An autistic friend recently stated, “You know, I think I have been very hard on myself.” It made me reflect on how hard I used to be on myself. I still am at times, but I have a lot more self-compassion than I used to.
It also made me realize that it will probably benefit a lot of autistic people for me to share what I have learned about the power of self-compassion, because I think many of us are much harder on ourselves than we need to be. If you are non-autistic, you may equally benefit from this post, however.
To understand the power of self-compassion, we must first look at self-criticism. Self-criticism is a negative personality trait in which a person has a disrupted self-identity. We will probably write a more comprehensive post on self-identity and autism in the future, but for the sake of this post, it’s only important that self-identity—the collection of beliefs one has about themselves—influences self-esteem. First, let me define some of the terms I will be using.
- Self-identity is a cognitive or descriptive component of one’s self. For example, “I am good at lateral thinking.” It is a recognition of your qualities as an individual, especially in relation to social context.
- Self-esteem is the evaluative and opinionated (i.e. judgmental) component of one’s self. For example, “I feel good about my lateral thinking ability.” It is how you feel about your qualities.
- Self-criticism, then, would be something like, “I keep failing at this lateral thinking exercise. I need to try harder. I’m inadequate.” So while self-critical thoughts might seem to act as a drive to try harder (i.e. a motivator), it is judging yourself as “not good enough”, which over time brings you down, and which can lead to depression.
In fact, people with depression are typically more self-critical than people without depression, and even after depressive episodes they will continue to display self-critical personalities,Personality dimensions and depression: review and commentary so there seems to be an interplay between self-criticism and depression. Based on personal experience, that certainly seems to be true.
Research also shows that self-criticism as a personality trait is associated with differences in:Conceptualizing and Measuring Self-Criticism as Both a Personality Trait and a Personality State
- Perceived support — The perception that one is loved and esteemed by others becomes disturbed.Perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life eventsSocial support: Conceptualization, measurement, and implications for mental health As the perception of being cared for can in itself promote health,Social support as a moderator of life stress a negative perception of support can thus contribute to a decline in health.
- Negative affect — The tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, fear, disgust, and nervousness. Negative affect is commonly associated with withdrawal and poor self-identity.Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales
- Self-image goals — When people have self-image goals, they want to construct, maintain, and defend desired public and private images of the self to obtain social goods from others.Compassionate and Self-Image Goals Scale The lack of self-image goals, thus, can lead to (self-)ostracization. Self-criticism can thus contribute to undermining inclusion into relationships, organizations, groups, and advancement within them.Motivational and Emotional Aspects of the Self
- Overt self-criticism — Outwardly expressing self-criticism. This is a maladaptive strategy that may initially elicit support, but will ultimately undermine your (self-)identity, and will lead to depressive symptoms.
So this should already give you a sense of how damaging self-criticism can be. Before we dive deeper into the concept of self-criticism, let’s have a look at perfectionism, and how it can fuel your self-criticism.
I have been extremely self-critical for about two decades, and I still have moments where I am entirely too hard on myself. You see, I grew up regarding myself as a perfectionist. At primary school, I took no satisfaction with any grades below a 9 (out of 10, obviously), and even then I would be hard on myself for having made any mistakes on a test at all. Even at the art academy when I was in my 20s, in the first year I received a 9.5 for a project for typography class (typography is one of my special interests), after which I went to the teacher to inquire about what I could have done better.* Of course, asking about what could be improved is constructive and positive, but my concern in hindsight is that I felt it’s never good enough if it’s not perfect, either by my own standards or others’. The latter is perhaps even more worrying, as it’s a perpetual struggle for perfection with a need for external validation.
The teacher, Britt Möricke, explained to me that the project was practically a 10, but she found that giving students a 10 tends to deflate their motivation, and some of those early high achievers actually wound up quitting. Whereas if you give a 9.5 (or less), students tend to stay motivated and keep challenging themselves. That made a lot of sense to me. Perhaps not immediately relevant to this article, but maybe this insight can offer you something. Perhaps take it as a warning, because if the pattern Britt observed can be generalized, it suggests that high-achievers—among which undoubtedly a lot of perfectionists—often burn out.
Perfectionism, by the way, is another negative personality trait, characterized by a strive for flawlessness and setting high-performance standards, which is accompanied by critical self-evaluations, and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. It is a recipe for disruption of self-identity, really. I believe it even plays a crucial role in what drives narcissism and the development thereof.
It is shockingly easy to mistake perfectionism and self-criticism for positive traits. I mean, when I spend more effort getting the details of whatever project I work on just right and achieve far better results than I otherwise would have, how is that not desirable? My father would often state, “You spend 20 extra hours on getting maybe one point higher for your school project, but is it really worth all that effort, when you had something great without spending all those extra hours? There is so much else you could have done in that time.” These kind of statements never made an impact on me, and admittedly I am still having trouble appreciating the sentiment. I pride myself on striving for perfection, still. But I have to admit:
- The perfection I often achieved was in such minutiae, that my work often went unnoticed or underappreciated.
- My strive for perfectionism was always accompanied by a level of anxiety to get things right.
- If results were below my standards or expectations, I would be extremely critical of myself.
- My strive for perfection often got me into trouble with organizing and executive dysfunction (I suppose in part because I was too focused on the details and hence lost oversight), which at times seriously undermined the results.
Through self-criticism I (felt I) pushed myself harder, which can easily be mistaken for a proper drive, instilling motivation. But in fact, it does exactly the opposite. I start a project with passion and enthusiasm—driven perhaps predominantly by curiosity—but each time I exercise self-criticism, I take a hit on my self-esteem, as well as on my motivation to bring the project to completion. In the short term, self-criticism may drive one to push harder, but in the long term it produces depressive symptoms, and it’s not at all sustainable. In fact, it can eat away at the ego, and it can easily lead to burnout. More on that in an upcoming post.
Self-criticism, perfectionism & depression
Self-criticism undermines the self, while perfectionism raises the standards by which you can self-criticize. The greater one’s perfectionism, the greater the potential for self-criticism. The greater the amount of self-criticism, the more the self is undermined, the greater you will struggle. With the greater struggle there is more potential for self-criticism, and the vicious cycle repeats, all the while sustaining depression.
But to really highlight the toxicity of perfectionism and self-criticism, let’s briefly look at some research.
A study from 2004 indicated that covert self-criticism (i.e. criticizing oneself without the knowledge of others) and perfectionism result in voicing those self-criticisms when dealing with other people;Covert and overt expressions of self-criticism and perfectionism and their relation to depression either in an effort to elicit support, or to ward off potential criticism from others.Interpersonal consequences of overt self-criticism: A comparison with neutral and self-enhancing presentations of self
The study also indicated that self-critical perfectionism and overt self-criticism (i.e. criticizing oneself out loud in the presence of others) both independently predict depression. In other words, if you are hard on yourself in your strive for perfection, or outwardly self-critical—or worse, both—it isn’t going to improve your general mood, and will likely contribute to depressive symptoms.Covert and overt expressions of self-criticism and perfectionism and their relation to depression
If you are in fact self-critical, here is a sentiment or insight that might shock you: you are an asshole. I mean it!
I see autistic people that are the kindest souls on the planet, who rather crawl in a hole than inadvertently hurt another human being, but who—contrary to who they truly are—treat themselves with so much self-criticism that it is hard not to see their behavior towards themselves as downright cruel. And what rather shocked me is the thought that, if I were to treat other people the way I have treated myself, I would rightfully be considered an asshole. Why would you treat yourself that way?
You probably treat yourself that way because you have internalized how others have treated you. Your inner voice is shaped in part by the things others have said to you; and perhaps to a lesser degree—but still significantly—by what you have heard people close to you say to others. Our social climate thus has a profound effect on how we judge ourselves. In particular, how your parents have treated you will reflect—at least in part, but potentially pervasively—how you judge yourself.
What is somewhat eerie when you realize it is that for those who have endured trauma and abuse, their inner voices will echo everything their abuser(s) uttered to them. As such, long after you have distanced yourself from said abuser—and even long after said abuser’s death—their abuse continues through yourself. You might even consider it self-abuse.
It will take time to change your inner voice, but first, you have to realize that this inner voice does not reflect reality at large; it is not representative of how others perceive you. Not only is this inner voice subjective, but while it may sound like you, it’s not even your own voice; it’s an accumulation of all the criticism you have endured by others. Now I think it is easier to acknowledge that perfectionism and self-criticism are actually insidious. It is basically continuous criticism from childhood authorities and other people you looked up to, with your inner voice as the mouthpiece. Your inner voice has thus become an amalgamation of the very voices that haunt you. Why would you even think that is helpful?
Don’t beat yourself up about thinking that it does, though. It took me a long time to realize this, even after my psychotherapist excessively tried to make me understand that my self-criticism is not motivating nor constructive, but instead slowly eats away at my self-identity.
So while self-criticism can seem like a motivating force, it actually brings you down. Instead, it is self-compassion that works as a motivator. Instead of telling yourself what you’ve accomplished isn’t good enough—or worse, that you are not good enough—you have to acknowledge that you make mistakes, as does everyone else; that things will not always turn out perfect, nor do they for others; and if you are a perfectionist, what you accomplish may not be much according to your own standards and expectations, but it’s probably quite fantastic.
I think to a self-critical person, self-compassion may seem like lying to yourself; telling yourself that you are great when (feel) you have serious shortcomings. Or maybe you think that showing self-compassion will undermine your motivation, discipline, or standards. Or you might think that being too self-compassionate, you will become self-indulgent. But that is not what research shows, nor is it what self-compassion is about.
So what is self-compassion? Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical. That is admittedly quite broad, and one sentence alone hardly does the concept justice. To better understand what self-compassion is all about, let’s look at its three components. The flyer below should offer a fair starting point.
Mindfulness is an attribute of consciousness that promoted well-being by being aware of—or bringing attention to—the present moment, and your experience of it. It is a receptive mind state in which you observe and attend to the changing field of thoughts, feelings, and sensations from moment to momentMindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition—as they are, without judgment, and without trying to suppress, deny, or otherwise escape them.The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being Regulating your focus of attention in this manner will lead to a feeling of alertness to what is occurring in the here-and-now.Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition According to a paper from 2006 by Scott R. Bishop et al., mindfulness has two components:Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition
- Self-regulation of attention — A focus on your immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.
- Open orientation — Adopting a particular orientation toward your experiences in the present moment. This orientation is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
In a mindful state, negative emotions are not suppressed, nor exaggerated. So while it is important to acknowledge your emotions and thoughts, one must not over-identify with them, as this results in adverse reactions,Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition including dysregulation and rumination, which is focusing on the symptoms of your distress and its possible causes and consequences, rather than looking for—or being able to look for—solutions. Research from 2007 indicates that rumination on sadness is associated with more symptoms of depression and anxiety, and partially mediates the relationship between neuroticism, symptoms of depression, and symptoms of anxiety. Effects of neuroticism on depression and anxiety: Rumination as a possible mediator So over-identifying emotions and rumination are two main antagonists of mindfulness, and clearly not conducive to your well-being.
According to American professor of psychology Susan Nolen-Hoeksema (1959–2013), rumination consists of (longer) chains of repetitive, recyclic, negative and self-focused thinking that may occur as a response to initial negative thoughts.Depressive Rumination: Nature, Theory and Treatment In the post below, Natalie explains why the autistic brain is prone to repetitive, cyclical thoughts because information does not move easily between brain hemispheres, and, in combination with local hyperconnectivity of the autistic brain, causes information to loop.
So instead of suppressing or exaggerating emotions, you would stay with the emotions, understand them, and process them. The opposite of being mindful is being on autopilot, and I would argue that is more or less what happens when we are dysregulated. By being mindful of your internal processes and emotions, you can address them more readily. The effects will not be immediate, but the more you pay attention to your internal processes, the more you will promote self-awareness and self-control.
It is important to abstain from judgment during this process; or, if self-judgment does come up, to become aware of it, and analyze why you judge yourself in that moment. You might ask yourself who you hear in the words you use to judge yourself. This way, you can analyze your triggers and the feelings that come up, and in time, become better at dealing with them.
Research from 2011 indicates/confirms mindfulness brings about various positive psychological effects, including:Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies
- Increased subjective well-being — You feel better, and thus report a great sense of well-being.
- Reduced psychological symptoms and distress — You feel bad less often, and/or less intensely.
- Reduced emotional reactivity — You are not as quick to respond and are less agitated.
- Improved behavioral regulation — You resist using unhealthy behaviors to regulate emotions.
Mindfulness is a big concept to unpack. As is meditation, which has mindfulness as one of its key practices (together with contemplation and visualization). If you are interested in a post specifically on mindfulness and proven methods to get to a mindful state and become more mindful generally, let us know in the comments!
Self-kindness entails being caring and understanding to yourself when encountering distress, pain, or personal shortcomings; rather than being harshly self-critical or judgmental. Showing self-kindness instead of self-criticism and stoicism offers soothing and comfort to the self, which is a good basis for self-growth. Without providing a nurturing environment to yourself, you cannot expect yourself to thrive.
Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience. In other words, all humans are imperfect, and everyone fails and makes mistakes. Making mistakes is an intrinsic property of the human experience. It is not through failures and mistakes that you show your character, but in how you deal with them and overcome them.
Common humanity relates one’s own flawed condition to the shared human condition. As a result, you can take a greater perspective on personal shortcomings and difficulties.The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself This is highly conducive to self-growth, as you come to a greater understanding of your own abilities and shortcomings and how they relate to others. Focusing on our common humanity taught me humility.
Note however, that this relational understanding and a greater sense of perspective should not be used as a way to criticize oneself based on perceptions of “not being good enough”. It’s better to just celebrate the diversity in abilities and challenges—both among autistic people and among people in general. This also highlights the importance of not just focusing on either of the three components of self-compassion, but to properly combine all three.
Benefits of self-compassion
People who are self-compassionate do not berate themselves when they fail, which promotes a nurturing internal environment in which you are more able to:The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself
- Admit mistakes and gain understanding.
- Modify unproductive behaviors.
- Take on new challenges.
Research from 2005 that looked at self-compassion in classroom settings found that self-compassion was positively associated with mastery goals in pursuit of learning, and negatively associated with performance goals.Self-compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure In other words, self-compassionate people are motivated to learn and grow, and they do so for intrinsic reasons—not because they want to garner social approval.The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself
Furthermore, research from 2009 indicates that self-compassion promotes more noncontingent, stable feelings over time, and offers protection against social comparison, public self-consciousness, self-rumination, anger, and closed-mindedness. And unlike self-esteem, self-compassion was found to have no association with narcissism.Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: two different ways of relating to oneself
In other words, you better focus on trying to improve your self-compassion than your self-esteem.
Light or dark side
Tying all this together, I think associate professor and self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, defines the three components of self-compassion rather succinctly:The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-CompassionThe Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself
- Mindfulness versus overidentification.
- Self–kindness versus self-judgment.
- A sense of common humanity versus isolation.
So a couple of questions you should ask yourself are, “How do I want to treat myself?” and “What is actually most conducive to my well-being and potential?” Or perhaps more pertinently, which one of the proverbial Two Wolves do you want to feed and grow stronger?
Self-compassion at play
Lastly, let me offer you an example from my own life where self-compassion played a crucial role.
Months ago Natalie and I had a fight about something, and we both had a meltdown. Not being able to handle the dysregulation, I would go outside to have a walk. It was dark outside, as it was probably around 11 pm. I like walking at night, as the darkness prevents me from getting visually overstimulated, and of course, it’s quiet.
Self-kindness: At first, my thoughts were driven by anger (e.g.“How could she do this?”) and self-pity (e.g. “This is so unfair! Why do I deserve this?”)—and being dysregulated, my thoughts were admittedly a bit dramatic, and kept on looping. But beating myself up about the part I took in creating the situation wasn’t very helpful. Being self-critical only seems to sustain negative loops, and increase neuroticism. The walk will probably do me good.
Mindfulness: The more I walked, the more I started to focus on my footsteps, my breathing, and my emotions. I became aware of the fact that my thoughts were fueled by anger. Why am I so angry? And what’s with the self-pity? Does this actually promote understanding, or is this exactly what keeps me in this loop, and what keeps me from connecting with Natalie?
Common humanity: I would construct thought experiments as it were, and replay things that happened earlier during the conflict, but as if I was Natalie and she was me. I thought about the context in which the conflict took place, and the situation which gave rise to it. We both ate very late, so that undermines our moods, as well as our control over our emotions. We would be quicker to get agitated, and more expressive of that agitation. What Natalie had to endure with my agitation couldn’t have been easy either; it must have caused a lot of anxiety, the same way her behavior did for me. I started to understand what roles we both played, and that ultimately it is our dynamic which is at issue, rather than either myself or Natalie.
Being mindful promoted greater awareness, which made it possible for me to process some of my emotions, reduce my distress, and come to a state of mind where I could take responsibility for my actions, apologize, talk about things calmly, and invite Natalie to enter the same state of mind. This way, the conflict we had could be resolved, and through mutual understanding, we both managed to grow as individuals and as partners.
Conflict and distress will come up. It’s how you deal with it and what you take away from it that ultimately matters most.