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:
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.
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.