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The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

By Kristin Neff
  • Read in 16 minutes
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff

Self-Compassion (2011) is an urgent call for us to be more kind to ourselves. Based on empirical psychological research, it looks at the causes and effects of the vicious self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy that plague many of our minds. It then shows us a healthier, more compassionate way to relate to ourselves.

Key idea 1 of 10

Our tendency to be self-critical and to feel inadequate often stems from childhood.

Got a personal problem? Trace it back to your childhood and blame it on your parents. In the popular imagination, that’s one of the most cliched ideas of psychology. Of course, it’s also an oversimplification, both of our problems and of what psychology has to say about them. But when we’re dealing with self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy, there’s actually an element of truth to it.

The key message here is: Our tendency to be self-critical and to feel inadequate often stems from childhood.

Psychological research shows that we’re much more likely to be critical of ourselves as adults if our parents were critical of us as children. That makes sense, if you stop and think about it. After all, as we’re growing up, we depend on our parents to guide us through life’s challenges, help us to understand the world around us, and make us feel safe and loved. As a result, we’re naturally inclined to trust their judgment and seek their approval.

Now, combine that tendency with a highly critical parent, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. To see why, imagine you’re a child, and your parents criticize your every little action – from the way you eat your food at dinner to the way you dress yourself for school. And let’s say they also lace their criticism with disparaging remarks about you. They call you “stupid” for doing something wrong, like crossing the street without checking for traffic.

After a while, the constant little criticisms and put-downs will add up to a more general indictment of you as a person: “I’m not okay the way I am. I need to be better. And unless I’m perfect, I won’t be worthy of love.” 

That sort of thinking can make your parents’ criticism carry a very heavy blow to you as a child. Naturally, you’ll want to avoid it as best you can. And that may lead you to start anticipating your parents’ criticism. To avoid it, you preemptively criticize yourself before they have a chance to do it for you. That way, you can modify your behavior and avoid their disapproval ahead of time.

At this point, you’ve internalized your parents’ criticism. Their judgmental words and voices have become a part of your mind’s internal commentary. If you, say, drop a glass of water, you might call yourself an “idiot” and criticize yourself for your clumsiness. 

The end result? A deeply ingrained habit of self-criticism and sense of inadequacy that can continue well into adulthood.

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