Overwhelmingly inadequate. That was what I felt as the three speakers concluded their remarks at a conference I had organized. Comparing my own presentation skills to their highly polished, dynamic speaking sent me into a swirl of self-criticism. All I could think to do was quickly go to a friend for reassurance. When I described what I had just experienced, she said, “Well of course you’ll never be as good as they are. You could never teach engagingly like they do. You just can’t cut it.” I was so devastated I could barely breathe. How could she be so harsh when I was already feeling low and deeply discouraged?
It’s shocking to imagine a friend saying such cutting remarks, but it makes perfect sense when I explain that this “friend” was actually me. Those were the words I said to myself on that day. Instead of encouraging myself with kind, supportive messages, I spoke belittling criticisms in my mind, like they were the needed truth. And you can guess my thoughts did not stop there—within minutes my negativity grew into a flood of self-criticism, until I felt I was just no good in any area of life.
Self-criticism seems to be a knee-jerk reaction when comparing ourselves to others or when we’ve made a mistake, failed, or been rejected. Our lightning-fast answer to the inquiry “what don’t you like about yourself and wish you could change?” reveals how often our inner critical voice springs to action. Perhaps it feels so automatic partly because we unconsciously believe such harsh examination will help us become a better person. But as Elder Jeffery R. Holland compassionately teaches, self-criticism is not necessary for self-improvement: “As children of God, we should not demean or vilify ourselves, as if beating up on ourselves is somehow going to make us the person God wants us to become. … That is not what the Lord wants for [us].”1
The Blessing of Self-Compassion
What if we respond to our weakness with self-compassion rather than self-criticism?
Here’s a simple way to define self-compassion: treating ourselves the same way we would a good friend. When I was comparing myself to other speakers at my conference, if I had responded to my feelings of inadequacy with self-compassion, I might have told myself, “This is hard right now. Being a good presenter is important to you because you want to help people. You may not be where you want to be yet, but you will continue to improve. I believe in you!”
Self-compassion is a game-changer with a myriad of benefits including more resilience, emotional strength, and flexible courage. It’s not what we experience, but how we relate to ourselves in stressful experiences that enables us to handle the difficulty and integrate it healthily.2
In addition, self-compassion enhances relationships. Studies show that “people who score higher in self-compassion are … more caring, more loving, more intimate, are less controlling, and tend to compromise more often.”3 And these lists of benefits are just the beginning. Self-compassion is credited with desirable results too numerous to mention here.
Even though self-compassion comes with a host of benefits, that does not mean it comes naturally. Sadly, self-criticism seems to come easily, while self-compassion takes practice.
The ache of being human abides side-by-side with our identity as a child of God here in our fallen state. Like an angry coach, messages from the fallen brain push us toward being better, but in a harsh way that just makes us feel worse.
Like a garden, we can intentionally cultivate our mind with self-compassion. If we focus on actions and thought processes that help us be kinder to ourselves, our mind garden grows accordingly. The kindness we bring to our suffering can transform our inner critic to an inner compassionate coach and our weedy, unruly plot into a beautiful garden.
With self-compassion, we let go of blaming ourselves for the propensity toward self-criticism. We do not identify with harsh, judgmental thoughts. We step outside them and recognize that we are not our thoughts—we are children of God with minds that generate thoughts, but we don’t have to identify with or believe every thought we have. We are divine spirit children who need the presence of our Father to grow into our best selves.
Transforming Our Inner Critic
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a wise perspective on transforming our inner critic: “Some people can’t get along with themselves. They criticize and belittle themselves all day long until they begin to hate themselves. May I suggest that you reduce the rush and take a little extra time to get to know yourself better. … Learn to see yourself as Heavenly Father sees you—as His precious daughter or son with divine potential.”4
Knowing that Jesus Christ sees and speaks to us in kind, patient, compassionate ways, we can practice seeing and speaking to ourselves in similarly kind ways. The more we practice, the more self-compassion will become our automatic stance, even a trait. “Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God” (1 John 3:21). And when we refrain from condemning and judging ourselves, we can rest in the confidence that we are His children, aiding us to act instead of react, whatever comes our way.
Compassion for ourselves when we do things we regret may be one of the biggest challenges we face. Perhaps we feel skeptical of self-compassion in these situations, thinking it means we’ll just let ourselves off the hook. On the contrary, in self-compassion we take responsibility for our regretful actions, acknowledging the suffering they have caused in others, and try to make up for them as best we can. We acknowledge our human limits and mistakes and rely on the compensatory power of the Savior to heal the harm we have caused that is beyond our ability to repair. Self-compassion encourages change, but it does not speak with fear, shame, or hopelessness. With self-compassion, it is safe to look at our weaknesses or imperfections because they are information about how we can course correct and grow, not an indictment of our “badness,” or that there is something wrong with us. This is responsibility but not recrimination. Correcting without condemnation.
Case Study: Practicing Self-Compassion When Feeling Irritation
Let’s look at a specific example of how we can practice self-compassion when unpleasant emotions arise.
What if feelings of irritation come our way? When we get irritated, it’s common to feel guilty about experiencing this “negative” emotion, and then we react with self-criticism or shame. Instead of pushing our feelings down or exploding like a volcano, we can slow down and practice self-compassion even when we feel irritation. Here are some specific suggestions for responding to irritation, knowing that similar principles apply to other difficult emotions like embarrassment, anxiety, disappointment, helplessness, or anger.
Bring Mindfulness to Your Emotion. Examine your emotions mindfully. You might notice, “I’m feeling irritated right now. My jaw is clenched, my brow is furrowed, and my heart is beating fast. My body state is running the irritation algorithm that thinks in a certain way and wants to behave in a certain way. I don’t need to blame myself or other people for this propensity.”
Treat Yourself with Kindness. Ask yourself what you would say to a friend who was irritated about something. Now say the same to yourself. Perhaps something like “I’m here for you. What do you need right now? It’s OK if you think you don’t deserve kindness right now.”
Ponder the Human Connection. Realize that feeling irritated is part of being human. It is a normal human emotion. You might tell yourself, “Everyone has felt this way at some time or another, just like me. I’m not alone in this.”
This fun video further illustrates the aspects of self-compassion we’ve discussed so far.
One intentional practice to increase self-compassion is noticing when your inner critic is talking and mindfully switch to self-compassion—what you would say and do for a good friend in this same difficulty? How might Jesus Christ’s compassionate voice encourage you right now? Say these words to yourself. You may want to carry a small notebook to write the switching of the message, making them more concrete. Approach your weakness with kindness, recognizing you’re in the same boat as other human beings. Then the wisdom of your compassionate self can encourage growth in alignment with God and life’s deepest purpose—joy! (2 Ne 2:25)
- Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2017, 40.
- See Brian L. Thompson and Jennifer Waltz, “Self-Compassion and PTSD Symptom Severity,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 21, no. 6 (Dec. 2008): 556–58, self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/SCandPTSD.pdf.
- Kristin Neff, in “Self-Compassion,” The Grieving Mind, thegrievingmind.com.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Of Things That Matter Most,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 22.