Coming face-to-face with my worst enemy.
I’ve always viewed self-improvement as inherently nerve-racking. Every time I want to make a change I have to admit that something about me is flawed. As someone with a massive ego, it’s an uncomfortable and often painful process. I’m forced to think back on times I’ve been criticized and decide, “was I right or wrong?”
Thankfully, time and distance allow me to reason. It’s easier to assess a situation a week, rather than a moment later. This clarity often guides me to the understanding that I have, in fact, done some wrong.
I’m sarcastic by nature, so I often come off as dismissive or disrespectful — especially to new acquaintances. My attitude can cause unintended hurt. That, in itself, is a flaw and something to change. But, if my personality towards others carries some bite, then it’s ten times worse when focused inward. My inner critic is a force to be reckoned with, and one I try to avoid. In the face of my failures, I self-deprecate and fixate on past mistakes. I spend more time beating myself up than thinking about how to do better.
In my experience, the process of developing new habits is particularly rife with failure. Every time I skip the gym, overeat, or procrastinate on writing, I’m falling through on my expectations. My response to these errors, until very recently, was always self-flagellation. To the point that my motivation was more about silencing the inner-critic than personal growth.
Obviously, that’s an unhealthy mindset. Behind every goal, there should be a positive basis for change; a fundamental belief rooted in a desire to become a better person. When that’s distorted by fear of criticism, I lose the best reason I have to achieve my goals.
Self-improvement, at its core, comes from a place of caring. I should do better and be better because it will make me happier and healthier. If I’m doing it to avoid self-hatred, all I experience is anxiety and stress.
A few months ago I wrote an article focused on factors for improving self-control. To my surprise, one of the critical elements, conflict monitoring, was influenced mainly by self-acceptance. Not only was it essential to identify potential missteps, but your response to failure can determine success with individual goals.
Through several experiments psychologist, Michael Inzlicht explored why acceptance was so crucial — people that acknowledge their errors have an easier time focusing on their goals. Past research shows that ex-smokers who forgave an occasional slip-up didn’t return to chronic smoking. The same was true for dieters who accidentally overate. When they responded with acceptance, they were less likely to indulge compared to those who self-criticized.
When we judge our mistakes, we’re prone to distraction. We try to escape unpleasant thoughts, grow defensive, and end up ruminating. Each of these behaviors is a source of stress and anxiety, which, when under duress cause us to turn to ingrained behaviors, primarily old habits. And, if those habits are the ones you’re trying to change, you end up creating a vicious cycle.
However, if you respond with self-compassion, you’ll find it easier to appraise your flaws objectively. Your reaction will be measured, allowing you to focus on what you could do better in the future.
After learning about acceptance, I felt a need to explore self-compassion in greater depth. If it’s something I wanted to incorporate into my mindset, I needed to understand the meaning behind it.
I ended up finding the work of Dr. Kristin Neff. She is the pioneer of empirical self-compassion research. Because of her work we now know that self-compassion benefits well-being, reduces anxiety, increases goal-attainment, and support a growth mindset.
She views self-compassion as three interwoven components; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-Kindness is the act of being understanding and warm towards ourselves when we are suffering. Instead of heaping on self-criticism or attempting to ignore our pain. It is the attitude that we can’t always achieve what we desire; that sometimes we fall short of our ideals. In these moments, the proper response is acceptance. If we deny or fight against our emotions, we’ll only lead to further suffering.
Common Humanity is part-in-parcel with being human. We are all fallible, imperfect, and flawed. None of us can be perfect and to chase such an ideal will cause anxiety and stress. This piece of self-compassion asks you to identify with all aspects of humanity. No person is uniquely alone or in pain. We will all face difficult circumstances at one point or another.
Mindfulness is a balanced approach to each of our moods and emotions. Our feelings should neither be inflated or negated. Mindfulness involves a non-judgmental, unobstructed view of our shifting emotions. Instead of questioning why we feel some way or another, we merely observe. Self-compassion means identifying both the positive and negative emotions that dwell inside us, without becoming attached one way or another.
When I first read the three elements, they didn’t sit right with me. The way it’s described, self-compassion sounds like an excuse not to try. Why should I be kind to myself if I make a mistake? How will that ever motivate me? And, so what if other people make mistakes, they aren’t living my life, it’s my responsibility to do better. These are the question my inner-critic asks every time I try to answer it with empathy.
It wasn’t until I did some further research, specifically into exercises for self-compassion that things started to click. Each one involves taking a new perspective, but my favorite asks me to view myself in the eyes of my friends. Specifically, how would they respond to my failures under the same circumstances?
They are always encouraging, motivating, kind, and supportive. They don’t remind me of past failures, but of recent success. They want me to succeed because they understand it will improve my well-being and happiness. I have no reason to treat myself any differently.
The desire to improve and “be successful” is a common trait. It’s the reason why there is a never-ending supply of and demand for self-help. We know good habits, grit, motivation, and the ability to self-regulate are crucial in this quest. Yet, we often overlook how this arduous and daunting process starts.
Supporting every opportunity to better oneself is a growth mindset. You must believe that you can change before you can ever hope to do so.
Sadly, your inner critic couldn’t disagree more. It wants you to stay safe, but it does so in the worst way; through personal attacks and belittlement. If you can be convinced never to try, then there is no possibility of failure. A life without failure means you can never be made fun of or disappointed. It would be bliss if that same critic didn’t constantly tell you that you weren’t doing enough to succeed.
That’s why a growth mindset goes hand-in-hand with self-compassion. When we’re attuned to and comfortable with, our mistakes we gain the ability to confront them. Now, there is no reason to gloss over short-term failure to avoid criticism. With self-compassion, you can have an internal, constructive dialogue that supports your development.
More importantly, in the face of each mistake, you have a mindset that allows you to come back stronger. Your failures are no longer sources of disappointment but cause for growth.