Kristin Neff writes:
We know how much it hurts. “I’m an idiot!” “I’m disgusting.” “No one will ever love me.” “What a lame-ass.”
So why do we do it? As soon as we ask ourselves this question, we often just pile on more self-criticism. “I’m such a bitch, even to myself.” “That’s why I’m such a loser, I’m always putting myself down.”
Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up in the vain hope that somehow it will help you stop beating yourself up. Instead, take a step back, and give your inner critic some slack. In its ineffective, counterproductive way, your inner critic is actually trying to keep you safe.
As humans we have two main evolved safety systems. The oldest and most quickly triggered is the threat defense system, which involves the amygdala. When we sense danger, our response is typically fight, flight, freeze, or submit: We turn and fight the threat, run like hell away from the threat, play dead in hopes the threat will pass, or show our bellies and hope the threat will be placated. These strategies are very successful for animals living in the wild, helping them to survive and pass on their genes. For humans, however, these responses often just make things worse. That’s because the threat we’re usually facing is a threat to our self-concept. We confuse our thoughts and representations of ourselves for our actual selves, meaning that when our self-image is under siege, we react as if our very existence is threatened. When this happens, our threat defense system uses the same strategies to stay safe:
Fight — we beat ourselves up emotionally, using cruel language to cut ourselves down.
Flight — we become anxious and restless, fleeing from ourselves by numbing out or using distractions like food or alcohol.
Freeze — we get stuck in rumination, thinking about our perceived inadequacies over and over again.
Submit — we admit that yes, we’re terrible, and accept all the harsh judgments we throw at ourselves.
More often than not we engage in some combination of all these strategies. Our stress levels go up as our amygdala activates our sympathetic nervous system (which arouses us so we can deal with threats) and floods our system with adrenaline and cortisol. And it’s a double whammy because when we criticize ourselves, we are both the attacker and the attacked. This type of chronic stress can eventually lead to anxiety and depression, undermining our physical and emotional wellbeing.
Still, it’s important to remember that when our inner critic attacks, at root it is trying to ward off danger. Marshal Rosenberg, author of the book Non-Violent Communication, says self-criticism is the “tragic expression of an unmet need.” It’s tragic because self-criticism makes us feel horrible and doesn’t effectively motivate productive change. (See my blog “The Motivational Power of Self-Compassion.”) But if we look closely — our inner critic cares. There is some safety need it is trying to meet. Our inner critic wants us to be happy, but doesn’t know a better way to go about it. Let’s say you criticize yourself for not going to the gym, calling yourself a “lazy slob.” At some level, your inner critic is reacting out of concern that if you don’t go to the gym you won’t be healthy, or that you’ll be rejected by others. We can be kind and compassionate to this part of ourselves, because at some level it has our best interests at heart. And believe it or not, by giving compassion to our inner critic, we are moving out of the threat defense system and into our other safety system.
As mammals, we also evolved the attachment/affiliation system as a survival strategy. Mammals have the innate capacity to be soothed by warmth and affection, meaning that our young are likely to stay near caregivers, be protected, and survive. The care-giving system deactivates the sympathetic nervous system (reducing cortisol) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down. This route to emotional safety is much more effective — reducing our stress and anxiety rather than exacerbating it. And it gives us the emotional balance needed to make wise decisions, including making behavioral changes if needed. (I write about self-compassion and the mammalian care-giving system in my blog “The Chemicals of Care.”)
So the next time you find yourself in the throws of harsh self-criticism, instead of beating yourself up for beating yourself up, thank your inner critic for its efforts, then try the strategy of giving yourself some compassion instead. It’s more effective, and a lot less painful!