How to Kick Self-Criticism to the Curb with a Practice of Self-Compassion, Forgiveness and Humor
Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate towards ourselves. ~ Brene Brown
In my recent 5-Day 'Heart Your Body' Challenge, I focused on self-love being a state of loving our whole selves, bodies included. It is a mindset that each and every one of us is allowed to access, no matter who we are and what we look like.
Self-love is not static where it arrives one day and sticks around for life. It’s a daily practice built on a foundation that grows stronger with time and attention. In the same way you must forgive yourself for making mistakes as you learn to eat and exercise intuitively, cultivating self-love requires that you absolve yourself when your inner mean girl arrives for a little visit, even for an extended period of time. With practice, you hear the inner mean girl as it begins to speak, learn to honor her presence, and do the work necessary to become less fearful. As your self-love grows in strength, you will discover an increasing capacity to respond to her in a manner that allows you to return to the awareness that you are worthy of love and respect just as you are—especially from yourself.
As self-love becomes a habit, you are less inclined to let your life force be drained away by individuals or industries that profit from your attempts to achieve an exclusive standard of physical beauty. Instead of thinking that having a “perfect” body leads directly to self-love, you understand that self-love allows you to see yourself as perfect, “flaws” and all. It moves you beyond a begrudging acceptance of your body, age, or other characteristics, and supports that next big (and often scary) step towards truly loving your whole self—right here, right now. Your perceived “flaws” then become a portrait of your life story—and an integral part of your beauty.
True self-love offers so much more than weight changes or physical perfection. It expands our view of our whole selves (bodies included), our purpose, and our outlook on life. It provides the opportunity to live fully in the present and to stop waiting for some magical transformation to happen before we pursue our dreams and desires.
Self-love is a quality that has not been role modelled to many of us, and it is certainly not a common topic of conversation. Regardless, we can cultivate it as a daily practice and open ourselves to a new way of experiencing the world.
When it comes to our inner mean girl, I’ve talked about her being your protector in my 12-days to self-love video series. She’s actually looking out for your best interests. Here's the secret. That inner mean girl is actually fear talking. It is the mind’s way of attempting to protect us when the world is harsh.
As children, many of us were never taught how to resist aggression. We weren’t given the tools we needed to hold on to self-love when we were faced with the frightening outside world. Our minds thought people were mean to us because we were flawed. No one told us otherwise, or if they did, we didn’t believe them. As adults, we may still believe that we will be safe from hostile acts if we can perfect our bodies and lives. When someone gets angry with us or treats us with disrespect, we become self-destructive instead of recognizing what is really going on. We stuff our emotions and turn on ourselves, believing on some level that we deserve to be treated poorly.
When events happen that cause you to suffer, your inner mean girl may put the blame on you. Chances are it believes that berating you will be the motivating force to take you to a place of perfection, thus preventing painful experiences from ever occurring again. The problem is that your attempts to be perfect do not protect you from the aggressive acts of other people, nor do they save you from the unavoidable suffering of life.
That inner mean girl directed at your body is an expression of fear that can prod you to try to change it in some way, promising that doing so will solve all of your problems. This thinking process diminishes life force; it takes away joy and does nothing to improve your physical or emotional health. And many people find that even if they do get closer to or achieve their “ideal” body, life is still life, and suffering inevitably occurs.
My Personal Inner Cruelty Story
In my own life, fear of being humiliated was a primary reason for being so cruel to myself. Childhood experiences with classmates had left me with the conviction that being perfect was the ultimate protection. If I had a “perfect” body, I would rise above the bullying that was happening at school. If I never said anything “wrong,” no one would tease me.”
Looking back I can see that my young self thought perfection would make me invisible. Consequently, any time I didn’t “get it right” I felt shame. Even in the most trivial situations, out came the whip. Some part of my brain believed this self-inflicted pain would teach me a lesson. But it is no surprise that treating myself in this way only caused suffering. My misguided trust in my inner mean girl—in fear’s voice—led to the drastic behaviors with excessive exercise and orthorexia nervosa that depleted important hormonal functions in my body in my attempts to perfect my body.
Body Bashing at an Early Age
Many of us are inducted into the ritual of body bashing at an early age. We cut ourselves down when we compare our bodies to societal images and to other people in our lives. This practice is often unconscious; we learn to do it because we are taught to do so by those around us and by the media we ingest. Sadly, few of us learn during our formative years to relate to our bodies with love and appreciation.
Your inner mean girl eventually becomes unconscious, which is much more dangerous. I spent years turning other people’s judgments, criticisms, and dislike of me into my own internal monster; I hurt myself more than anyone else ever could.
If the monster’s voice is allowed to continue to berate us year after year, we end up believing something is innately wrong with us—not only with our bodies, but also with the way we are living our lives. We may think other people are better than we are or more “together.” In order to improve our self-esteem, we strive to present a perfect image to the world through our bodies, clothes, homes, careers, or children. This striving for a state of perfection can feel like running on a hamster wheel, spinning endlessly round and round in our perceived inadequate state, never reaching a destination. We lose peace. We lose love for our precious selves. Our inner mean girl runs rampant, clouding our vision of who we truly are and why we are here. Life force is diminished; purpose and joy are lost.
It is not always easy to resist the voice that tells us we’re flawed. Don’t forget that advertisers give us just this message so we will spend our money attempting to fix ourselves. There is a reason the diet industry generates about sixty billion dollars per year! The fear-promoting messages seep in if we are not vigilant in our fight for self-love.
The ultimate goal is to find compassion for our inner mean girl, honoring that she is often a protective mechanism that shields the parts of us that are easily hurt or humiliated. These defence mechanisms most likely came to us when we were young and unable to turn away from fear. And they will only become quiet when they know we are committed to taking care of ourselves, which means we must be steadfast on our journey towards self-love.
One of my protectors was a voice that said I was stupid. It incessantly told me to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I learned to have compassion for the voice only when I understood that it arose to protect me from humiliating myself by sharing my most vulnerable parts. As my self-love grew I was able to thank this voice for trying to keep me safe when I was too young to discern with whom to share my intimate self. The practice I developed to quiet my inner mean girl was to imagine being in a classroom and asking it to go to the back of the room, put its head down on the desk, and take a very long nap! I saw it as a child who was acting out, but who was really just tired and afraid and needed time to rest.
How to Build a Foundation of Self-Love to Silence Your Mean Inner Girl
Though we may intellectually understand that self-love is a valuable quality to possess—offering us what we need for self-preservation while also expanding our capacity to love others—it can still be elusive. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just made the decision to have self-love and voilà, it stayed with us for the rest of our lives! I used to think something was wrong with me when moments of peace and trust in myself were followed by nasty comments from my inner mean girl. Thinking I was supposed to be done with self-criticism, I would even berate myself for berating myself! This cycle gave me the same feeling as looking at a funhouse mirror where the image goes on into infinity; I thought the mean voice in my head would last forever.
Our critical voices never go away completely, however we can, through practice, build a foundation of self-love that lessens the severity of their impact on our lives. Like when we choose to recognize that we have the power in every moment to choose love over fear.
When your inner mean girl speaks up to tell you you’re ugly, stupid, unworthy, etc., that is the moment to recognize fear talking and do whatever you can to get back to love. One way I transform fearful energy is by saying the word “love” over and over again in my head. This practice offers love a chance to penetrate my psyche. I can actually sense my body soften and relax immediately just from saying the word.
Not everyone responds to verbal messages however. Some are able to move from fear to love by thinking of others who love them just as they are (e.g., partners, children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, pets). Others have said they experience love by thinking about a particular place where they feel (or once felt) good about themselves (e.g., a favorite place in nature, a special vacation spot, a childhood home, their grandmother’s lap). They go to this place in their mind’s eye and their inner mean girl lessens in intensity. Many people use prayer or meditation to silence her. Others say that using their bodies physically, especially to move through nature, quiets the monster inside. I have also found humor to be a good friend when I’m searching for a loving voice to replace my fearful one.
You should also practice forgiveness when it comes to your self-love practice and recognize that you are human and that you won’t always do or say things “correctly.” We make what we consider “mistakes,” and get ourselves into difficult situations.
I also find that, to stop taking my inner mean girl so seriously, it helps to be playful and make things a little theatrical. For example, you could imagine your inner mean girl as an old English judge, with a long grey wig, casting a weighty judgment on your case.
Another way to add an element of humour is to use sarcasm and bring some levity to the judgments whirling around in your head. When my inner mean girl predictably surfaces because I didn’t eat perfectly or exercise one day, and tells me what a terrible person I am for doing so, I will often reply, “Oh, really? Thanks for that very useful piece of information” or “Might you have anything else of use to add?” Think up some sarcastic phrases or dry retorts, and see how effective they can be for disengaging from the judge and its critical barbs.
Now, self-love isn’t for sisies!
It’s not an easy feat to have self-love in a world that pushes us to amplify our inadequacies and calls us mean names when we say out loud that we love ourselves. It is much easier to blame our bodies, lives, or other people for our problems, and to release responsibility for our own contentment.
Cultivating self-love as one of the most important tasks you can undertake. Just as self-loathing and body dissatisfaction can color every aspect of your life, so can self-love. Choosing it is like committing to a loving relationship. There are rough patches, of course, but the rewards are endless. Living with self-love demands that you repeatedly dig deep inside to understand that you deserve to cherish yourself, just as you would cherish a partner, dear friend, or child.
Your body does not have to be the cause of your suffering. You might try thinking of it as the amazing vehicle that allows you to move through this world, or a vessel to be filled with life’s rich experiences. Each and every one of us has unique gifts to offer, which are meant to be shared. When we stop blaming our bodies for our struggles, we have an unlimited capacity to use our talents to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways.
Cultivating self-love is like planting a garden. Both take time and effort, especially as you get started. Preparing your soil can be hard work, and planting seeds can be tiring. For some time, nothing happens. You have a plot of dirt that needs attention, but you don’t see any results of your labor. Then, abruptly, little plants push their way through the ground and begin their journey towards the sun. Day by day they get bigger, and soon you see flower buds begin to form. Your garden continues to require attention and care, but suddenly your flowers bloom and you are rewarded with vibrant beauty and abundant joy. Your vegetable and fruit plants turn their flowers into food that sustains your life. So it is with self-love. It takes more time and attention in the beginning, but one day you wake up and realize that tending to your self-love garden has become part of your every day life—and you blossom. You are rewarded with a bountiful crop: a balanced relationship with your body, freedom to pursue your dreams and purpose, a deepened connection to the people in your life, and more beauty surrounding you than you ever imagined possible.
I invite you to explore the ideas and practices in my 5-Day 'Heart Your Body' Challenge to help you step towards self-love and away from self-criticism.
You’ll explore your negative thoughts, come up with some reframing with new positive thoughts to replace the negative ones, as well as learning how to talk and respond to your inner mean girl and understand the place of fear she is coming from.
Remember that loving yourself takes practice—and courage. The more you use your gentle, compassionate voice, the faster your brain will recognize this new pattern and more easily respond with loving kindness instead of an attack from your nasty critic. Self-love is your ultimate protection.