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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

I’m A Failure!

During my career in Academia, I have noticed an unhealthy trend among students. It’s not drinking or the latest designer drug, but it can be more harmful than both. The trend is the obsessively self-critical thinking that happens when students do something that doesn’t go “right”. They fall into the judgmental trap of thinking they are a failure or something is wrong with them.

We, as a society, are taught from an early age that being hard on ourselves is the only way to make things better... or make us better. We are taught that being self-critical is the driving factor for success.

There is a side effect to this kind of thinking. As students find out that they are not the best in class, or that the projects they created don’t receive the applause they think they deserve, many immediately turn to an obsessive, self-critical way of thinking. They bash themselves and judge themselves negatively. As a result, students become more stressed out, feel insecure, become depressed, and question their own self-worth. If not addressed early on, this kind of thinking can make the college experience a miserable time for any student.

There is a way to fix this kind of thinking, but few talk about it. One of the greatest keys to being successful in life and eliminating obsessive self-criticism is having Mindful Self-Compassion. Yep, that’s right. Compassion for your “self.”

Wait, what? Self-compassion? I know, it sounds somewhat odd to say out loud, but rarely do we consider showing ourselves kindness. We often show friends more caring and compassion than we show ourself. We’ve been trained to be self-critical and self-judgmental. Self-compassion goes against the natural order... or so many think. Some even think that if we are self-compassionate, we are being lazy and complacent.

But research has found that self-criticism only sabotages us and produces a variety of negative consequences. According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., Associate Professor in human development at the University of Texas at Austin, self-criticism can lead to lowered self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Mindful self-compassion, on the other hand, can lead to greater understanding and peace of mind... and yes, personal and professional success.

So what is “Mindful Self-Compassion”? Actually, it’s quite simple. It can be broken down into three parts.

1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is about slowing your mind down to become aware of what you are thinking or doing in the present moment. It involves turning off your autopilot response and noticing what is going on, meaning that you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings without attaching any judgment to them.

Being mindful creates a distance between your thoughts or experiences and your reaction to them. It’s almost like observing your thoughts in the third person. You become aware of your thoughts and just notice what’s going on... you don’t sweep them under the rug and you don’t need to obsess about them either. You become aware, make a nonjudgmental note about the thought, (i.e. “There’s Mr. Negative again”.), tell yourself you’re okay, let the thought go, and return to the present moment.

Being mindful of self-critical thoughts will help you to be more objective about any emotions that may try to hitch a ride.

2. Self-kindness: Accept that it is okay to be kind, gentle and understanding with yourself when you’re suffering.

It’s easy to be loving and kind to our friends. It’s time you do the same for yourself. If you mess up on a test, don’t beat yourself up. Think about why you did badly, then plan on studying more next time or find a tutor. People don’t think your project or assignment is the best? So what. You are learning, and making mistakes is part of that process. Take the criticism as tips on how to do better next time. Accept that you aren’t going to be perfect... no one is. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who is “perfect”... and those who think they are fall into the “ego-maniac” category. That’s not where you want to be.

3. Common humanity: Recognize that you are not alone in the self-criticism struggle. We are all struggling. We often think we’re the only ones to make mistakes, feel rejected or fail. Guess what? We all have these experiences; it’s part of being human. We tend not to discuss our struggles, but if you share your experience with others, I bet you’ll find that they have felt the same way at some point. You are not alone. Talking about it may help to negate the power of negative self-talk and criticism.

I know... it’s easier said than done. When you are stuck in a self-criticism rut, try the following mindful self-compassion exercise:

▪ Sit somewhere quiet and pay attention to your breath going in and out of your nose or mouth. Notice how your breath feels as it enters and exits. Stay focused on this for a couple of minutes and then repeat to yourself, “May I be kind to myself, may I know that I am a good person, may I be at peace, may I know that all is well.” Do this for two or more minutes when you feel the negative thoughts creeping in.

This exercise will slow down your thoughts, help train your mind to let go of negative self-talk, and accept that you are okay. For more exercises on gaining mindful self-compassion for yourself, check out the meditations here:

A couple notes for the nay-sayers:

1. Self-compassion is not self-pitying. Self-pity is being obsessed and immersed in your own problems and forgetting that others struggle, too. Self-compassion is much different. Being self-compassionate is seeing things as they are —while not giving critical self-talk power. Self-compassion focuses on alleviating suffering while self-pity leaves you rolling in self-loathing.

2. Self-criticism is not an effective motivator. Challenging yourself, recognizing weaknesses and growing from them are productive. However, there’s actually nothing productive or motivating about criticizing yourself. When you criticize yourself you are creating fear of failure and you may wind up losing faith in yourself. Even if you do achieve great things, you’re often miserable because you live in a world of self-loathing and criticism. That doesn’t sound like a very happy world.

I wish you the best. Be kind to yourself!

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