I’m late writing this blog post because I had writer’s block. When I delved deeper into why I couldn’t begin writing I found a critical inner voice saying, “no point in writing because people will be like, ugh! Oh shut up!” I asked myself what it was protecting me from and I realised I didn’t want to feel disappointment that people might not read or comment on my blog post. Now I know this I can accept that fear: yes, maybe they will not read or comment, and I will have learnt a bit more by writing, and now I can write. My example highlights one of the purposes of self-criticism: to avoid potentially painful feelings. In this post I’ll share more about why we self-criticise, how self-criticism is linked to the fight/flight system, and how we can stop beating ourselves up and feel happier.
Why We Self-criticise
Frequent self-criticism tends to stem from childhood experiences with caregivers who were unable to give good enough care and attention (Gilbert and Procter, 2006). Self-criticism would have been a safety strategy against neglectful and/or aggressive people or a protection from processing feelings that have direction, like anger. Unfortunately, this coping strategy continues into adulthood and becomes so normal that people can be unaware of the extent to which they self-criticise. Self-criticism is triggered by a sense of threat and often has a perfectionism element to it. Have you ever thought you need to do more, or do less, or stop doing that, and THEN you’ll be okay? That’s one form of self-criticism.
How Self-criticism is Linked to the Fight/Flight System
Paul Gilbert, creator of Compassion Focused Therapy, has extensively researched self-criticism and links it to the fight/flight system via shame and fear of self-compassion (Gilbert et al, 2012). Shame, Gilbert writes, comes in two forms – external, where thoughts and feelings are focused on how one is seen by others, and internal, where one sees oneself as defective or bad. Fear of self-compassion may stem from not feeling safe with one’s feelings. The self-criticism may occur to avoid the feelings and keep feeling shame, which is familiar. If self-criticism is akin to internally bashing yourself repeatedly over the head, then it makes sense that your fight/flight system is activated when you self-criticise.
How We Can Stop Beating Ourselves Up and Feel Happier
One of the problems with frequent self-criticism is it is hard to stop. Imagine feeling free enough to start doing something creative, like drawing, and then someone says, “oh, you think you’re an artist, do you? Whatever you do is rubbish! What’s the point?” And on, and on, it continues. So, how do you interrupt this constant tirade?
Self-help Courses and Books
One of my critical voices came from my art teacher in school, who told me I wasn’t good enough to do art at ‘O’ Level. I believed him and stopped doing art until I was in my 30s. I went to an Artist’s Way course and realised he was the reason I’d stopped painting. Immediately I bought some canvases and paints and began experimenting with colour with childlike glee. The Artist’s Way is a twelve week course that helps you unblock your creativity. There’s probably an Artist’s Way course near you. If not, you’ll be able to get hold of the book by Julia Cameron, which you could work through by yourself or set up a group with a bunch of friends and/or colleagues. But what if your self-criticism is so entrenched that you couldn’t even contemplate attending a course like that?
Therapy for Self-compassion
There are a number of psychotherapies now that encompass some kind of mindfulness and compassion training. They teach self-compassion techniques so that it loosens the rigidity and rumination that come with self-criticism. Paul Gilbert founded Compassion-focused Therapy especially for people with high shame and frequent self-criticism. Christopher Germer created Mindful Self-compassion Training to teach clients how to soothe and comfort themselves enough to be able to tolerate safe exposure to trauma memories and process them (Germer and Neff, 2015). Self-compassion is really, really important and you can work on developing it yourself in a small daily practice possibly in addition to therapy.
Daily Self-compassion Practices
Daily meditation can really help. I do fifteen minutes when I get out of bed in the morning every day. I didn’t notice any difference at first, but I notice that something is missing when I don’t do it. I feel more able to cope and less anxious throughout the day when I do it. I started off doing loving kindness meditation (I googled it – try it), but now I just sit, using a 15 minute timer, and gently sway (my body needs to do this), whilst noticing, without judgement, thoughts, feelings, sensations, sounds etc.. You might find other ways of doing it that suit you better. If you get a traumatic memory occur whilst meditating you can either focus your awareness on it or you can open your eyes and ground yourself in where you are right now. This helped me know that I can sit and have a choice should a memory arise. It depends on how resourceful you’re feeling and that will be different at different times.
Be Kind to Your criticisms
Whenever I notice I’m being self-critical, I say to myself, “and that’s okay”. It immediately eases the pain of the critical thoughts and brings relief. When I first heard about this method I felt critical of it (ha ha) but decided to try it anyway and was amazed at how effective it is. You might need to do it a lot at first – I did.
I sometimes find it hard to let myself paint, or draw, or collage, or play my ukulele, or climb, or any of the things that bring me joy. Then I realise it’s the self-criticism that’s stopping me and I decide to do one of those things. Sometimes it’s useful to set a time boundary, using a timer, if I feel like I also need to get work done. Then I can use the joyful things as break activities. The more creative I am the happier I am. I think that might be a universal trait and I don’t think it’s limited to artists. I think we label people as artists when they allow themselves to be creative, but actually we are all creative in various ways. What could you create if you let yourself? Perhaps it’s numbers that you like? What’s your subject? What’s it like when you’re creative?
Whilst frequent self-criticism can be debilitating, leading to depression, there are things that can reduce the rigidity and rumination. Compassion-based therapy, self-help courses and books, and daily self-compassion practices can all help to spark your creativity. After all, what’s life without creating?
GERMER, C., and NEFF, K., 2015. Cultivating Self-Compassion in Trauma Survivors. In: J. BRIERE, V. FOLLETTE, J. HOPPER, D. ROZELLE and D. ROME, eds. Transforming trauma: Integrating contemplative and Western psychological approaches. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 43-58.
GILBERT, P. and PROCTER, S., 2006. Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy [online]. 13 (6), pp.353–379.
GILBERT, P., MCEWAN, K., GIBBONS, L., CHOTAI, S., DUARTE, J. and MATOS, M., 2012. Fears of compassion and happiness in relation to alexithymia, mindfulness, and self-criticism. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice [online]. 85 (4), pp.374–390.