I want you to try something: Imagine a friend is telling you he misjudged a parking space resulting in a small scratch on his car. What would you say to him?
Hold onto that thought.
Now, imagine you were, in fact, the one who had the momentary spatial awareness lapse (which I would know absolutely nothing about). What would you say to yourself? Are the statements the same? If not, read on. Chances are, your response to your friend was something like “It’s an easy mistake to make” or “Everyone does that sooner or later,” or “Good thing it’s just a scratch and not a whole mirror!” whereas your response to yourself was something like “Stupid!!! How could you be so careless?!!!” Many people have the ability to give compassion to everyone else around them, yet they don’t exercise it towards themselves. In fact, they have what is known as a “critical inner voice,” and it shows up at every missed bus, rejection, moment of procrastination, or other “personal failure.”
You may not be able to trace back where your critical inner voice came from. Perhaps it echoes the voice a parent or caregiver from childhood. Perhaps it came from highschool peers, or a critical partner or friend. Chances are, it developed from a trusted source, and you learned that being hard on yourself in response to personal failures was the only route to success in life. Let’s have a reality check here: What relationship will be the longest one you will have in your life? The one with yourself. YOU have the freedom to choose what kind of relationship you want to make that: abusive, hostile, critical, or forgiving, compassionate, and loving? Which seems more appealing?
Many people believe that if they stop being hard on themselves, they will become sloth-like. Perhaps they fear they will stop succeeding, they will lose their job or fail school, they will become unpopular, they will gain weight, whatever their worst-case scenario may be. However, letting go of your critical inner voice does not equate to giving up all ambition, detaching yourself from society, and living off Cheetoh’s. In Paul Gilbert’s “The Compassionate Mind,” he discusses the difference between shame-based self attacking and forward-focused self-correction. The former is condemning and punishing, focused on past errors, and given with anger, frustration, and disappointment. It focuses on a global sense of self and a high fear of failure. The latter is focused on the desire to improve, growth and enhancement, is forward-looking, and is given with encouragement, support, and kindness. It focuses on positives and uses guilt as a mode to reparation. One strategy I like to use with clients is starting a sentence with “It’s understandable that I did ____ because” or “It’s understandable that I’m feeling _____ because” and “It’s a good thing this happened because now I know _____.” Additionally, mention what you did well and what you’ll know for next time. Give it a try. By empathizing with yourself as you would a friend and focusing on how you can make meaning of your perceived “error,” you may find more self-compassion flowing into your life.