If you are reading this you are probably curious about the title, right? Who among us isn’t interested in bold statements such as this? Aren’t all marketing ploys designed to draw us into the big promises of how some new product or technique can deliver some relief from our challenging existence? Well, what I am about to share is true for both myself and my clients.
Here is the big news: we can learn to recognize our inner critic and replace this voice with a kinder, gentler voice of compassion. Does this come naturally for us? Apparently not! Statistics show that 78% of us are kinder to others than we are to ourselves. The oldest part of our brain, our reptilian brain, drives our survival responses and is tied to our inner critic. But unlike the cave dwellers from thousands of years ago, who were on high alert for danger, we are no longer being stared down by sabertooth tigers or other immediate threats on our life with regularity. Yet our stress response has remained largely unchanged despite this change towards an arguably safer existence than our ancestors ever experienced.
As Paul Gilbert, author of Mindful Compassion, teaches us, we have shifted our threat response away from the outer danger of predators to constantly judging our own self-concepts. Without being fully aware of what our mind is doing, there can be an ongoing barrage of self-critical statements running rampant day in and day out, such as “I am such a loser,” “I don’t fit in,” “What’s wrong with me,” and “I can’t believe I said that!” Do any of these statements sound familiar?
Before you feel too overwhelmed by the workings of your mind, there is hope for a more skillful way of being with ourselves. Which brings me to Mindful Self-Compassion.
Kristin Neff, researcher, and professor at the University of Texas launched a study of compassion back in the early nineties. Unlike self-esteem, compassion isn’t tied to comparing ourselves against others. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, self-esteem buzz words were all the rage; articles, books, and talk shows all focused on how to improve your self-esteem. Little did we realize that self-esteem was doomed to fail from the get-go. Who wants to be in competition with others in an attempt to claim we are the prettiest, the smartest, the whatever, to feel good about ourselves?
The spotlight has now shifted away from self-esteem and towards the more promising practice of self-compassion. The aforementioned statistics show we all could benefit from learning how to befriend ourselves, and the good news is that Mindful Self-Compassion outlines a myriad of informal and formal meditation practices to strengthen our compassion muscles.
Mindful Self-Compassion practice has been a game-changer for me! I was raised in a loving family system that also had its fair share of fear and judgment. Growing up, I was the “good girl” who never veered off-track from getting A’s and being compliant in ways that earned my parents' approval. As I sought out therapy in my early twenties, I needed help in becoming real. While I had learned how to look good, say the right things, achieve the benchmarks of success for a young woman fresh out of college, I was miserable inside. As much as my own inner work liberated me from the constraints of my childhood, it wasn’t until I participated in the Mindful Self-Compassion training that I developed a new sense of being with myself that was much kinder and gentler. Integrating Mindful Self-Compassion practices into my daily life has softened the edges of my inner critic, given me more room to try new things, and not have to be perfect. I have found this to be true for my clients as well. Daily practice of both formal and informal Mindful Self-Compassion meditations creates new neural pathways in the brain. Shifting from the threat response of the inner critic to the mammalian caregiving system of the compassionate voice improves physical, mental and spiritual health. Of any tools to have at the ready as a clinician, the Mindful Self-Compassion toolkit has been priceless.