Freedom from Self-Criticism
I had just joined a gym and was taking advantage of a free personal training session. I was in the middle of my third or fourth round of lunges when the trainer began to yell loudly at me:
“Do more! More! Do more! I need to see more from you!”
Or something like that. To be honest, I tuned out at the very volume and tone of his voice. I stopped my exercise, rose to meet his eyeline, and calmly said “I know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t work for me.”
If I had been less exhausted, I would have explained to him, that after years of trying to understand my internal sense of motivation, I have learned that instead of a self-critical, self-punishing approach, I benefit more from self-compassion and empathy.
It’s common for us to have an internal self-critic, a part of us who attempts to drive us further, faster, higher by criticizing or punishing. Sometimes this can look like unhealthy eating patterns, exercise, overworking, overtasking, unhealthy comparisons, and many other manifestations. This voice may take the form of someone we know from our past like a particularly authoritarian teacher or parent. Or we could have gathered the pressure from many different sources of pressures in our lives: friends, school, social media, work.
The work of the self-critic may produce very positive-looking results on the outside – good grades, great job, manicured nails – but we may find ourselves feeling exhausted, anxious, depressed, or unsatisfied. The push forward by self-criticism or self-punishment leaves us feeling worse because it’s propelled by shame. It says: “You’re not good enough. You need to do better; be better.”
If I had been less exhausted, I would have told the trainer that what I have learned from using self-compassion is that instead of telling myself to “do more,” I ask myself “how is this working or not working for me?” so that I can tap into real desire rather than a drive to simply respond to perceived criticism or comparison.
When I ask myself: “How do these lunges serve me? What am I getting from them?” I attune to what I really want from the exercise and how many I really need. I don’t need to do a thousand lunges. I just need to do enough to make me feel strong. Or none at all, if that’s not my goal.
When looking at any behavior through the lens of self-compassion, we are able to trust ourselves and say, “I am just right and I trust my instinct of what I need.” When we make the effort to practice changing our thoughts from the self-critical to the self-compassionate, we make an important investment in our mental health. We free ourselves from the pain of criticism and comparison and instead attune to our true desires and needs. In doing this, we can experience greater satisfaction in all areas of life and increased internal peace. And, maybe, less lunges.
-Erin Klein, M.A., L.C.P.C.