“Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
~ LOUISE L. HAY
A key aspect of my work involves helping people create and sustain positive changes in their lives. Imagine my consternation when I found myself stuck for years concerning an action I really wanted to take in my own life: writing and sharing my writing consistently. Deploying every tool I had at my disposal, I couldn’t get myself to write regularly.
In this post, I want to share how self-compassion helped me experience a breakthrough and start writing with more freedom and joy. There might be something that you could use if you are also struggling with a life change you really want to make.
Writing and My Inner Critics
When I was a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I loved writing and would spend hours in a corner of my room huddled with my notebook and a pen, scribbling away stories, poems, and thoughts about life. For the longest time, I never really showed my writing to anyone. It was just something I loved doing because it helped me make sense of the world and the people around me. Above all, it helped me get in touch with who I was and what I cared about.
As I grew older, I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to start sharing my writing with others. I began with a couple of close friends and then started a personal blog in 2010. I kept at it for a while until writing became a struggle. While a part of me really wanted to write and publish consistently, I couldn’t sustain a writing habit for long.
I wrote when I had an external deadline or commitment to meet. But other than that, I mostly just tortured myself with thoughts like, “What is wrong with you? You say you love writing and yet you haven’t written anything meaningful in a long time! Why can’t you be more disciplined?”
I also asked myself, “What if I am a terrible writer? What if people dislike my writing? I have nothing original to say. Why waste anyone’s time?”
As you can imagine, I wasn’t very fond of these nasty voices in my head. I wanted them to leave me alone so that I could write. But these voices were strong, relentless, and ever-present. I often found myself doing anything else but write.
In 2022, for numerous reasons, I started working with a spiritual teacher. At some point, I brought up how much writing meant to me and how I was struggling to write. I told him about my fears and my inner critics, and how I wanted to get rid of them. He smiled and asked me whether I was open to trying a different approach. He asked me whether I could let go of my judgments about my inner voices and actually listen to what they had to saywith curiosity and compassion.
At first, this seemed like the opposite of what I wanted to do. But I was desperate to let the writer in me free. What did I have to lose, anyway? I decided to go with my teacher’s recommendation. A few months ago, instead of being frustrated with myself for not being able to write, I turned a compassionate ear towards the parts of me that seemed to hold me back. Instead of berating my inner critics and wishing they would go away, I sat down with them to understand, genuinely understand, why they were making it so hard for me to write.
What Did I Learn about My Inner Voices?
What I learned took me by surprise but also made a lot of sense.
The parts that I formerly thought of as my “inner critics” told me that while they held me back with thoughts about something being wrong with me, or me not being a good enough writer, or me not having enough discipline, there was something deeper going on. The actual reason was that these parts didn’t trust my ability to handle effectively the criticism as well as the praise that might come my way if I started writing more often.
Experience had taught these parts that writing and sharing my work with others lead to deeply unpleasant emotional upheavals in my life. While praise sends my heart soaring, criticism (or worse, silence!) makes me feel dejected. These ups and downs wreak havoc on my system, and it takes me a while to recover. Having gone through this cycle enough times, these parts of me felt that they needed to stop me from writing for my own good. They didn’t want me to repeatedly go through the turmoil that seemed like an inevitable part of my life as a writer.
In other words, these parts were trying to protect me, to keep me safe.
Using What Self-Compassion Taught Me
If I truly wanted to write (which I did, I do, I can’t not write!), I needed to learn how to detach myself from the feedback I receive on my writing, negative AND positive. I couldn’t afford to keep letting external factors beyond my control prevent me from writing.
This was a powerful insight. The moment I fully embraced the idea of letting go of my attachment to how my writing was received, these parts settled down and I started writing again. In the past few months, I have written a lot more, revived my newsletter, and found myself full of ideas and energy.
More than anything else, writing has become joyful again, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have learned what was going on without practicing self-compassion
Does this mean I no longer care about what people say about my writing? Not yet. However, I know that that’s what I am working towards. That’s the price I need to pay to be a writer, a price I am more than willing to pay.
How do I become more and more detached from the outcomes of my writing? By practicing even more self-compassion. When I receive critical feedback on my writing, as I inevitably will, what I will need is the ability to say to myself, “I know this hurts. Many people feel this way when receiving criticism. You are brave and will grow from this experience. I love you.”
That is what I need in order to keep going in the face of challenges: Not self-flagellation. Self-compassion.
Over to you
What is the equivalent of my writing challenge in your life? What is something you really want to do or change but find yourself unable to? What have you been saying to yourself when you fail? If you’ve beaten yourself up for a long time and it hasn’t worked, maybe it’s time to try something different. Maybe pushing yourself harder is not the solution. Maybe what you need is to stop fighting yourself and turn inward with curiosity and compassion. Maybe there’s a part of you that knows something you aren’t yet fully aware of. Maybe being compassionate towards this part and taking it along rather than overpowering it is the path towards changing what you want to change.
How do you do this? Here’s the two-step process I have found helpful:
- Understand what is going on.: Master Coach Cynthia Loy Darst explains that we experience inner conflict because there are parts of us that have different priorities. In order to resolve inner conflicts (e.g. wanting to write but not taking action) we need to understand what the different parts involved are trying to do for us. Darst recommends identifying the key players in a given conflict as a first step. In the example of my writing, a part of me wanted me to stay hidden and safe. Another part, though, knew writing to be an essential aspect of who I am and kept pushing me to write. I connected with these parts through my work with my spiritual teacher and writing in my journal. This process led me to realize what was going on.
You can choose to journal or to try and talk to the conflicting parts or work with someone skilled in this type of work.The key is to be curious and open to learning something you may not yet know. Building this awareness is an important first step for you to be able to move forward.
- Practice self-compassion. Once you recognize the essence of your inner conflict, it may be tempting to just ignore the voice that doesn’t seem helpful. But I can guarantee that if I had tried to push aside the part of me that wanted me to be safe, I would still feel stuck with my writing. When I set my judgments aside, listened to my inner critics and genuinely appreciated what they were trying to do for me, things began to shift. Being in compassionate connection with all of myself has become an ongoing practice for me. A part of me still feels afraid of what will happen when I put my writing out there. But instead of letting that fear prevent me from writing, I now use it as an opportunity to practice self-compassion. I use what researcher Kristin Neff calls a “self-compassion break” which has three parts:
- Mindfulness: “I know this feels scary.”
- Common Humanity: “Everyone feels afraid from time to time.”
- Self-kindness: “I love you. It is going to be okay.”
After struggling for years, I finally feel free as a writer. I hope my experience inspires you to consider a different pathway for behavior change and helps you create the life changes you’ve been longing for.
Darst, Cynthia Loy (2018). Meet Your Inside Team: How to Turn Internal Conflict into Clarity and Move Forward with Your Life. Team Darst.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.
Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Sounds True.
Neff, K. D. (2021). Fierce self-compassion: How women can harness kindness to to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. Harper Wave.
Neff, K. D. (no date). Self-compassion break guided meditation. 5-minute audio file.
Notebook pages Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash
Writing in a journal Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash
Writing by hand photo by Unseen Studio on Unsplash
Angry face photo by OSPAN ALI on Unsplash
Heated Discussion Photo by Headway on Unsplash