I often hear clients put themselves down. And I think it’s fair to say we all do this to some degree, that is, we speak to ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t talk to our loved ones. However, these statements can vary in severity, ranging from criticizing our behaviors (e.g. well that was stupid) to our traits (e.g. I’m stupid) and even to ourselves globally (e.g. I’m worthless).
Some clients express a belief that criticizing themselves in this way can motivate them to avoid making mistakes or to try harder in the future, and that speaking to themselves more gently would let them off the hook by promoting self-indulgence or laziness. In reality, self-compassion can bolster coping in the face of struggles (see 1). Indeed, some clients recognize that their self-critical language isn’t helpful, and that it actually leaves them feeling depleted, helpless or even hopeless. Their struggle lies in how to change this way of speaking to themselves.
Interestingly, clients with highly self-critical thoughts often describe feeling uncomfortable, skeptical or even disgusted when they receive a compliment. This can seem confusing at first; why wouldn’t someone want to hear a compliment that might make them feel better about themselves? Indeed, self-enhancement theory (see 2,3) proposed that people would like to hear messages that could make them feel better about themselves (e.g. compliments, praise). However, the results were mixed; although some people did like to hear positive feedback, others did not respond as well. Self-verification theory (see 4) can help us to understand this. The theory proposes that people do not just like to hear things that make them feel good about themselves; rather, they gravitate toward feedback that verifies how they view themselves. That is, those who view themselves positively may enjoy praise, whereas those who view themselves negatively may feel uncomfortable when offered a compliment. Now let’s think about this for a minute: Where does this leave those struggling with self-critical thoughts if they are speaking to themselves harshly, while zooming in on potential criticism but negating positive feedback from others?
If this feels like it applies to you, here are some exercises you might consider trying:
1. Keep in mind that things can come to feel true after a lot of repetition, without necessarily being true. Over time, the automaticity of self-critical thoughts can make them feel ‘true’, and the scarcity of self-compassion speech can lead it to feel false or forced.
2. Try to distinguish thought (which may feel true) from fact (which is true): Think of a self-critical thought that has come up recently (maybe you told yourself that you were lazy or stupid after getting a disappointing grade or not landing a job you wanted). That thought may have felt very true in the moment – it may have even felt obvious and factual. Now ask yourself if you always feel this way, or if the degree to which you believe it varies over time (Do you believe it more when your mood is low? When you’re tired, hungry or otherwise depleted? When you’re around certain people or following a disappointing outcome?). If so, that’s a sign that you’re dealing with a thought and not a fact. Indeed, a fact does not feel more or less true from one day or from one context to the next (e.g. 2 plus 2 always equals 4, no matter what mood we are in).
3. Ask yourself how you would respond to a close friend in a similar situation. This might involve framing our mistakes or struggles as a normal part of the human experience, as well as highlighting the beauty in vulnerability or the courage that it took to try regardless of the outcome.
4. Now notice the discomfort that arises. Notice the sense that these kind words would apply to your friend but don’t fit for you. Call out the double-standard.
5. Continue to talk to yourself as you would to your close friend even though it feels wrong.
6. Practice this regularly. We need practice on the side of self-compassionate speech if we are going to make headway against all of the repetition that the self-critical thoughts have gotten. Doing this alongside a trained mental health professional can be helpful as well.
This kind of work is not easy, but I believe that learning to speak to ourselves more compassionately (essentially becoming a good friend to ourselves) is one of the greatest investments we can make, and one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. And when we love ourselves, in a true empathic, gentle and loving way, we are better positioned to share this with others. It starts from within.
Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
Note: The title of this blog is a play on words from the line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (in Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning).
1. Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
2. Allport, G. W (1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Holt.
3. Leary, M. R., (2007). Motivational and emotional aspects of the self. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 317-344.
4. Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Social psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 33-66). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.