How to Replace Self-Criticism with Self-Compassion

self criticism

Most women can find at least one flaw on which they become overwhelmingly focused, even at the expense of noticing their other beautiful features.

Picture the last time you looked in the mirror. Maybe you were getting ready for a big night out, analyzing each detail of your appearance, critiquing yourself for those elements of your body you wish were different.  What do you say to yourself when you look in the mirror?

Imagine the last time you failed at something. Perhaps you recently missed a deadline at work or school, forgot to do something important for your family, or fell short in your romantic relationship. What was your internal dialogue?

Consider a time when you were feeling depressed, anxious, angry, or alone. Maybe you have doubted yourself when trying something new, or perhaps you felt down during a time when you really had no “reason” to feel that way. What did your mind say to you?

In my personal experience, as well as my experience working with patients as a psychotherapist, the overwhelming tendency of individuals – especially women – is to bully ourselves when we see our imperfections. Looking in the mirror, most women can find at least one flaw on which they become overwhelmingly focused, even at the expense of noticing their other beautiful features.

After failure, we all too often call ourselves “stupid,” “inadequate,” and “unlovable,” until we really believe these things are true. Then, as we continue beating ourselves up for each of our shortcomings, we tend to go even further by judging ourselves for the “sin” of feeling anxious, afraid, depressed or lonely – normal human emotions! Ridiculous, right? Yet, we are all guilty of such self-depreciation.

Humor me for a minute – I challenge you to stop reading right now and really review each of the scenarios painted above. Perhaps there are even other situations in which you might remember judging yourself rather than extending compassion to yourself in your suffering.

Got a few scenarios in mind? Okay, read on.

I am going to ask you two really important questions about the things that you say to yourself.

  1. Would you say these things to a beloved friend?
  2. Would you remain friends with someone who spoke to you in that way?

I didn’t think so.

Self-Compassion: The Alternative

The power to rewrite your inner monologue is in your hands.

If self-judgment and self-bullying is what we tend to do – and what, according to research, can be detrimental to many aspects of our health and well-being – what is the alternative?

Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on the psychological concept of “self-compassion,” describes it as having three elements:

  1. Self-kindness: Taking an approach of warmth and understanding toward ourselves when faced with shortcomings or failures.
  2. Common humanity: Recognizing the fact that suffering and inadequacy is a part of the human condition, and that we are not the “only one.”
  3. Mindfulness: Working toward a mental state that allows us to be fully present, notice negative experiences and emotions, and accept them non-judgmentally. This is also an avoidance of the tendency to get “caught up” in negative thoughts and let our minds “run away” from the present moment as they swirl in negativity. Mindfulness is just being, noticing, and observing.

Self-compassion is not self-pity or self-indulgence. It is, put simply, an acceptance of your flaws and shortcomings while also working toward a healthier, happier, more successful self and a life focused on what you value most. Self-compassion should not take away your drive for self-improvement. Rather, it should give you the courage to improve in ways you never believed possible.

Becoming Self-Compassionate

Okay, so that was a long explanation of what self-compassion is, but how do we enact it? Like anything, becoming more self-compassionate takes practice. Dr. Neff recommends a few simple exercises for building skills in self-compassion. I have used these both with therapy clients and personally, and find them very helpful in beginning to develop self-compassion.

  1. How would you treat a friend?: Consider what you might say to a friend who is struggling. Now, say it to yourself.
  2. Take a self-compassion break: Find a quiet space to give yourself a break, both literally and figuratively. Acknowledge that you are suffering. Remind yourself that suffering is part of being human. Now, give yourself permission to be kind to yourself in this moment of suffering.
  3. Explore through writing: Write about some of your flaws – the ones that make you feel really inadequate. Now, write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving friend or relative. Bask in that compassion, girl!

Mindfulness exercises are another helpful element in building mental health and self-compassion (more on this in another post). Feel free to visit Dr. Neff’s website to try a few mindfulness exercises. You can also read more about the research behind self-compassion and find more detailed self-compassion exercises there.

I challenge you to observe the ways in which you are self-critical and enact one of Dr. Neff’s self-compassion exercises over the next week. Feel free to comment below with reflections on or reactions to this exercise! I will look forward to hearing about everyone’s experience.

Remember, this takes practice, so avoid meta-judgment – don’t judge yourself for continuing to be self-judging at times. Do your best, and be kind to yourself!


Stephanie is a Colorado native/Cincinnati transplant who has always had a passion for an active lifestyle and a holistic approach to wellness – body, mind, and spirit. Her passion for wellness led her to study clinical health psychology, in which she recently received her M.A. Along the way, Stephanie received a wide array of training in counseling, psychotherapy, and prevention of psychological disorders, making her our resident mental health guru. During the day, Stephanie works in behavioral medicine research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. After work, she enjoys teaching group fitness classes, participating in local volleyball leagues, experimenting with healthy and gluten-free recipes, spending time with family and friends, and managing her orange tabby cat, Nelson’s, growing internet following 🙂 .

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