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Battling the Inner Critic with Mindfulness & Compassion

With a wellness movement on the rise, self-love is all the rage on social media. But what does that actually mean? How do you get it? And what if you’re struggling to get it?

You’re not alone.


To be comfortable in your own skin means to accept yourself, just as you are. Easier said than done, right? Many of us have the idea that being comfortable with ourselves means that we love everything about ourselves, every trait, body part, and quality (false)! It is of course easy to extend positive feelings towards our awesome parts, but more much more challenging when it comes to embracing our mediocre or even not so great parts that perhaps we don’t want others to see. When many of us hear the word acceptance, we may think it means being complacent, giving up bettering ourselves or making excuses about our behavior. What it acceptance means in this context is actually to see ourselves completely, as we are, without trying to avoid, run away or resist.

One of the many ways we may avoid looking inward with an honest and nonjudgmental lens is by searching for answers or solutions to “fix” what feels faulty or broken within us. I often hear various scenarios from clients, such as once I get this job, once I lose the weight or if I could just make this much more money… then I’ll be happy. However, wholeness and happiness are an inside job. Practices, such as mindfulness and self-compassion can help us cultivate a sense of wholeness and happiness from within. As the word practice suggests, these are not quick fixes, but rather ways of relating to oneself and one’s experience: in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, and with kindness.

The Struggle is Real

While for some, early life experiences may have predisposed them to feelings of unworthiness or shame. Perhaps, there were individuals in your life that communicated through words or actions that you are less than, unworthy, or not good enough. Even if this is not you, there is a universal human experience of having an inner critic. With valiant intentions, the critic is designed to keep us safe, however, its methods can lead to stress, self-doubt, and feeling not good enough. In addition to our inner critic, we are taught to strive for “high self-esteem,” which is actually based on how we measure up compared to others. We can all certainly thank social media for helping us out in this department! The problem with self-esteem is that it is often contingent upon our success or related to some external marker, such as our attractiveness, wealth, or even relationship status. These will inevitably fail at some point or fade with time and then what are we left with?

Self-Compassion: The Critics Worst Enemy

However, when we strive for self-compassion rather than self-esteem, we are cultivating an internal strength or resiliency reserve for difficult moments. Self-compassion is always available to us, in successes and failures and fosters a sense of connectedness rather han the comparison inherent in self-esteem. Self-compassion can also greatly impact the chemistry of the body. When the critic is in the driver’s seat and we are repeating harsh words to ourselves, the body perceives this as an attack, triggering a cascade of stress hormones related to our fight or flight system, which can be a source of stress, tension and other physical and health difficulties that are working against a healing environment for the mind and body. Conversely, when we practice mindful awareness and take a compassionate stance towards our failures or misgivings, we tap into our physiologically hardwired mammalian response that generates soothing and safety. This is how we counteract stress and practice acceptance of all the various parts of ourselves. This takes quite a bit of willingness on our part to feel and sit with experiences that may be uncomfortable or challenging. However, each time we stay with our experience in the present in a compassionate manner (rather than judging ourselves), we are expanding our tolerance and ability to do this in the long-term.

Using Mindfulness and Self- Compassion in daily life:

  1. Practice mindful awareness: mindfulness asks us to observe our experience, just as it is, including our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. So often we go around berating ourselves or telling ourselves we’re not good enough without awareness. Begin to notice how you treat yourself, what happens in your body when you do this. Notice how you may be avoiding or trying to move away from inner experience by seeking a fix outside of yourself.

  2. Practice self-compassion: The three components of self-compassion are:

    1. Mindfulness- noticing this is a difficult moment

    2. Common humanity- recognizing that all humans suffer and you are not alone

    3. Kindness- responding to yourself with warmth and compassion, as you might speak to a dear friend

We may seek outside sources to feel good about ourselves, but with time and practice of observing our inner life without judgment and with kindness, we cultivate a deep sense of acceptance, gratitude for who we are, and for this body. It is from this place that we are able to boldly pursue the life we want.

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