrated: why can't I do this?! whats wrong with you? Meditation just isn't for you. You're a terrible meditator, Maybe you're just not spiritual enough or you're not trying hard enough and by about day four, she says, "I was just a ball of knots, anxiety and frustration." When a monk from London, who spoke English, arrived she confided her feelings of frustration. "He looked at me with a lot of compassion and a little bit of humor and said, 'sweetheart, you're not practicing mindfulness. You're practicing frustration and striving and anger.' He said, 'what we practice becomes stronger.'"
"We know now,with neuroplasticity, that what we practice becomes stronger." Shapiro concludes. "Repeated experiences shape our brain. So what he said is 'practice paying attention with kindness, with openness, with curiosity. Be interested in your experience, compassionate with whatever is arising.'"
As Shapiro's story illustrates, one of the most common self critical complaints is the belief that we can't do something. Let's face it. It's hard to change the way we deal with life...even when our system isn't working well. Yet, unlike counseling or meditation, Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) doesn't ask for a life change or the adoption of a new system. It doesn't even ask for much time. "The awareness that most people simply don't have time to cultivate a meditation practice was part of the reason MSC was developed," Bartja Wachtel explained. "Formal and informal MSC meditations are built on mindfulness practice, and are not necessarily meant to make everyone formal meditators."
Looking for a change or relief from your self critic? Mindful Self-Compassion audios are free from Dr Neff's website and the co-founding developer of MSC curriculum Dr Christopher Gerner's website. If you're interested in reading more about MSC try the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. May you be healthy, Dear Reader. May you live with ease.
Update October 2015: Interested in exploring Mindfulness? All month a mindfulness summit is happening online. You'll hear 20-60 minute interviews with prominent figures in Mindfulness meditation and celebrities such as Ariana Huffington or Dan Harris discussing how mindfulness practice has impacted their lives. It's all free! Enjoy guided meditations as well.