Adapted from the book Out of Love: Finding Your Way Back to Self-Compassion
I thought I had to be self-critical. If I wasn’t, who knew what would happen, what bad things I’d do, what a loser I’d be? I didn’t know any other way.
Like most of us, I learned to be self-critical from family, church, school and other elements of my environment. I learned to tell myself critical and disempowering stories, which, at their core, were rooted in a single fear: that I’d never be good enough.
I grew up in a strict Seventh-day Adventist home, believing that I was deeply flawed. My parents did their best, as all parents do, but they had learned to be self-critical, and they passed that on to my sister and me. My Danish grandmother was a highly critical person, and although I loved her dearly, I never felt I could live up to her expectations. My mother was depressed throughout my childhood — her marriage to my father was falling apart (and eventually did) — and as a symptom of the dysfunction, our little family moved continuously from one place to the other, mostly back and forth between Denmark and America.
As an adult, I perpetuated this pattern, moving constantly, and escaping in other ways, too: alcohol, achieving, and codependent romantic relationships. I was sure uncertainty was the thing to avoid, so I tried to control my environment with endless list making, worrying disguised as planning, and performing disguised as high achievement. I struggled to make sense of a critical God and church that seemed misaligned with who I wanted to be, until I finally left the Seventh-day Adventist church in 2013. Doing so was part of a gradual paradigm shift, a move away from the critical stories that had surrounded me throughout my childhood.
I hadn’t always been so self-critical. My mother tells me that at the age of 2, when asked how old I was, I would reply, “Two years wonderful!” — and then I would hug myself and flash my biggest smile, because I knew I was wonderful.
Self-criticism is learned. The good thing about that is we can unlearn it!
For me, the game changer was the practice of self-compassion. I first heard about this in a Sounds True interview with Dr. Kristin Neff. After listening to that conversation, I read Dr. Neff’s book, Self-Compassion — and it changed my life. In her definition of self-compassion, there are three elements: self-kindness (instead of self-judgment), mindfulness (instead of over-identification), and common humanity (instead of isolation).
We all tell ourselves stories about who we are. Many of these stories are self-critical and disempowering. However, we can choose to tell new stories that are empowering. We can stake our claim as heroes in our own lives. We can practice self-compassionate storytelling that heals our core wound of unworthiness and returns us to our courageous hearts, which were never really lost, just buried underneath conditioned thinking. Through the practice of self-compassion, we can become more authentic and powerful versions of ourselves, transforming not only our own lives but also the lives of those around us.
What stories do you tell yourself about who you are? Does your story help you live a courageous life? If not, why do you tell yourself that story?
Sometimes life stops you in your tracks and forces you to take a good look at who you’ve become. My wake-up call came in August 2016 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a double mastectomy and a lot of soul searching, I realized I had not been happy for many years, and I needed to make some big changes in order to live a more meaningful life. One of these changes was to leave my husband of almost 10 years.
In my marriage, I had perpetuated the pattern of surrounding myself with critical people. My husband did the best he could, considering the challenges he faced, but I found myself stifled in our relationship, unable to grow into the person I wanted to be. For months I agonized about how to tell him I was leaving. I knew it would break his heart, and I desperately wanted not to do that. Finally, on a February day in 2017, with the help of a counselor, I told him.
Later that night, I received a call from the sheriff’s department. There had been a car crash in West Oakland. A concrete pillar. He died instantly.
When I returned to our apartment, I found a suicide note and two Google map printouts of the crash site. The counselor, our friends, our family, me — we were all in shock. There’d been no signs. That must have meant it was my fault.
It had all happened in rapid succession within the course of six months — the breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy, the difficult decision to leave my husband, his subsequent suicide. How was I ever going to make sense of all this? How was I ever going to live without blaming myself every day for my husband’s death?
In the fall of 2017, I went back to school for my Ph.D., determined to study how self-compassion can help us move through transitions, because that’s what self-compassion has been doing for me, day by day.
Change isn’t easy. It can be a slow and arduous process, very much like the process of metamorphosis that changes a caterpillar into a butterfly. In one of the four stages, the soon-to-be butterfly turns itself into mush, dissolving all the old to make room for the new. Likewise, I’ve had to let go of the past in order to embrace the new and accept feeling like mush sometimes.
As we allow the process of transformation to move through us, we must be gentle with ourselves. We can’t control what happens, but we can choose what story to tell about it, and that makes all the difference.
In August 2018, two years after my cancer diagnosis, I remarried and became a stepmom. My second husband, Daniel, loves me for who I am and inspires me to be my best self. He gives me room to grow. As in all relationships, of course, there are challenges. What’s so amazing about self-compassion is that I can be the container for myself, taking care of me even when the world around me seems to be falling apart. Knowing that I can do this emboldens me to make authentic, vulnerable choices, like breaking my heart open and loving again.
Have you experienced a “wake-up call”? Are you living the life you feel you were meant to live? If not, is something or someone holding you back?
My new book, Out of Love: Finding Your Way Back to Self-Compassion, is from my heart to yours, dear reader. I wrote it because I wanted to share the best tools for practicing self-compassion that I have picked up in my journey. I hope to inspire you to choose self-compassion — for doing so is a choice, and we must make it again and again in order to unlearn the pattern of self-criticism we learned from a young age. For me, this pattern manifests as perfectionism, worry, performance anxiety, social anxiety, and addiction. For you, it might be something else.
My book is about my journey of unlearning these self-critical patterns and returning to my self-compassionate heart. Perhaps you, too, have struggled with self-criticism and shame. Or perhaps you have struggled to make sense of tragedies and traumas without blaming yourself.
The practice of self-compassion has taught me to deal with body-image issues after cancer and the guilt around my husband’s death, manage anxiety and stress, be authentic in relationships, make choices in alignment with my values, let go of comparison and be truly creative, cultivate my intuition and speak my truth, and so much more! Above all, self-compassion has shown me that belonging is something I already have — within myself.
Self-compassion is a practice, meaning there’s no end point. There’s never going to be a time when you have it figured out and you can cross it off your list. You will fall down and into old, self-critical habits. I did.
As I was writing this book, I decided to do two things that ended up being really bad experiments: I quit the anxiety medication I’d been taking for 10 years, and I started to drink wine again after being sober for six years. Like I said, bad experiments. In the end, I had to quit alcohol and start medication again, because that was the self-compassionate thing to do. I beat myself up about it at first. I wanted so badly to be “normal,” and I thought I’d made such good progress. The truth is, I had — but here’s the thing about anxiety or addiction: they don’t magically disappear.
This is who I am, and a big part of self-compassion practice is accepting myself exactly as I am. Only then, paradoxically, can I change.
One of the exercises in my book is about noticing our critical self-talk so that we can learn to speak kindly to ourselves. I include it here with the fervent hope that it helps you in your journey toward self-compassion. Here are examples of critical self-talk: “You’re fat and ordinary.” “Sit up straight, otherwise your belly looks big.” “Don’t you feel horrible right now with those large thighs and your horse’s hips?”
In a French Dove commercial, women were asked to write down the random thoughts they had about themselves throughout the day. These thoughts were then turned into lines in a script for two actresses posing as guests in a coffee shop. The original women were invited to the coffee shop to hear their own harsh words spoken out loud.
People in the coffee shop, overhearing the conversation between the actresses, were shocked. “Excuse me,” one woman said. “That’s really violent what you’re saying to her.”
It was violent. And it’s what many of us do to ourselves every day. Our inner critic is a bully. It criticizes everything about us, not only our appearance, though that is one of its favorite areas to criticize. It says things like:
I totally suck at ____.
You’re so stupid!
Who do you think you are?
What is wrong with me?
Why am I so lazy?
What a screw-up!
What makes you think you can ____ ?
Why can’t I be like ____ ?
I’m always such a mess.
I can’t do anything right.
The inner critic likes to use words like always and never. It likes comparing us to other people. It asks rhetorical questions, most of which start with the word why. It calls us names: idiot, screw-up, loser. It can also be subtle, a smooth talker, saying nice things to undermine us: “You don’t need to do that right now. You’re tired. You have a headache.” It’s a pro at self-sabotage: “Go ahead and have another drink. It’s been a long day.”
Self-criticism is pervasive, unhelpful, and not even true. It undermines our physical and mental health, as well as our ability to live to our full potential. So, what can we do about it?
The first step is becoming aware of what we’re saying to ourselves. Often our self-criticism is unconscious, so we must first catch ourselves thinking these thoughts. Then we can begin replacing them with positive ones through the practice of self-compassion.
The bottom line is this: if it’s not acceptable to say to someone else, it’s not acceptable to say to ourselves.
For the next week, notice when you’re being self-critical or feeling bad about yourself. Write down what your inner critic is saying as accurately as possible. What are the actual words you use to talk to yourself? What are the areas in which you are critical of yourself?