It's World Kindness Day on Saturday, and as much as this is about being kinder to those around us we love, we all know that doing small acts of kindness for strangers or people in need is one of the best ways to make the world a better place.
But what about being kinder to ourselves too?
We all have an inner critic. A voice in our head that can be loud and negative. Kindness is the key to understanding your inner voice.
Let's face it; your inner critic is doing its best to protect you from feelings of fear and shame, even if that's not helpful. It's good to know it's actually trying to help, although it's just not going about helping in the best way. Knowing this can change how you perceive and relate to your inner critic. It frees you to acknowledge and respond to your inner critic with empathy and loving kindness.
For example, staying with the above example, it would look like this:
Inner critic: 'I can't believe you did that. You never do anything right!'
Kind response: 'Oh, hi inner critic. I know you're trying to protect me from feeling embarrassed and vulnerable, but it's really ok. Mistakes are part of learning. I can grow from this."
Ultimately, the key to treating yourself with kindness is really in listening to yourself in love and without judgement. Pay attention to yourself. You deserve to be heard and treated with kindness.
If we are not mindful, we can be harsh on ourselves every day. That devilish inner critic is always there and always ready to remind us we are not being smart, thin, ambitious, loveable, hardworking, sweet, fierce, whimsical and/or serious enough. It can be unkind, cruel and not helpful. And after years of practice, it's a hard habit to break. So, Mercedes Baines, a psychotherapist in Vancouver, has some advice for us.
What's the best way to deal with that critical voice?
Nourish yourself with kind words and acts. Develop a counter-voice that is compassionate and encouraging. But one of the most challenging things is that the very time you need these coping tools — when the critic is loud and talking about your thighs again — you have the least access to them. You have to practice when you are not upset.
Some people do meditation, some go for walks or just pay attention to their breathing. The critic takes us out of the present experience, so we need to practice grounding ourselves in the moment. Take a minute to notice your environment and then look inside to see how you are feeling throughout the day. Sometimes we can catch that inner critic before it really escalates.
It can also be helpful to write down all the insane things the critic says about you. Then write all the other things that are also true about yourself — that you're a good friend, a great cook, a natural organiser, etc. Recycle the critic's words because you don't need to remember them - just keep the good list.
Can we take the positivity thing too far?
The critic can overly focus on everything that's wrong, but if we go too far in the other direction and only focus on the positive, that's aversion. It's not real either. Often we think: I have to love myself. Well, a lot of people do not love themselves, so that becomes yet another thing they feel they've failed at. It's ok if you don't love yourself. Opt for care, compassion and kindness.
Simply acknowledging your inner critic is enough.
Let's get one unhelpful expectation out of the way. The truth is, we're never going to silence it completely. But the good news is that we can learn to live with it so that it's not so loud or negative in our heads. And that starts with learning how to treat yourself with kindness.
Here are my top three tips to help you to learn to speak to that inner critic with kindness:
Balance it with radical kindness
One thing that doesn't help is fighting fire with fire. Yelling at your inner critic to shut up doesn't work, and if you think about it, you're just doing even more yelling at yourself. First, your inner critic berates you for not being good enough, and then you criticise yourself for having an inner critic.
Instead, one of the best ways to relate to your inner critic is to balance it out with radical kindness. Radical kindness allows us to deeply listen to our inner critic, as we learn to meet our suffering with compassion rather than judgment or blame. I suggest repeating the following phrases to yourself and noticing how it feels to hear them:
May I be kind and gentle with myself.
May I trust that I'm doing my best.
May I cultivate patience with myself.
It can take some time to explore how those phrases of self-compassion feel for you. If it feels effortless, unfamiliar, or even very awkward, all of it is ok. You can treat this practice as an experiment or an exploration – seeing what it's like to hear these phrases and, perhaps, take them in.
Realise your thoughts are not facts.
Our thoughts are not facts. Instead, thoughts are events that pop up in our minds. It's how we respond to those events matters. Do we see every event as truth, or can we learn to process them before accepting them?
Here are three simple questions you can ask yourself to help with that process:
Is this thought 100% accurate?
What would things be like if you ignored this thought?
Can you add the word 'yet' to the thought? For example, 'I can't do this' becomes "I can't do this yet'.
Befriend your inner voice
Now that we've understood that what our inner critic is saying is not necessarily the truth, we can learn to respond to it better.
We can talk to our inner critic as a younger version of you who you want to be friends with. A helpful tool to practise this would be to write down your inner critic's thoughts and your kind response. One thing that helped me was to write my inner critic a letter. Yes, I know it's cheesy, but seriously, when you actually do it, it's powerful! It can be funny and awkward at first, but after a few minutes, you can start to feel how freeing it is to talk back to a voice that has been so loud in your head. It's empowering.
My inner critic and I get along quite well now. She sometimes gets over-worried and harsh with me, and I sometimes get flustered, but I lead her through whatever we are facing together most of the time. This balance is what self-compassion is all about, and it's such a kinder and gentler way to live life.
Just remember the tricky nature of criticism as you address your inner critic. Be firm but understanding. Your message is love and compassion, not harshness. Don't let that tricky critic steal your pen, and make this another exercise in criticism.
After all, if you wouldn't say it to a friend, why say it to yourself?
Physically doing this exercise creates a new neural pathway in your brain that helps you build a path of compassion. The more you travel that self-compassion path over time, the less self-criticism you will experience. This loving kindness will allow you to be who you really are.
Your inner critic is simply a part of you that needs more self-love.