The inner critic

We are innately endowed with the ability to give and receive care. Self-compassion extends those qualities to the self.
Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion: A Healthier Way of Relating to Yourself

Self-criticism is not an effective motivator!

We all have an inner critic, right?  That’s because, as a society, we believe that self-criticism is an effective motivator… when it’s not.

On brain scans, scientists have observed how self-criticism undermines our ability to both see and think effectively.  Self-compassion has the opposite effect, probably because it provides the safety we need to see ourselves clearly, detect our dysfunctional patterns at work, and have the energy left to make changes.

Self-compassion releases the hormones that soothe and motivate us (i.e., oxytocin and our natural opiates, respectively) and it fosters connectedness rather than separation, the self-centeredness that we “naturally” seek when we suffer.

Kristen Neff describes three components of self-compassion in her book:

  1. Kindness, or treating oneself with understanding rather than harsh self-judgment.  In other words, actively being supportive and caring towards ourselves.
  2. Common humanity, or interpreting our experience in the context of a larger human experience rather than totally unique.  In other words, as human beings we ____fill in the blank___ … are not perfect… have positive and negative experiences… fail… etc.
  3. Mindfulness, or avoiding extremes of denying, defending, or over-identifying with our painful feelings.  Mindfulness allows us to acknowledge how we are right now without allowing our brain to beat us over the head with how we should be right now.

This is not “soft and fluffy” stuff, nor does self-compassion promote self-indulgence.  It is the tool we need to embrace our inner critic, one that gets quieter when we listen to it softly.  Here is a variation of an exercise suggested by Kristen Neff.


  • Throughout the day today, notice when you are being self-critical… and be aware that for many of us, our self-critical voice is so common, we may not even notice it!
  • Think about (or write down) what you said to yourself, trying to be as accurate as possible.  For example, I tend to be self-critical about my cleaning habits when I have a lot on my plate.  I say things like, “If you picked up a little every day, you wouldn’t have a room that looks like a pig stye.”  “How can you live like this?”  “You’ll never amount to anything.” And it goes downhill from there!
  • What words do you use?  What is the tone of your inner voice?  Are any of these familiar to you?  My inner critics words are intolerant, punitive, and obsessive about perfection.
  • Make a conscious effort to soften the self-critical voice by saying something like, “Listen to me rant on and on,” or “Wow, what a lot of angry energy behind those words,” or whatever the compassionate observer notes when acknowledging our criticizer.
  • Find something that your inner critic and compassionate self can agree on. For example, I say something to myself like, “Yes, it would be great to have a perfectly clean room… and I don’t have that now… and that’s how it is.”

It helps to write down your observations to yourself so you can privately review them to learn about your criticizer, criticized, and compassionate voices.

© Copyright 2013 Maria Hunt

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