Self-criticism

How self-criticism affects your mental health

It's common sense that being overly harsh or self-critical in your thinking will have a negative impact on your mood, confidence and overall wellbeing. But I think it's important to understand exactly why this is the case. Because of the miracle of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, we now have an intimate knowledge of how the brain operates under stress. We can see which parts of the brain 'light up' when we are feeling stressed or attacked – this is known as the 'threat system', a powerful self-protective network in the brain that detects and responds to any kind of danger or threat.

When you engage in self-critical thinking, calling yourself an idiot, or saying you are stupid or useless – especially if your internal dialogue has an harsh or hostile tone – MRI scans show the same threat system lights up in your brain as if someone else was shouting at or scolding you. It's no surprise that this kind of thinking is closely linked with depression, problems with anger and anxiety, as well as a lack of confidence or low self-esteem.

When you speak to yourself harshly, it's as if there is a bully in your head judging everything you say or do and putting you down at every turn. Not helpful. If you do tend to engage in self-critical thinking, try the following exercise to start being kinder to yourself:

The best friend test

When you make a mistake, have a setback or feel like you have failed at something important to you, you might find yourself slipping into a well-worn groove of negative, self-critical thinking: 'I am such a loser – why do I always screw things up?', or 'God, that was pathetic, I really am a failure.'

Unsurprisingly, these words will hurt and you will find your mood dipping and confidence ebbing away.

Instead, try to start noticing when you talk to yourself like that and take a step back. Imagine your best friend had just made the same mistake, had a setback or failed at something they valued. What would you say to them? Would you be harsh, mocking or critical? Probably not. I'm guessing you would try to be supportive, encouraging and help them see that it wasn't the end of the world.

You might say things like, 'Don't worry, it seems bad right now but you will feel better about it soon,' or 'Everybody makes mistakes sometimes – that doesn't make you stupid or a bad person, just human.'

Now try and start talking to yourself in the same way. If you notice that self-critical thinking kicking in, use the Best Friend Test to be a bit more kind and compassionate to yourself. Over time, it will help you feel calmer, stronger and more at peace. After all, life is hard enough, so why make it harder by being unkind to yourself?

If you would like to book a session, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

How to combat your inner critic

Many of us are self-critical, on a spectrum ranging from mild at one end to severe at the other. If we are mildly- self-critical, we might rebuke ourselves if something goes wrong, but not be too upset about it. If that criticism is harsh, we might be extremely sharp, even angry with ourselves – jumping on every mistake we make, however small, and beating ourselves up severely. Most, if not all, of my clients criticise themselves in this way.

One of the many things I love about schema therapy is that it's extremely effective at combatting this inner critic. We even have a name for this 'mode', or side of you – the Punitive Parent. This may simply be the internalised voice of one of your parents, especially if they were consistently harsh or judgemental with you when you were growing up.

Or it may be a way you learned to speak to yourself, perhaps if you felt unloved or flawed as a child, so assumed there must be something wrong with you that needed constant correction. For example, if you have a Defectiveness schema, you may have a frequent nagging sense that you're not good enough or a failure in some way. You might think that other people judge you harshly for these (supposed) defects, so you should judge yourself harshly too – either to make sure you don't repeat a mistake, or to try and pre-empt saying or doing things you will later regret and feel bad about. 

Battling the Punitive Parent

When I see people beating themselves up in this way, it always makes me sad. Nobody deserves to feel this bad about themselves – and, in schema therapy terms, the part of you that feels bad is your Vulnerable Child, who feels attacked and victimised by the Punitive Parent's constant belittling and criticism. There is a famous quote attributed to the Buddha. These are not exactly his words (most of the Buddha's 'quotes' we see on Facebook or floating around the Web are modern interpretations of what he actually said) but they carry the gist of what he wrote – and I love the sentiment behind them:

You, as much as anyone in the universe, deserve your love and respect.
— Buddha

You are worthy of love, kindness, respect. Whatever your flaws, real or imagined. However many things you have done in your life that you regret, or wish had turned out differently. That scared, vulnerable child inside you craves love and affection, not shaming and harsh rebukes. And all of the research shows that talking to yourself in that way is one of the things that makes you vulnerable to depression, chronic stress, problems with anxiety and anger. So it's very important that you learn to battle the Punitive Parent, to get it to shut up and leave you alone.

For many people, this is a central component of our work in schema therapy. You can also explore other avenues to defeat that critical voice, such as compassion-focused therapy (like schema therapy, a proven approach to increasing self-compassion, wellbeing and contentment), learning mindfulness meditation, or exploring Buddhism, which for 2,500 years has been helping people be kinder and more compassionate to themselves. See my Resources page to find out more about these and other routes to better mental health.

And if you would like my help with becoming less self-critical, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Loving-kindness meditation - part two

I recently posted about Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, giving you the first two steps of directing loving-kindness to yourself, then a friend – you can find the full meditation below. Just to recap, in Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice traditionally encompasses five stages, so allow five minutes for each stage. Here is a step-by-step guide to the practice:

1. This practice will take 25 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. In part three, we direct metta towards a neutral person. This can be someone you see regularly but have never spoken to, maybe in the supermarket or your favourite coffee shop. See this person's face in your mind's eye, then repeat 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.'

7. Part four entails directing metta towards a difficult person in our lives. At first, it's best to choose someone you are having a little difficulty with, not your worst enemy. Unsurprisingly, this is generally the hardest stage, but remember that when you fill your mind with negative, angry, hostile thoughts, or fill your body with emotions like resentment or hatred, you are the one who is suffering, not them. And the Buddha taught that all beings deserve our compassion, not just the ones we like!

Repeat 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering,' perhaps visualising golden light flowing from your heart to the difficult person. If you struggle, place your hand over your heart to generate warmth in this region, then try again. If you feel numb or angry, that's fine, just accept these feelings and continue repeating the phrases, as having a positive intention is the most important thing.

8. Finally, we direct metta to all life. You may want to start by imagining yourself your friend, the neutral and difficult persons, sending metta to each in turn. ('May we be well. May we be happy. May we be free from suffering.') Then expand that circle to include all of your friends, family, community, residents of your city, country, continent... expanding the flow of metta until you cover the whole globe. Then include insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles... ('May all life be well. May all life be happy. May all life be free from suffering.')

6. After 25 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Try loving-kindness meditation

Three of the core Buddhist meditation practices are the body scan, mindfulness of breathing and Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. In Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, or non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice is traditionally in five stages, so here are the first two – I will go through the full practice in a later post:

1. This practice will take 10 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. After 10 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

Living a compassionate life

Compassion is one of those words, like kindness, that some people seem to feel uncomfortable with. When I suggest that a self-critical client could be more compassionate to themselves, they often say, 'But how would I motivate myself?' Or 'How could I stop my standards from slipping?' This idea, that being harshly self-critical is the best form of motivation, often baffles me. Think of it this way: if your child was struggling with maths at school, would you want their teacher to shout at them and tell them they were stupid and pathetic? Or would you want a teacher who was encouraging, helped them understand what they were doing wrong and kindly taught them, step by step, how to improve their work?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? So why do we think that being harsh and unkind to ourselves, using names like 'idiot', 'stupid' and 'loser', will do anything but drain our self-confidence and make us feel stressed, anxious and unhappy. We also know from MRI scans of the brain that our brains cannot distinguish between external attack – from a bully, say – and internal attack, when we are punishing and angry in our thoughts and self-perceptions.

There is also an idea that kindness and compassion are fluffy, wishy-washy concepts – fine as ideas but of no use when dealing with the harsh realities we often face in daily life. Not so. When learning about compassion, I have been deeply struck by the teachings of Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and his French interpreter, Matthieu Ricard. In his wonderful book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Ricard describes the often harrowing stories of Tibetans who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Chinese military – China has occupied Tibet since 1950, killing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

But the Tibetans, who have been tortured or seen their loved ones murdered, are neither bitter nor full of hatred for their tormentors. Instead, their deep resources of compassion allow them to retain their sanity and equilibrium. The Buddha teaches us that hatred is a poison for the mind; it causes as much suffering for the hater as the object of his or her hate. When I read these stories I am humbled, because of people who have suffered so much can forgive their invaders, I can certainly forgive the petty annoyances and difficulties people cause me.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is not just for the easy people in our lives – those we love and care about. Compassion is for everyone, whether we like them or not; those who help us and those who do us wrong; the easy and the difficult, likeable and dislikable. As he says, 'Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer'.

So, try to be a little more compassionate in your life – both to those you come into contact with and yourself. Compassion really is like a healing balm to a troubled mind.

If you would like to learn more about being kinder and more compassionate to yourself, and would like to arrange a session, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Compassion for all - including you

The Buddha taught that we should have compassion for all living beings: every bird, animal, fish, insect... and human on this planet. This is not easy. Leaving aside the thorny question of what we are supposed to eat if we take this idea to its logical extreme, let's focus on people, because that's complicated enough. For example, it's easy to feel compassion for those we love or like. We can forgive those closest to us pretty much anything, because we have such a strong bond with them.

Our friends, parents, siblings, children, spouse – if we are lucky enough to have good relationships with these people, feeling compassion for them is not hard. But what about that colleague you don't get on with at work – the one who talks about you behind your back? Or the guy who just cut you up in traffic, nearly causing a nasty accident?

Taking it one step further, how about politicians like Donald Trump who promote violence and racism? Should we really feel compassion for him? And harder still, how about a murderous dictator like Stalin or Hitler – surely they are the last people on earth we should feel compassion for.

As someone who is passionate about Buddhist psychology's depth, richness and practical wisdom, I have long struggled with this idea. But as far as I understand it, the Buddha would say that we should feel compassion for everyone, even those we find abhorrent, because the alternative is to fill our minds with hatred, anger and hostility, which he called poisons of the mind.

If I spend my days hating Trump, who suffers? Not him, for sure. I can fundamentally disagree with his odious behaviour without succumbing to hatred – instead, I can wish for him to change, to become a less hate-filled and harmful person, because that will reduce the suffering he causes in the world.

And I can't believe that anyone who is so full of anger and hatred is truly happy; so I can have compassion for their unhappiness without approving of the person in any way.

Compassion for yourself

If this all seems hard to grasp, surely it's easier to think about feeling compassion for yourself? Sadly, in my experience of helping people with all sorts of psychological problems, this is neither simple nor easy. Time and time again I am saddened by the harshly critical way in which people talk to themselves in their minds.

They call themselves names like 'idiot' or 'failure', say they are 'pathetic' or 'crazy' or worse. And this, of course, creates suffering – research shows that harsh self-criticism is linked with depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, anger-management problems, and more.

So a key focus with all of my clients is encouraging them to be kinder to themselves. Mindfulness meditation really helps with this, as do a wide range of cognitive and schema therapy techniques. But you can start today, simply by catching yourself using harsh words when you speak or think about yourself. Ask the simple question, 'Would I talk to my best friend like this?' If the answer is no (and it almost always is), try speaking to yourself a little more kindly. It could make a huge difference to the way you feel day to day.

And if you would like to learn more about compassion, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan