By Brenna Williams, Second Year Graduate Student
Happy New Year! It’s a new decade, which means that everyone is thinking about what they want to do in 2020. Because of this, I wanted to talk about the way that we treat ourselves, and how this may impact our own lives. Let’s start this decade off right!
When you make a mistake or are going through a difficult time, how do you talk to yourself? What do you say to yourself? What is your tone of voice? Now, think about what happens when one of your close friends makes a mistake or is going through a difficult time. How do you talk to your friend? What do you say to them? What is your tone of voice?
When answering these questions, most people find that they talk to their close friend in a much different manner than how they talk to themselves. Generally, we speak kindly to our friends. We reassure them that everything will be okay. Sometimes we tell them we love them despite their mistakes. However, when it comes to ourselves, we are critical. We speak to ourselves harshly, and we may even call ourselves names. We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves. So why are we so self-critical?
Self-criticism is normally used as a motivator. For example, imagine that you have arrived home from a long day at work. You had to wake up earlier than normal for a mandatory meeting and got home much later than normal due to traffic. You’re exhausted, so you decide to lay down on the couch for a moment to rest. You need to get up in a few minutes to get ready for dinner with your friend, but you just need a second to relax. Next thing you know, you wake up from a nap to see that you missed dinner with your friend, and they have called you multiple times. They are upset and you feel horrible. “I can’t believe I did this. I’m so lazy! Why would anyone want to be my friend?” These self-critical thoughts are trying to motivate you to change. You are obviously upset that you missed dinner with your friend and made them upset. You don’t want to do that ever again. However, contrary to popular belief, self-criticism is not a good motivator. Instead of making a vow to change, you are now spending your night furious with yourself and beating yourself up. Let’s look at what science tells us about self-criticism.
Self-criticism is defined as negative thoughts about the self, feelings of guilt, or fear of not meeting standards (Blatt, 2004; Blatt & Zuroff, 1992). Self-criticism is related to rumination (i.e., repetitively thinking about the same thought, event, or problem) and procrastination (Koestner & Zuroff). Also, self-criticism is inversely related to goal progress, meaning that the more self-critical someone is, the slower their progress toward their goals (Powers et al., 2007; Powers et al., 2009). Therefore, self-criticism may hinder us in achieving our goals!
So, what’s the solution? What is going to help you achieve your goals? The answer may be self-compassion. Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself and not judging yourself based on your flaws or failures (Neff, 2003). In practice, self-compassion looks like treating yourself the same way you would treat a close friend. You might be thinking, “How is THAT going to help me achieve my goals? If I was nice to myself, I wouldn’t get anything done.” Well, research tells us that people who are self-compassionate are more likely to persist toward their goal, even after failing (Neff et al., 2005). Additionally, people who are more self-compassionate are less likely to be negatively impacted by failures (Hope et al., 2014). It seems that self-compassion prevents people from getting upset about their failures and giving up. Additionally, self-compassion is related to increased happiness and life satisfaction, as well as decreased rates of depression, anxiety, and stress (Neff & Germer, 2012).
Going back to the dinner example, how would things be different if they had practiced self-compassion. Instead of saying “I’m so lazy! Why would anyone want to be my friend?” they say to themselves “Wow, I hate this. I had a long day, and now my friend is upset with me. I know I was tired, but I wish I hadn’t missed dinner. I really think I need to take a break right now. I’ll talk to my friend later, but right now I need to listen to some music and relax.” Instead of thinking about how horrible of a person they are, they can move on and maybe end their day on a more positive note.
Now, what if you treated yourself with kindness? What if you practiced self-compassion? How do you think your life might change? I encourage you to try talking to yourself as you would a close friend. It could not only help you achieve your goals, but also improve your overall life.
If you’re interested in self-compassion, please check out the following resources: