The other day I found myself part-way through devouring a freshly baked cookie when a loud voice interrupted my revery. “Shannon Harvey,” it said. “Stop eating that cookie immediately.” The cookie was still warm, sweet, vanillary and delicious, so I ignored the voice. “Shannon,” it persisted, “you do not need the excess sugar and empty calories today. Don’t you have any self-control?” Defiantly, I munched forward, reasoning that the home-made cookie contained some worthy nutritional ingredients. “SHANNON! Do not kid yourself that there is anything healthy about eating a third cookie. You will make yourself sick and miserable.” Half-eaten, I abandoned the cookie.
The odd thing about this rather mean voice is that it did not come from a nutrition coach, tyrannical parent, or evil overlord. The voice came from within. It was my own inner critic and since I began my new film project which involves meditating every day for a year, I’ve come to know it well. In fact, my inner critic is always ready to point out my parenting missteps, my friendship failures and my journalistic inadequacies. It regularly says things that are so mean, I wouldn’t even say them to my worst enemy, let alone a loved one.
I would usually be hesitant to publicly confess to being so nasty inside my own head, but I recently discovered that I’m far from being the only person talking to myself in this way. Leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff from the University of Texas was in Sydney this week and when I took the opportunity to catch up with her, she explained that having a mean inner voice is actually totally normal. “In our research we find that the vast majority of people say similar things – that I’m more cruel to myself than I ever would be even to a stranger, let alone someone that I cared about.” Neff told me.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that self-criticism developed out of a need to stay in the good graces of our tribe in the wild Palaeolithic days in which living in social groups meant we had help with the hunting and food gathering, bringing up the kids, and fending off attackers. In those days, being self-critical made us nicer so that we wouldn’t get chucked out and be forced to face the sabre-toothed tigers on our own.
Even in a modern day context having a critical inner voice makes sense. Mine forces me to be a better mother, a better friend, and a better journalist. But, the problem is, left to its own devices, self-criticism can go too far. It can lead to cycles of unhelpful rumination. In my case this means fixating on the structure of a single sentence in a blog post, lying in bed late at night needlessly critiquing my career choices, and judging the mess in my house to be a reflection of my poor coping ability as a mother and wife.
At the extreme end, this harmful side of self-criticism has measurably destructive effects, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Indeed, far from being the essential source of motivation that many of us think our inner critic to be, it turns out self-criticism can prevent us from achieving our goals. For example, a study of over 2000 women who participated in a weight management program found that self-criticism was not inspiring or encouraging but was actually linked to negative feelings about weight. Indeed, the more self-critical, the more likely the women were to be overweight.
There is good news though. Emerging research demonstrates there is an effective way to motivate ourselves to be better people that doesn’t come with self-destructive side effects. It’s a simple practice that involves treating ourselves with the same kindness we extend to other people. It’s called self-compassion. It involves being caring and supportive toward ourselves when we suffer, even when our suffering stems from personal failures or perceived inadequacies.
According to a systematic review, high self-compassion is associated with reduced stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. An emerging body of research also shows that self-compassion doesn’t just allow people to cope with the stress of life, it enables people to thrive in the face of it. Self-compassion speeds emotional recovery after divorce, helps sick people cope with their illness, protects soldiers against post traumatic stress disorder, and boosts the wellbeing of stressed-out students. It also motivates people to eat better, exercise more, quit smoking, and take better care of themselves generally.
To be clear, when Neff is talking about self-compassion she’s not talking about self-indulgence (“Oh, go on... I deserve the cookie”) or self-pity (“My life is so terrible that I have to eat this cookie). She’s talking about recognising in ourselves that we are human, that we are flawed, and that we’re all in this together. In essence, having self-compassion is about treating ourselves as though we would treat our child or dear friend. “A parent who loves their child is not going to say ‘Yeah, do whatever you want.’ That’s not loving. A good parent has boundaries and rules, but it all comes from a place of care,” explained Neff.
Self-compassion is not something that comes naturally to me. It’s much much easier to feel kindly towards others than for myself. (And the research shows I’m not unusual.) It’s interesting that when I took Neff’s self-compassion test (available on her website), I scored an above average 4.2 out of 5 for my mindfulness measure but my overall self-compassion rating was moderate, which suggests that my current daily meditation practice alone won’t boost my self-compassion.
It’s going to take a lot to rewire my thinking to understand that I can still improve myself and succeed in life without beating myself up. But I’ve been assured that self-compassion is something I can learn. An eight week program that Neff and her colleague Christopher Germer developed has been shown to significantly increase self-compassion, mindfulness and wellbeing. Even brief self-compassion interventions may have lasting value and Neff put me on to a ton of free resources to get me started. I’ll now be adding a compassion component to my daily meditation practice and spend the next week writing in a daily self-compassion journal.
In the meantime, as I write these words, the last of the cookies in the batch are calling to me. As I consider whether or not to eat them later today, rather than relying on a voice of shame and self-loathing to encourage moderation, I’ll be trying out a different tone of voice – one that’s a little nicer, a little kinder, and little more understanding of what it is like to be a human.