Self Defense for Destructive Thoughts
For most of us, we are our own toughest critics. We often say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dare say to our worst enemies!
“What’s wrong with you?” “You could’ve done better!” “You’re a failure!” “If you don’t ______ then you will never _______.”
Sound familiar? This kind of thinking is not only destructive, but we often do it without even realizing it.
So, why are we so hard on ourselves? Research shows that we believe that self-criticism will help us to be more successful... but we couldn’t
be more wrong!
Destructive thoughts do the exact opposite. They make us feel crumby and WAY more stressed out than we were in the first place. AND, self-destructive thoughts activate the fight, flight or freeze response!
When we perceive that we are in a difficult situation (or we feel like we let ourselves down), the FIGHT-FLIGHT- or FREEZE response is activated in our brains.
This releases adrenaline and cortisol, and communicates to our brains (and bodies) that we are in danger.
Often, this is when our brain trips into autopilot: We “fight back”, but we often do this through self-destructive thoughts (eg. this is your fault, you deserved this, you will never lose that weight, you have ruined all of your progress etc, etc…). Instead of creating comfort, these types of thoughts end up making us feel more stressed out and even more emotionally activated!
The ironic thing about this common way of thinking is that it makes us both the attacked AND the attacker! But, how can we defend ourselves from these destructive thinking patterns? 2 words: Self-compassion.
Having compassion for oneself is very similar to having compassion for others.
I want you to stop for a moment, and imagine someone that you love dearly. This might be a friend, a family member, a partner? Now think about a time when that person was facing a difficult situation. Perhaps they lost a job, failed at something, or were having difficulty accepting something about themselves?
Seeing this person in pain was likely difficult for you. It may have moved you emotionally, and made you want to help that person in some way. So tell me, at this challenging time did you turn to your loved one and berate them, or, did you offer them understanding and kindness (aka compassion)? Hopefully, it was the latter.
Imagine if we treated ourselves with this same level of empathy, care, and comfort at difficult times? Well, guess what? We don’t have to just imagine! We can do this by cultivating self-compassion.
Self-compassion is based on 3 elements:
Self-kindness: treating ourselves with kindness versus harsh self-judgment or criticism.
Common humanity: reflecting on the ways that, as humans, we are similar versus the ways that we are different. We all experience suffering and feel vulnerable at times… these are normal parts of being alive.
Mindfulness: observing our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations as they are in the present moment without judgment. In order to truly give ourselves compassion we have to be able to acknowledge our negative thoughts and difficult emotions.
Self-Compassion in Action
Often we get so down on ourselves for the things we haven’t done, but in doing so we completely miss out on all of the brilliant things that we are doing. Success is NOT all-or-nothing… we must celebrate the small steps along the journey.
But here's the catch: before we can show compassion for ourselves we need to be aware that we are experiencing a moment of suffering. Developing this awareness (aka mindfulness) of our present experience takes practice, but we all have certain red flags that communicate our pain. For some of us, we may notice a strong sensation in our body. For others, we may be aware of a strong emotion. Or, we may catch ourselves speaking critically of ourselves or others. Next time you become aware that you are feeling badly about yourself, or that you are going through a moment of suffering, I want you to SLOW DOWN and ask yourself:
What am I noticing in my emotional experience right now? What thoughts/beliefs are tied to this feeling? Allow these feelings to be present... you might do this by placing a hand on your heart, and breathing with the pain. Or, you might imagine yourself saying the word "welcome" to this feeling.
What would I say to a good friend right now if they were going through the exact same circumstances?
What would I do for him or her?
How would I feel about them for feeling this way? Would I have understanding, patience and empathy for them?
Now respond to yourself in this same way. Observe your experience of doing this. Did it feel odd? Did it resonate? Did you notice any shifts in your bodily sensations (i.e. tightness or relaxation)?
If you are feeling stuck in a strong emotion, you can also try this meditation developed by Dr. Kristen Neff, one of the pioneers in Self Compassion. It takes 15 minutes, and will support you to soften and soothe those challenging feelings.
Remember, the range of emotions that flow through us are all part of the human experience, and they provide a window into ourselves and the journey that we are on. Honour those emotions and name them! Acknowledge that they are there, and choose to co-exist with them, because when we can truly accept our sorrows, then we can fully experience our joys and greatness!
*DISCLAIMER: Learning and implementing self-compassion takes time and patience so try be kind to yourself in the process.