At times we can be our own worst enemy. Whilst this can take any number of forms, one particular culprit is self-criticism. You know the sort of thing: you find yourself saying or thinking things like ‘I’m useless’, ‘What an idiot!’ ‘I’m no good at this’ or ‘I can’t do it.’ Although an appropriate dose of constructive self-criticism can motivate us, a higher dose puts us under stress and generally makes things worse as a result. We invariably come out with global self-critical remarks or thoughts like the ones above when we are under stress already. Piling on yet more stress prevents us from accessing our innate capacity to help and support ourselves in a positive and encouraging way.
Why is it that we have these self-critical thoughts? Well, it is totally unintentional on our part and, when you know how the brain works, completely understandable. Yet it is only because of research over the last decade or so that this understanding has become possible. These thoughts do not come from our conscious thinking, our rational brain. Instead they are rooted in the subconscious emotional brain. They stem from a sense of fear of some sort which generates anxiety and/or anger. Generally it has something to do with a subconscious fear of what other people will think of us if we get things wrong – a fear that we will be exposed and ostracised – and this all comes from a very basic human need to be accepted and to stay within the safety of our tribe. Ostracism to early humans meant being cast out from the tribe and vulnerable to wild animals. So, constructive self-criticism was a way of staying alive and safe way back in the days of sabre-toothed tigers and other very real physical dangers. It made perfect sense then.
Whilst our civilisation has moved on in many ways, our brains have not evolved to take our current environment into account, and therefore we still have stone-age emotional reactions even today. Some of us are more predisposed to this sense of fear than others for genetic reasons, and some of us because we have been (or have a sense that we ought to have been) privately or publicly criticised in the past for something we did or failed to do. So, our self-criticism in the modern day has become an unintended, subconscious ‘safety’ behaviour driven by an attempt to protect ourselves – we beat ourselves up before anyone else can, fulfilling the subconscious expectation of criticism. Ironically, this doesn’t help us; rather than protecting us, the criticism hurts us. It stops us from doing things which might otherwise give us a healthy sense of achievement and competence. If we actually did do something wrong, we would learn from it and accept any appropriate share of responsibility before letting it go. The good news is, whatever our genetic inheritance, past experience or expectations, we can learn to calm the fear response and use the mind to our advantage in a way which is helpful and supportive instead. Once the brain registers that the old response was a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed attempt to protect ourselves (subconsciously, this can happen sooner than one might imagine), that old response will weaken and dissipate.
How do we do this? Well, we need to train our brain to engage its two positive systems in order to calm the fear/anxiety/anger system and to refocus on what is helpful and positive. One is the relaxation system: when we stimulate a physical relaxation response, this calms the fear/anxiety/anger system in the emotional brain. Things like physical exercise and diaphragmatic breathing techniques (always making sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath) work really well. This way we can better access the conscious, thinking brain and gain a wider (and wiser) perspective.
The other positive system is what some call the ‘soothing’ or ‘compassionate’ mind system; it allows us to strengthen our approach to the task or situation at hand by engaging with it in a kind, encouraging way. Just as with strengthening the relaxation system, the best way to cultivate this compassionate part of us is through practice. One way to do this is to summon your ideal image of compassion: this could be someone you know, an animal (real or mythical) or simply a general sense of compassion – kindness, caring, thoughtfulness, strength, wisdom and resilience. Just consider that image for a while and amplify it in your mind. How would that ideal image respond? How would it help and support you? How might you help and support a friend in the same situation? Just step into the shoes of that image, perhaps with a full or even a half smile (even a fake smile activates the positive circuitry of the brain), and feel its strength and support. What would it say to you? What else would it do?
After this exercise, you can more easily consider how best to respond, instead of allowing your subconscious to resort to its old well-intentioned response. This way, you can tap into your inner resources, cultivate them in an encouraging environment and see things in a fair, supportive and positive light.