Self-criticism is my native tongue.
It was the default language of my brain. The grammar and syntax of self-criticism comes to me effortlessly, with scathingly precise vocabulary.
The notion of being gentler with myself just didn’t compute for the longest time. I knew it was something I should do, but it was like being asked to suddenly start thinking in Greek – completely foreign and daunting to even contemplate.
Like any new language, learning self-compassion takes time and practice. And we need a translation layer to map from the language we already know, to the new vocabulary.
My big aha moment that finally unlocked the ability to relate to myself with the language of compassion rather than criticism was realizing:
The things I was criticizing about myself could be decoded and translated.
The criticism itself held all the necessary clues – that translation layer – to identify exactly what and how I needed compassion in those moments.
Because self-criticism is always an attempt to keep ourselves “in line” so that some big, scary (usually imagined) consequences don’t befall us. We internalize a strict disciplinarian who’s trying to make sure we don’t get hurt.
So all I had to do was ask: what am I really trying to protect myself from here? (This is step 1.)
Once I knew what underlying fear was driving the criticism, I could then turn to step 2 – validating my emotional experience.
I knew from my training, both as a crisis counselor and as someone who has loved a lot of people in intense pain, that validation is the single most powerful tool around to soothe someone in distress.
So I experimented with turning that validation skill inward, toward myself.
Once I knew what the real fear was underneath any moment of self criticism, I turned inward, and said to myself:
“I know right now you’re feeling really afraid that [fill in the blank]. That’s so painful. I see you and I’m right here with you.”
(Notice the absence of any language that minimizes, rushes, solves, or tries to force a happy ending on the pain.)
To reinforce that, I’d spend a few minutes just quietly sitting with myself, lovingly letting the feelings be there. It was exactly the same tone, presence, and posture I’d use if I was sitting with someone else experiencing a lot of fear or pain.
So with that very simple formula, I decoded my self-criticism and used its clues to translate into brief but meaningful moments of self-compassion. To recap:
The more often you repeat this two step formula, the more you’ll strengthen those self-compassion muscles.
Eventually, your brain will start going there automatically. You’ll start catching yourself in moments of fluency in the new language of self-compassion.