When I first read this post on Tara Parker-Pope’s “Well” blog (NYT), my reaction was, “Well, duh. Of course it’s healthier to treat oneself with compassion.” But as I read more carefully, and reflected on my own life, I found myself feeling a lot less smug. And one line in particular hit home.

People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

A few years back, when I was in the middle of a self-critical rant about something I viewed as a professional failure, a friend said to me, “You’re not this hard on anyone else, you know. When you look at yourself in the mirror, look with soft eyes.” She stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen so clearly the difference between how I treated myself and how I treated the people I love. Later that evening, I planted myself in front of the bedroom mirror and practiced looking at myself with the soft eyes with which I looked at my nieces and nephews, my parents, my partner, my friends. I started to weep, and it was tough not to look away. But I stuck it out for an interminable ten minutes. The next day I lasted for fifteen. Day after day, I eked out a little more time. Something had shifted for me, and I wanted more.

As Parker-Pope writes, for many women, the areas of weight, exercise, and body image are the obvious places where the Inner Critic plies its trade. They’re not, however, its only haunts. Think of how many times you’ve criticized yourself, silently or aloud, for something that you didn’t do as skillfully as you would have liked. (I’m guessing the possibilities are endless: How well you parallel parked. Forgetting to send a birthday card in time. Something you said to a friend that had an unintended result.) Now imagine if the person who was under the critical lens was a beloved child, parent, or friend. Whole different kettle of fish, isn’t it?

Writ large,  self-criticism can mutate into something that I think of as “Impostor Syndrome.” It attacked me with a vengeance when I was completing my coaching training, and it went something like this, “Who’s going to hire you to help them get their life in shape when you’re such a mess yourself?” There were a lot of variations on that theme — and I had to face them over and over again. I will not tell you here that I have vanquished my inner critic; it still puts in not-infrequent appearances.  Some days it feels like very hard work to treat myself kindly  – especially those days when I’m not as present as I want to be, because for me, presence is the ally of compassion. But when I notice that I’m feeling ungenerous toward myself, I try to give myself a mulligan and resolve to do things more skillfully the next time around.

If you’re prone to self-criticism, here’s a practice to try. When you notice that your Inner Critic is trying to send you a message, find a mirror and  look at yourself with soft eyes. Play with what it’s like to turn the Golden Rule inside out. Love yourself as you love others.

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