If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that phrase. For a long time it would generate an immediate upwelling of anger. Now I just let it slide, because we’re all trying our best and there’s no point compounding frustrations because of another’s (more often than not well-intentioned) words.
Why was my frustration piqued? Put simply, the advice is not enact-able. It’s a handy one-liner in the arsenal of relational conversations, but ‘being hard on yourself’ is not an action that one stops by sheer force of will. It is a series of ingrained behaviours. A propensity to get stuck in negative thought-loops (over-thinking), maybe an analytical mind continually compiling cost benefit analyses and coming up short. Perhaps at its core it’s an intrinsic feeling of unworthiness?
These thought patterns are pervasive. We have all been shaped in childhood, for better or for worse. Mistakes have been made, and somewhere in the story of your unfolding childhood, your inner critic has been shaped. So when we inevitably recognise this behaviour in our loved ones, colleagues, and perhaps the acquaintance you started having an honest chat with in the coffee shop, what are we to say instead?
Phrases rich in moral virtue and compassion are not my specialty, but a good place to start is to treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. What would you say to your best friend if they were descending into a spiral of self-whipping? Most likely, you’d try and throw some positives into that pit to help them climb out of it. “Be kind to yourself”. Or, “You’d never say that to me, would you?” A little tidbit which can effectively break the cycle, not by focusing on the negative behaviour itself, but on a positive alternative.
All that said, as the person who’s behaviour needs to change, we cannot be passive in this. We are (mostly) now beyond the scope of our parents being able to fix these ills in us, so we need to do this ourselves. It’s a form of self-parenting or self-soothing: training yourself to love the inner child unconditionally. It’s rooted in the practice of compassionate inquiry. Adopting a mindset of curiosity to face your own foibles, questioning why you behave the way you do.
Ultimately, removing the inner critic helps us have more compassion for others too. The maxim of ‘love others as you love yourself’, doesn’t work if we’re all stuck in self loathing. The world is tough enough as it is without the additional ills of an inner critic and a harshness towards others. At the very least, take a breath in the midst of the next onset of negativity, and consider this. Be kind to yourself. We’re all figuring it out, one day at a time.