Self-Compassion: the Antidote to Your Inner Critic

I’m trying to write an article on the importance of compassion. 

Ironically, I’m getting a bit of inner criticism as I go along. 

I want to write about how important it is to be kind to ourselves. Even – especially – when we feel the inner and outer voices of society pushing us to be more and do more, pushing to and beyond the point of burnout. Then those same voices MIGHT allow us to take self care and activities like ‘mindfulness’ seriously, but only for the time it takes for us to recharge long enough to jump back on the treadmill.

The compassion I’m talking about is not that.

In Buddhist traditions, we’re reminded that a compassionate wish is a call to remember – that is, bring alive in us – our Bodhichitta. Bodhi means our enlightened essence. Chitta means heart. So we could say our bodhichitta is the heart of our enlightened Self.

This is not the same as boosting your resilience.

Bodhichitta does not refer to your capacity to complete tasks, make grades on assignments, push at all costs to achieve the external goal (although sometimes pushing yourself to grow can, indeed, be a compassionate act if it lines up with your purpose and the things you value most in the world).

The compassion I’m talking about asks us to remember, to realise right now, in this moment, that we’re human beings.

Oof, this sounds cheesy, says the inner critic.  You’re not going to win them over like this, it says.

But my observation both in my own life and in the lives of my clients is that we treat ourselves like machines. We try to be computers that run non-stop. And we neglect and sometimes deny completely the most essential qualities and abilities of who we are.

The Critical Inner Voice – Origins of Negative Self Talk

Many of us find ourselves caught in a relentless cycle of striving, achievement, and external validation. Whether in the corporate world or creative fields, we are conditioned to believe our worth is contingent upon productivity, success, and the approval of others.

There’s nothing wrong with achieving, with having goals. But we miss an essential truth.

When we are driven by negative self talk that tells us to achieve, do more, not ‘rest on your laurels’ (read: enjoy your accomplishments for more than 7.8 seconds before that inner tension pushes you on, asking why you haven’t done the next thing)…

Then we’re driven by a cycle of conditioning that is so well-fed with the energy of our attention and of the culture we live in that it never stops. It keeps pushing us. And pushing us. We work and work until we burn out, break, or come to a grinding halt.

The brain first evolved to make us hyper aware of threats to our love, safety and belonging. We learned that being and acting in certain ways risked exclusion from the tribe, the family, the society. It pushed us to avoid the pain of those things. These days, we react to those fears by pushing ourselves harder and harder.

The threat system has a cure for failure, though: do everything perfectly. ‘Perfection’, however it’s defined (and it’s never defined by us), is the only thing good enough, and the one thing that’s impossible to achieve. This adds a large dose of fear into our mood mix. Specifically, we become highly stressed and terrified of failure.

This is ‘complemented’ by our drive system, which is on the lookout for achievements, ways to gain rewards and praise and the ever-present dopamine hits that they bring.

When we latch onto something that our reward system tells us will make us happy, the threat system/inner critic has new material and is fuelled to tell us how we must act perfectly or our new reward will set us up for failure and rejection.

This process not only repeats, but feeds on itself. We’re never satisfied because we’re stuck in a loop that feeds the threat/drive system, over and over. This is what it feels like to be on the hamster wheel of constant striving for achievement and constant disappointment and lack of satisfaction when we ‘achieve’ our goals.

Again, that’s not to say it’s bad to have goals. But in this model, we’re not the ones selecting the goals, or choosing our path.

Self-Compassion: The Antidote to Your Critical Self Talk

Sometimes I ask clients what they do to take care of themselves and how they are kind to themselves. They often find it very difficult to answer. We’ve been trained to view caring for ourselves things as luxuries. As someone who has also struggled with this problem, I understand. I’ve had many experiences where I believed I didn’t deserve good things in life because  – well, because of that circular argument; you don’t deserve it, says the voice in my head.

There’s a kind of measuring up that needs to happen according to some standard, always a little further out of reach, and when I reach that, then I’ll be worthy. Maybe.

Seen in this light, taking action to give compassion to ourselves is a radical act, where we’re using the word ‘radical’ in the sense of foundational, basic, a first principle for relating to ourselves.

How would life be different if you had a strong degree of compassion for yourself? How would you be different if you allowed kindness for yourself, not because of the task you completed, but because you exist, here and now, and are worthy of compassion, kindness and acknowledgement for who you are?

This might not be easy. It hasn’t been easy for me.

Compassion can be a challenging idea. It can be an even more challenging practice for people who are deeply immersed in beliefs and actions that tell them that their value as humans is externally-verified.

Compassion is something we need to (re)discover for ourselves. 

This takes work. 

We begin with the courageous act of letting go of harsh self-judgement. 

It begins with the act of noticing and accepting ourselves now, in this moment, as we are. 

We see the difference between what our conditioning tells us is in our best interest, and what is truly in our genuine interest. We can start to separate from our all-or-nothing conditioning, to see it for what it is. We can realise that, as hard as it may be to do, loosening our grip on the threat/drive that has been driving us can create within us a sense of space. 

In that space, we can come to know that the conditioning is in us – and we are more than that.

This form of meditation is more than a practice of relaxation, although many people will experience that. It’s also an introduction to a way of being. It’s an invitation to experience life now, as it is, in the present, rather than using the present as a tool to push for a happiness and contentment in an imagined future.

A Self Compassion Practice to Deal With The Inner Critic

I’ve recorded a simple meditation practice that I often teach clients who want to learn how to unhook from that driven state and experience the space of who they are. 

It only takes a few minutes. It’s best to start these practices in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed, but it’s easy to do this practice when and where you need it – all you need is a few minutes.

When you practise mindfulness, you may find you become even more aware of the thoughts, the sensations, the drives that want to push you back into the threat/reward system. 

Seeing those experience is a great opportunity, not a sign of failure. You have the chance to see and experience these thoughts and drives for what they are.

When you do, look at them without judgement as best you can. Can you hold them with kind understanding? Can you see that they have developed through years, sometimes generations, of conditioning and are as active as they are out of a need to keep you safe?

This simple and kind awareness is a foundation form of compassion training. When strong feelings and experiences arise, we grow step by step to hold them in kindness rather than in conflict.

As we extend this compassion inward, we cultivate the resilience to thrive amid life’s inevitable ups and downs. We can respond to setbacks and painful emotions with care rather than compounding our suffering through self-flagellation.

True compassion is not a luxury or a reward to be earned; it’s a necessity for a fulfilled life. It is a profound act of presence, of accepting reality as it is – messy, imperfect, and ever-changing.

It frees us from the relentless treadmill of societal pressures and unrealistic expectations, inviting us to live from a place of kindness, authenticity, and wholeness.

If you’re curious about how to work with your experiences of perfectionism, drive/threat systems, and getting to know how you can make more space for the way you want your life to be, get in touch and let’s have a conversation.

1 thought on “Self-Compassion: the Antidote to Your Inner Critic

  1. Pingback: How To Embrace Your Inner Critic: A Path To Self-Acceptance - Craig Behenna

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