by Tina Marie Del Rosario, LCSW
As a therapist, an issue I frequently encounter is a tremendous lack of self-compassion. Common themes of self-criticism, shame, and doubt cloud too many of my sessions. I hear some version of critical self-talk time and time again: “Yes, I am hard on myself….” “I never have compassion for myself...” “I only see the negative in myself…” Does this conversation with yourself sound familiar?
We learn to believe in our self-worth and intrinsic value through what our environment mirrors back to us. If your parents, caretakers, educators, peers, etc. said things like “I’m so proud of you!” “Look what you accomplished” “I know that didn’t go the way you wanted it to, but you’ll do better next time,” you likely developed a positive sense of yourself, your worth, and your capability. In a moment of difficulty, you likely can draw on that feedback and access compassion for your experience.
For so many who struggle with self-compassion, negative core beliefs about themselves were likely formed at a young age because their environment reflected a much darker picture. These core beliefs show up in statements like: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not loveable,” or “I’m not worthy.” When you have heard feedback that confirms these beliefs as true-from parents, caretakers, peers, or society-it sticks and it’s hard to shake.
Negative self-talk makes it more challenging to connect with our authentic selves. Years of negative thoughts and beliefs create strong neural-pathways associated with these responses. According to psychologist Deann Ware, Ph.D., in the article, The Neuroscience of Behavior Change, this means that “‘the messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster.’ With enough repetition, these behaviors become automatic.’” So naturally, it is difficult to change the course of self-criticism to self-compassion!
When we don’t like something, we naturally view it as negative or something to fight against, as an enemy. As tiny humans, our society and cultural norms teach us that embracing our emotions is a sign of weakness and our human sensitivity is something to feel ashamed of. If our family also promotes suppressing emotions, it likely becomes a challenge not only to identify our emotions and feelings but also to value space to sit in them, let alone treating them with compassion and empathy! As we learn self-compassionate skills, it is normal to feel discomfort. It is normal and expected to have difficulty embracing both big and small feelings. The problem is that we view our challenging personal experiences as adversarial. We view our suffering as an opponent rather than an entity that needs love, nurture, and healing.
“when you start to recognize self-berating comes from a place not of truth, but from a place desperately in need of empathy and love, you begin your journey towards new self-awareness, insight, and compassion.”
So how does one go from self-criticism to self-compassion? Well, I’ll be real with you, it takes work. I believe cultivating a mindfulness practice is the first step. Learning to be in the present moment, without judgment is key. The challenge is being able to feel an emotion-any emotion-and accept that it’s okay. Yes, it’s muchhhhh easier said than done. Try thinking of it as exercising a muscle; it takes practice for any habit to become our new normal. Practicing mindfulness exercises every day, even for just five minutes, will ultimately enable you to learn how to sit and lean into your emotions without negatively labeling them or combating them as your enemy.
Mindfulness helps you create an observer version of yourself that allows you to create space to recognize you are not your thoughts and feelings. Instead, your thoughts and emotions are a result of past experiences that can be felt, accepted, and let go, without judgment. The without judgment piece is essential here because evaluating is the thing that first gets us into our critical space. When you start to recognize self-berating comes from a place not of truth, but from a place desperately in need of empathy and love, you begin your journey towards new self-awareness, insight, and compassion. YOU can give yourself that empathy and love that we all need as humans! Then you can look forward to deepening your connection with, and acting from, your most authentic self.
If you’re finding it difficult to stop self-criticizing and start accessing self-compassion, I’d be honored to work alongside you and offer support.