There are times when all of us can be really hard on ourselves: “I could have done more, should have done more”—or maybe, “I ought to have done something different” or “ . . . done it differently.” And therapists typically refer to such adverse self-evaluation as a person’s being plagued by a “harsh inner critic.”
Moreover, if you reflect on it, you’ll realize that such a negative voice emanating from deep within seriously interferes with your ability to talk to yourself with compassion. And it’s quite possible that this self-critical part of you fears that if you were kinder to yourself, or more self-accepting, you’d become smug or self-satisfied to the point that you’d self-indulgently fritter your time away or cease striving to reach your full potential. Or, just as bad, you’d no longer take responsibility for past errant behaviors, become too cavalier and haughtily renege on your moral obligations to others.
But it cannot be overemphasized that developing greater compassion for yourself has nothing to do with disavowing responsibility for earlier misdeeds. Rather, it’s about grasping that given your irresistible impulses or self-defensive mechanisms at the time, your past offenses were more or less unavoidable. Still, assuming that since then you’ve become more sensitive to others’ needs, and also that you’re now determined to do better, you can begin to grant yourself the compassion which till now may have refused to.
So here are the words that—once fully understood and sincerely expressed to yourself—can immediately move you to a place of greater self-compassion:
“We’re all among the ranks of the walking wounded.”
Obviously, this assertion isn’t to be taken literally, as confined to veterans who have endured substantial trauma, or to athletes still actively engaged in their sport, playing through various injuries. It’s about all of us, who in diverse ways have been psychologically wounded, primarily because of deficiencies in our upbringing. It’s as though, despite whatever psychological harm we were subject to, we can still function but—again, figuratively speaking—we walk with a limp, propelling ourselves forward despite limiting handicaps.
The point I wish to make here is that regardless of whatever inner constraints you may have—or somehow believe you have—that’s no good reason to keep yourself from developing a compassionate attitude toward yourself. Unreserved self-acceptance, which I’ve discussed in many posts before (e.g., “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance”), doesn’t require you to first meet certain criteria.
No, such acceptance is much more about acknowledging to yourself that at any past time, given your genetic heritage, conditioning, consequent biases, and self-protective defenses, you (like everyone else) have been doing the best you could. And that’s hardly to say that such restrictions in your programming aren’t changeable, such that your impediments—real or imagined—can’t be compensated for or transcended. For—and this is what’s crucial—it’s always possible to alter your perspective toward your past history. And it’s doing so that enables you to get beyond constraints you may long have imposed on yourself.
So, ask yourself:
- “In what ways might I be withholding compassion for myself because I don’t think I’ve ‘earned’ it yet?”
- “Where might I have gotten the idea that I lacked any inherent worth apart from how productive I can be or what, to date, I’ve accomplished?”
- “How often do I compare myself unfavorably to others?” [For to see your life as a contest, or competition, can’t lead you to the happiness and peace of mind you seek.]
- “How do my self-doubts prevent me from ‘going for it’ and being willing to risk failure for the sake of being more successful in the future?” [After all, assuming you learn from your failures, simply becoming more persistent will pretty much guarantee that eventually your endeavors will succeed.]
- “Might I still be blaming myself for mistakes or wrongdoings that I committed in the past?” [Returning to your forever nagging, self-harassing inner critic, might it be continuing to tell you that it’s important not to forgive yourself? that doing so will only make you more vulnerable, less motivated to improve yourself, and create a whole new set of problems for you?]
- “Did I feel neglected, or maybe even rejected, by my parents?” [If so, you need—with or without professional help—to convince the wounded child inside you that such disregard or outright dismissal is on them, not you. It’s everyone’s birthright to be adequately cared for by their family, so your having been deprived of such basic nurturing doesn’t mean you didn’t deserve what, for whatever reasons, your parents were unable to give you.]
The many benefits of adopting a more self-compassionate stance have been covered by various writers (see my reference section). So I’ll only provide a brief listing of them here. Typically, those who’ve developed self-compassion—which is inextricably tied to unconditional self-acceptance—experience less anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, and depression. And, on the other hand, they demonstrate much more inner strength, competence, self-discipline, and resilience; greater trust and capacity for intimacy; more optimism and a hopefulness about the future; and a state of well-being generally. All of which is to say that the inner work needed to achieve these advantages is eminently worth the effort.
To conclude, once you become aware that (1) it’s your habit of negative self-judgment that engenders most of your emotional suffering and discontent, and (2) “re-programming” yourself to be less hard on yourself (and others as well) can effectively combat this defeatist attitude, you then can gradually transition from self-criticism to the vital self-affirmation that’s eluded you.
So, are you ready to confirm your essential human worth by calling a halt to all your self-flagellating, self-denigrating tendencies? Really, you have nothing to lose but the barriers to the unconditional self-acceptance that—albeit unconsciously—you’ve always craved.