Does Self-Criticism help us learn?

We have two armchairs in our living room. They have been around for 25 years. We also host two weekly Nonviolent Communication classes and a monthly workshop in our living room. People come in clean or not so clean and sit on these chairs.

I am a big fan of cleanliness and talk with my husband about washing the cushion covers. We agree to run an experiment and machine wash one set carefully in cold water on delicate setting.

With some excitement, I undress the covers of the chair cushions. I put them in the washing machine and take them out an hour later. As soon as I see them, I feel anxious. Like very anxious.

I know my husband really likes these chairs and he has taken good care of them for more years than he has known me. Except for some wear and tear, they were in excellent shape.

Were.

Now with my washing, the covers are shrunken and shredded. With all my might I barely succeed in pulling the covers back over the cushions. They are seven inches short.

I sit down deflated. With lots, lots, lots of self-critical thoughts. “You stupid, stupid, stupid idiot! IDIOT! What a complete moron you are for not checking the settings on the washing machine!” I feel pained and upset, and angry with myself.

Finally I decide to get up and walk mindfully for three minutes. Then another 20 minutes around the block. The physical movement helps me shift my self-criticism to self-compassion.

A friend asked if I think self-criticism is essential for growth and learning. I don’t believe it is. After reading and listening to people I respect (Thich Nhat Hanh, Marshall Rosenberg, Rick Hanson, Kristin Neff, Martin Seligman) I’ve come to the conclusion that criticism is not only not needed for learning, it is likely detrimental.

Criticism targets who we are, not what we do. Criticism conveys something is fundamentally wrong with us, as if we are unworthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. As social animals, these needs are essential to our survival. When we hear criticism of who we are, we fear that our emotional, social, and physical safety is in jeopardy. Our reptilian brain is activated and we react with fight, flight, or freeze. We lose access to the part of our brain that helps us find creative, collaborative solutions to the problems we face.

That’s not to say that we can’t regret and mourn what we did. When we approach our regret with self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, we can redirect our energy to thinking what we could do differently in the future. When we acknowledge our flaws, we can try to make amends, learn from the experience, and restore connection. We see that making mistakes (even irreversible ones) is part of our shared humanity. Humans are fallible and that doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of love and belonging.

With self-compassion, we don’t have to hide our mistakes to protect our emotional, social, and physical safety. We can more clearly see the needs that we tried to meet, even when our actions failed. We can think of better ways to meet our needs while caring for the needs of others.

Rather than shame and expulsion, we are empowered to ask for support and learn.

How do you nurture self-compassion? Let me know, I would love to read from you.

Self-compassion and cockroaches

Cockroaches and Self-Compassion

My husband and I cherish our vegan household. We don’t eat animal products, we don’t buy leather shoes, we don’t spread poison to kill bugs.

As a result, we have our occasional cockroach visitor.

Since we don’t want to kill or harm them, we try to catch them and transition them to the compost pile in the backyard, hoping that’s nirvana to them.

It’s not easy. Cockroaches are fast, and have a magic ability to disappear between cracks I didn’t even know existed.

So when we spot them, we have to stealthily get a glass bowl from the drawer, put it over them, shove a piece of firm paper underneath the bowl, and run carefully to the compost pile.

My success rate is around 60%.

I am pleased with that, until a friend tells me it’s not difficult at all: you just pick them up and throw them outside.

Well, I don’t know which countries he has visited. Maybe Tibetan cockroaches have more equanimity and are happy to be picked up, but our Texan friends are fast, really fast.

Irritated at hearing his claim, I prove my point by acting out my catching strategy on the living room floor.

Ouch…

Exaggerating the speed in my demonstration, I land badly on my thumb. I can hear it pop. It’s extremely painful. I feel the blood drain from my head and I can barely get up. Still feeling the original irritation, I pretend as if nothing happened, waving him goodbye.

When he’s gone, I hear a roar of critical thoughts swell in my head: “You stupid idiot, you are unable to regulate your irritation! You made a fool of yourself by being caught up in your own self-righteousness! You deserve a sprained thumb!”

It takes a few hours, before these elements of self-compassion surface:

  1. Awareness. Just noticing my pain and suffering around these critical thoughts and my thumb. “Ouch, that hurts, that really hurts.” We cannot foster self-compassion, if we don’t acknowledge we’re suffering.
  2. Befriending myself, being on my own side. Just wanting myself to feel better, caring about my needs. Something like “I wished I didn’t suffer.”
  3. Shared humanity. I start thinking of all the other people who hurt themselves while trying to impress others. I breathe in their pain, heaviness, and suffering. I breathe out love, light, and relief to them. “May all beings be happy, peaceful, and light in body and spirit.” Myself included.

Working with these elements of self-compassion, I feel better. I see myself for who I truly am: an ordinary human being, whose behavior is sometimes a tragic expression of unmet needs. I don’t need to judge myself for that. I need to reaffirm that I am still unconditionally worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.

How could these elements of self-compassion help you to accept your mistakes and learn from them?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.

Judgments, criticism, and blame are tragic expressions of unmet needs

Unfortunately, we usually hear them as a message of wrongness of us, of who we are in our core being. We take the message personally and defend or doubt ourselves, or we withdraw within.

It is often easier to hear criticism, blame, and judgment from a stranger, from someone who is not that close to us. As soon as the message comes from someone who matters to us and the issue is tied to our sense of self-worth, we struggle.

How’s that?

Empathy with a partner, dear friend, or sibling when they express blame, judgment, or criticism is harder, because they are more important than a stranger. Their opinion of us matters more than the opinion of someone we don’t care about. We spend so much time with them, that they become our main strategy to meet our needs for love, acceptance, belonging: essential needs for our human existence.

David Schnarch talks about differentiation as “your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others-especially as they become increasingly important to you.” Differentiation would be very helpful to hear hard-to-hear messages more easily. Unfortunately, differentiation is not something that’s being taught at school.

Image courtesy flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/8043877054Now what?

I offer two tips that can help you reach enough differentiation to hear hard-to-hear messages without too much upset.

Localize the criticism

Translate the negative message about you as a person into an event that is localized in time and place. Transform an evaluation of you as a person, into feedback about something you did. It is about, for example, the fact that you left without saying goodbye yesterday afternoon, instead of being judged as a cold and uncaring person. When you help your loved one distinguish between you and your behavior, it is easier to empathize with what they are trying to say.

Guess feelings and needs

We experience our shared humanity at the level of feelings and needs. We all know what it is like to feel sad, lonely, angry, disappointed, scared, ashamed, embarrassed. We all have needs for acceptance, love, support, understanding, safety, reassurance, connection, belonging, play, autonomy. When we move beyond the details of the story into the depth of feelings and needs, we develop a sense of understanding. We might even ask questions to better understand the other one: “Tell me what saying goodbye means to you?” “What rituals did your family have around saying goodbye?” “In an ideal situation, what would saying goodbye look like?”

Go practice!

I am pretty sure that these two tips help you to hear your spouse, child, co-worker share their hard-to-hear-message with more acceptance, compassion, and understanding.


You want help to listen with empathy to hard-to-hear messages? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free, discovery session to see how I can help.