When something goes wrong in your life (i.e., you blow a presentation or step on the scale to find you’ve gained weight), how do you respond to yourself? Is your inner dialogue harsh and critical? “You loser. Why can’t you just get it together?” Or is your inner language caring and warm? “Sweetheart, you tried your best. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. What can you do to prepare better next time?”
Many of us develop such powerful inner critics that the very idea of responding to our failures with understanding and kindness feels awkward. We believe that if we are just a little harder on ourselves, we will surely act differently in the future. The latest research on motivation, however, shows that when we relate to ourselves from a place of harsh criticism, we undermine our ability to summon the courage needed to see our weaknesses clearly and the confidence needed to grow.
An analogy to illuminate the power of self-compassion on motivation is to think of the way a fearful child would respond to the concern of a caring mother. When a child is afraid and crying, she clings to her mother, burying her face, unable to see beyond the intensity of her pain. When Mom soothes her child with tender words (“Oh honey, I see you are afraid. Don’t worry, I am here for you.”) the child begins to calm and stops crying. Eventually, she lifts her head and looks around to see the world beyond her pain. Feeling safe, the child toddles away from her mom to explore her surroundings. Over time, comforted by Mom’s abiding presence, she wanders even farther to bravely reengage with other kids in the sandbox.
While as adults we may not cry when someone at work hurts our feelings, we are wired the same way as the small child in the sandbox. Our nervous systems respond to external cues of safety (Mom’s care) the same way as internal cues (our inner dialogue). When our self-talk is threatening, we support the physiological conditions for self-focused, fearful thoughts and reactive behavior. We become the small child burying her head in her mother’s arms, unable to see past our pain. When our internal dialogue is tender and warm, we support the physiological conditions for other-focused thoughts and courageous behavior. We become the small child who wants to explore the world and her potential.
When your inner critic rears, learn to nurture the wounded parts of yourself with the compassionate care of a mother.
Dr. Kristen Neff, the world’s leading researcher on self-compassion, recommends taking these three steps when your inner critic rears:
- Pause in mindful awareness. Stop and observe your thoughts and feelings without judging, numbing, or trying to fix. Notice the physical sensations in your body as they arise. Acknowledge your pain and ask, “What story am I telling myself?”
- Remember your shared humanity. You, like every human being that has ever walked the planet, are imperfect. You are not alone in your experience of shame, pain, struggle, and self-doubt. Rest in being imperfectly human.
- Offer yourself kindness. Offer yourself the care and concern a mother would offer her child. Imagine wrapping yourself in the type of embrace you would envelop a loved one who was feeling how you are feeling. Relate to yourself with gentle, understanding words: “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Pause and breathe. You are okay, and we are going to get through this.” Notice how your body feels when you give yourself the kindness you deserve