I was inspired to write this post while listening to a new episode of the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” called Being Kind to Yourself that explored the foundations and effects of self-criticism, and how exercising self-compassion can improve our lives and relationships. The episode featured guest Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin.
As so happens when you’re listening to a really good podcast, I connected on a personal level. I’ve dealt with my fair share of self-criticism, not only back when I was drinking – but in my current life as well, from feeling like I can’t get everything done at work to worrying that I’m not focusing enough of my free time on my hobbies and self-improvement.
In this post, I dive into the science explored in this podcast episode and how it connects to my experience. Recognizing where my self-criticism has come from and its negative effects on my life, both then and now, seems like a good first step toward changing course and exercising self-compassion in its place.
Where the inner critic comes from
We all do it. We make mistakes and then kick ourselves over and over – much more than we might another person who did the same thing. These could be big mistakes or insignificant ones, affecting other people or just ourselves. Either way, our inner voice criticizes us and steals our confidence, telling us we’re unworthy and deserve any suffering that comes our way as a result of our behavior.
According to Dr. Neff, the inner critic has its origins in survival. If you commit an error while fleeing a predator, critiquing yourself can prevent you from committing that same error again. Self-criticism is rooted in our fight or flight response and a desire to stay safe. But today, it shows up everywhere.
When we slip up, we feel threatened and not in control. Sometimes we react by fighting, figuratively speaking – trying to control the situation. Or we deny what we did and flee in shame, fearing judgement. We might also freeze and ruminate on our flaws, prevented from moving forward with our lives. Back when I drank, any time I recalled doing something regrettable like embarrassing myself or saying something that offended a friend, I found myself frozen the next day – or several days – in rumination and negative self-talk. Over time, that negativity compounded.
Culturally, we’re told that being harsh to ourselves is the path to self-improvement and accomplishment. And to some extent, that’s true. We can reach short-term goals by shaming ourselves into pushing harder. I find myself doing that at work, and even with things I enjoy – feeling like there’s never enough time in the day. I focus on all the things I “should” be doing at any free moment, from writing a poem to reconnecting with a friend or going on a bike ride, stressed that I can’t seem to do them all.
Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create, recently shared an excellent blog post about workaholism and how many of us feel we deserve joy only after we’ve done enough other things that we consider virtuous. As she puts it, “no matter how hard we work, or how good we are, there will always be the possibility that we could’ve worked harder, could’ve been better. As long as joy is conditional, there will always be a reason to deny it to ourselves.”
Over time, shame and self-criticism can do more harm than good. Rather than creating more hours in a day, they make us feel like we’re not enough. And rather than learn from our mistakes, they cause us to dwell on what a horrible person we are for making them. That can eventually lead to depression and anxiety, which undermine performance, prevent us from learning and growing, and lead to longer term problems.
Self-esteem and shame
People derive self-esteem in different ways. Sometimes it’s external, built through ego, or narcissism at the extreme. That kind of self-esteem is validated when others recognize our attractiveness or success and want to be around us. But it’s just as easily shattered when we’re rejected or put down. This can lead to insecurity, making us feel angry, rejected, betrayed, and alone.
At other times, self-esteem is internal, propped up when we behave in ways that align with our morals – morals like honesty, loyalty, reliability, and avoiding harm to others. It’s good to have morals and expectations for ourselves, but even this can be taken too far. When people driven by perfection feel they’ve fallen short, they can come to believe there’s something seriously wrong with them – that they’re uniquely bad people.
I’ve had all of these feelings during and after many a hangover, knowing intellectually that no one is perfect, but dwelling nevertheless on what a horrible, worthless person I was. This happened after not only the bigger mistakes I made but also small embarrassments that no one else would remember. Unfortunately, that thinking pattern has been carried into my sobriety. If I feel disengaged or awkward in social interactions, unprepared to speak up at meetings, or that I’m neglecting my interests, I kick myself – thankfully with much less intensity than when I drank. I’m much more able now to recognize this self-criticism and rein it in.
No matter where it’s sourced, self-esteem can be fragile. When it cracks, especially as a result of our own behavior, it can lead to a sense of deep shame. Unlike guilt, which is a recognition that we did something bad, shame is the feeling that we, ourselves, are bad because we’ve acted in a way that goes against our self-image. We feel inauthentic, split in two. It can feel excruciating – it can feel like death.
This can lead to further behavior that exacerbates feelings of shame, creating a downward spiral. Out of anger toward ourselves, we might think we deserve the negative things that happen to us, and then enable those things further. Shame can be found behind a whole range of dysfunctional behaviors, from drug addiction to suicidal ideation and eating disorders. It certainly played a huge and cyclical role in the ugly lifespan of my drinking.
Art Markman elaborates on the difference between guilt and shame, describing how these feelings affect us in the workplace. Guilt can actually be a motivator at times, encouraging collaboration and pushing us to re-start projects that have stalled. On the other hand, “there is evidence that people will explicitly procrastinate to avoid shame. Feeling shame about work you have not completed is likely to make the problem worse, not better, making it an emotion that is almost never helpful.”
Effects on relationships
We typically hide our insecurities, projecting confidence and success in social settings – something many of us jump-start with alcohol, albeit temporarily and imperfectly. But whether we’re drinking or sober, self-criticism and insecurity often emerge in our interactions with loved ones.
If we don’t properly deal with the voice of the inner critic, it can agitate and overwhelm us. We might take our frustrations out on others, even unintentionally, perhaps putting them down to boost our own bruised ego. Or we might repeatedly fail to recognize how lucky we are for the friends and loved ones in our lives. All of these things can create tension and distance in relationships.
When we’re absorbed in shame and self-criticism, or over-focused on how unlucky or busy we are, we’re absorbed in ourselves. We may hope that our “woe is me” perspective of self-pity will elicit an empathetic response, but people simply don’t want to be around someone who feels hopeless, stressed, and insecure.
Recently, I’ve recognized myself musing more loudly on the negative around my partner – like how much I need to do and how I’m not spending enough time nurturing my hobbies and introversion. Yes, I’m busy and have some more stress in my life right now, which inevitably needs an outlet. But I can see how this pattern, this person, might become tiresome. So, I’m working to look for the silver lining, give more voice to the positive, take breaks, and step outside myself. So far, it hasn’t been as hard as I thought, but it does take some awareness, attention, and practice.
Self-compassion, contrary to how it sounds, means turning the focus away from the self. It involves talking to ourselves as if we’re another person, for we’re much better at being kind to other people than to ourselves. We forgive them and tell them everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Unlike self-pity, in which we wallow in the loneliness of our faults and misfortunes, self-compassion comes from recognizing our shared humanity.
When we make mistakes, this means acknowledging that we screwed up, but then recognizing that we’re imperfect, just like everyone else. Not everything is in our control. We must work to understand what happened so that we can properly take responsibility but also learn our lessons and move on. I know I was terrible at doing this when I drank, which is why I got stuck in denial, shame, and feeling like my identity was shattered after my missteps. After quitting, it took months of deep personal reflection, therapy, and recovery group meetings for me to see that I was not unique in my errors or my pain, and that I had quite a lot to move on to and look forward to.
You can still feel guilt, regret, and pain – those emotions are important. In fact, we shouldn’t shut down our inner critic completely, as it stems from a place that senses danger. Ignoring it can make it even louder. On the other hand, ruminating incessantly on negative emotions and exaggerating what we’ve done can lead to stagnation, deteriorate our self-image, and encourage further damaging behaviors. This is the cycle that so often leads to alcohol problems, like my own.
Mindfulness exercises can help most people accept that we’re hurting and comfort ourselves. Combined with focusing on our accomplishments, they can also help us put things in perspective. Meditation, deep breathing, and physical touch – even something as simple as putting your hand on your heart or face – can be useful when working through times of deep stress or pain, allowing us to essentially hit a reset button.
In the longer term, introspection, or looking closely at our mental and emotional processes, can help us recognize our human nature and its flaws, softening our inner critic. Like self-criticism, introspection involves “talking to yourself” – but in a way that’s contemplative and compassionate, not harsh and belittling. Introspection was an important part of my personal recovery, helping me to understand the feelings of rejection and shame that led to my decisions and heavy drinking.
The benefits of self-compassion
Research shows that when we engage in self-compassion, a whole range of good things start to happen. First, we develop more emotional resources to learn from our behavior and do things differently in the future. By taking care of ourselves, we also end up with more room to be compassionate toward other people without burning out. We become more connected to others in the recognition of our shared imperfection, and even treat our relationship partners better.
Self-compassion leads to self-protection. It helps to diminish the unhealthy behaviors people engage in to try to escape pain, such as suicidal ideation, procrastination, and addictive behaviors. We eat better, sleep better, and practice safer sex.
When we tell ourselves to change because we care about ourselves, and not because we’re bad people who just can’t reach some unrealistic idea of perfection, we’re more positive and more motivated to change. What’s more, the people around us are encouraged to support us in doing so.
This isn’t just a good lesson for those of us who are trying to give up alcohol or maintain sobriety. It applies to all kinds of harmful behavior we might be working to change, whether egregious or minute, overt or concealed.
Residual shame and self-image issues that follow us into sobriety can also make us more critical of ourselves as we deal with the stress of everyday life. This has been my experience – and I’m learning that a compassionate approach can have just as many benefits when managing these more mundane stressors, too. We are all worthy of experiencing joy and rewarding ourselves, regardless of all the work tasks or good deeds we haven’t yet accomplished.
Softening our inner critic and instead letting self-compassion drive our behavior can make us happier, healthier, and more enjoyable to be around. So why not try it?