Unlearn self-criticism and find self-love with Dr David Hamilton
If there was an Olympic sport in self-criticism, I think many of us ordinary people would be contesting the medals. The thing is, we’re not born giving ourselves a hard time. If it had mastery of language, no baby at the moment of birth would say, “I’m so disappointed in myself. I should have made a much better entrance than that.” Love is natural. Self-criticism is not.
Speak self-love language
Self-criticism is just a habit that we learn – from parents, siblings, friends, teachers, society itself. In time, it becomes ingrained and by adulthood, we’re speaking harsh words about ourselves to ourselves. But this is a habit that can be unlearned.
Switch brain paths
In the brain, learning is the laying down of new pathways, a bit like making a path through a wheat field. The more we criticise ourselves, the more defined the path becomes, to such an extent that walking that path becomes automatic. It’s just what we do. Self-criticism seems natural. But what if we stop walking that path?
Like a wheat field, it begins to overgrow – but we can build new paths instead. We can learn to practise self-care in how we think of ourselves, and in how we speak to ourselves about ourselves. We then create a new path through the field, and the old one overgrows until it is no longer visible. This is how learning and unlearning works in the brain. With a bit of perseverance, as we create paths of self-care, the paths of self-criticism all but disappear.
Listen to your inner Buddha
We have three aspects of ourselves. When you’re being self-critical, there’s the part that is doing the criticising (the critic), the part that feels hurt by the criticism (the wounded), and then there’s your wisest, most compassionate self, which I call your ‘inner Buddha’. In the throes of self-criticism, we don’t even realise it’s there.
For this exercise, take three different coloured pens, one for each of these aspects. The goal of the exercise is to let each aspect have its say but to allow your inner Buddha to have the last word.
You can do the exercise at a time when you’ve just been harsh, judgmental or critical of yourself, or at a quieter time when you recall the way you’ve recently been towards yourself. The power of the exercise is that it can train you to listen to the voice of your wisest, most compassionate self instead of your critical self.
Now try something new
Find your inner Buddha’s voice
For the next two weeks, use your phone to keep notes or keep a notebook with you at all times, and follow these steps.
1 Start with the critic. Take the colour pen that you have decided will represent the critic and write down what the critic is saying. Use the actual language that your critic uses – the exercise is only for yourself so no one needs to see it.
2 Now give the wounded a chance to respond. Swap the pen and let the wounded say what it needs to say. For example, it might say that it feels hurt by the way the critic speaks, that it’s doing its best and that life is sometimes hard.
3 Allow the critic to respond if it wants to, remembering to swap to its own colour pen. Then the wounded might respond again. Let this dialogue go on for as long as it needs to.
4 When you feel the time is right, swap the pens and allow your inner Buddha to speak. Let it address both the critic and the wounded with words of compassion, gentleness, patience, kindness and love.
It may, for example, address the critic and say, “I understand why you are being this way. It’s because you care deeply, and you know that [your name] has such potential.” And it may address the wounded with something like, “I understand how you feel. It can be so hard when you’re only trying your best while having to deal with life. But you’re doing really great. I love you and I’m always here.”
5 Allow a three-way dialogue to unfold for as long as it needs, allowing the inner Buddha to always speak with wisdom, understanding, and compassion. When the conversation ends, make sure your inner Buddha has the final say.
Dr David Hamilton is a Scottish author with a PhD in organic chemistry, who tours the UK giving speeches on the mind-body connection. Go to drdavidhamilton.com