Charlie Huenemannis professor of philosophy at Utah State University. He is the author of several books and essays on the history of philosophy, as well as some fun stuff, such as How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft (2014).
It might seem daunting to read philosophy. Giants of thinking with names like Hegel, Plato, Marx, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard loom over us with imperious glares, asking if we are sure we are worthy. We might worry that we won’t understand anything they are telling us; even if we do think we understand, we still might worry that we’ll get it wrong somehow.
So, if we’re going to read philosophy, we need to begin by knocking those giants down to size. Every one of them tripped and burped and doodled. Some of them were real jerks. Here’s Arthur Schopenhauer on his fellow German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for instance: ‘a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.’ I’m not sure whether this paints Schopenhauer or Hegel as the bigger jerk.
The point is that each giant of philosophy was a human being trying to figure out life by doing just what you do: reading, thinking, observing, writing. Don’t let their big words intimidate you; we can insist that they make sense to us – or, at least, intrigue us – or are left behind in the discount book bin. They must prove their worth to us.
But what might that worth be? That is, why read philosophy in the first place? The chief goal is, simply, the improvement of your own soul. No one should read philosophy just to sound smart, or intimidate others, or have impressive books on the shelf. One should read philosophy because one wants a better mind, a better spirit, and a better life. (Or, at least, one wants a better understanding of why none of these things are possible, or why none of them matter; philosophy leaves no possibility unexplored.) The hope is that these so-called giants are offering us some guidance or companionship in this regard.
The most stirring reason for reading philosophy was given by Bertrand Russell at the end of his short book, The Problems of Philosophy (1912):
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
Reading philosophy gives us richer perspectives, casts us into deep wonder, and helps us grapple with the biggest questions a human can ask. It is a heady call to action – and one that can only be met by diving in to the works themselves. So: how does one read philosophy?
Think it through
Reconsider your expectations of philosophy
To this day, there are bookstores with sections titled ‘Philosophy’ that include titles like The Seven Secrets to a Happier Life, or Get Your Sh*t Together, or Living With Your Heart Wide Open. These are self-help books, and some of them may actually prove helpful in giving you a better perspective to overcome or live with the obstacles in your path. Maybe you should make your bed every morning, or take a cooking class, or see each person as another authentic self. That’s wonderful. Everybody needs a helpful nudge from time to time, and probably every self-help book has helped someone somewhere.
But as helpful as self-help books are, they are not philosophy. Philosophy typically raises less personal questions, such as whether time is real, or whether humans can exempt themselves from laws of nature, or if a person is just what their brain does, or whether we have moral obligations to strangers. And philosophy does not merely want to know the answers, but also why they are the best answers, and why the other answers are wrong.
Yes, wrong. Philosophy is not afraid to say it.
At a very general level, self-help books help you with the problems you shouldn’t have; philosophy helps you with the problems you should have. (There is some overlap, of course: some philosophy books can actually help you overcome problems you shouldn’t consider as problems, and some self-help books draw attention to things in life you should regard as problems.) But more generally, philosophical problems are the ones that unavoidably come along with being conscious. If you can think, you have problems: this is why there is philosophy.
Heidegger said of Aristotle that the only biographical facts he needed to know were that he was a human being who was born, who worked, and who died. All the other features of a life are accidental. One shouldn’t expect from a book of philosophy any counsel or advice that wouldn’t apply equally well to any human being who has lived.
But how does one get started? What books are good to begin with? Philosophy isn’t like mathematics, where people generally agree that you need to start at one place and take a sequence of steps that steadily build upon one another. It’s more like a hallway with many conversations underway. A beginner might find a general introduction useful, just to get a map of the hallway, so to speak. Some specific recommendations can be found in the Links and Books section below, but perhaps the most important point to bear in mind is that there’s no single or best way to begin. Start anywhere, and follow your interest wherever it goes.
Philosophy requires active, adversarial reading
Dogs must think that we slip into comas when we are reading books because we hardly move at all. Only our eyes move as we scan left to right and back again, occasionally flicking a page or scrolling ever downward, frozen in place while words pour into us and form themselves into something like ideas. Indeed, we typically gauge good writing as the kind that requires the least degree of movement on our part. If what we read causes us to frown, or go back a page, or scrunch up our eyebrows and gaze distractedly at the ceiling, then that stuff is bad writing.
By such a measure, philosophy is often very bad writing indeed because it demands exactly this kind of activity. It’s hard to turn the words in a philosophy book into ideas. You have to keep track of unusual terms, careful distinctions, and pivotal examples and general principles. If you are doing it right, you are using a pen, pencil, stylus or quill to mark important or puzzling passages, to underline important claims, and to carve ‘???’ or ‘?!’ next to the confounding things philosophers are wont to say. (Far from a coma, your dog should think you’re in a fight with your book.)
Philosophy books should be approached multiple times. You might first read through the work relatively quickly, so that you have a cloudy idea of what is being said. Then you should read it again, with attention to detail: this is when you should mark up the book, or take notes, so that you can understand more clearly what is being said and why. For some books, you may either feel done or lose interest at this point. For others, you will want to repeat this process: read quickly again, read slowly again, repeat.
It has been said that there are ultimately two replies to any philosophical claim: ‘Oh yeah?’ and ‘So what?!’ He was right. These are the two questions that you should have at the ready whenever you are reading a philosophical text. You should be thinking of counterexamples to the general claims that are made, or other possible explanations, or asking whether the philosopher is handling similar cases consistently. You should also be asking whether those claims have any important consequences and whether your life should change at all if you were to agree. Insist that the philosopher make a compelling case for your attention.
This means taking an adversarial approach to philosophical texts. You want to be the tough-minded, sceptical judge before whom some hapless attorney is making an argument in a controversial case. But it is also true that this tough-minded approach must be blended with some degree of interpretive charity. In all likelihood, the philosopher you are reading is not an idiot; so if your reading of the text implies that the philosopher is making idiotic claims, then the problem could be with your reading. Interpret the arguments and the claims in the most favourable light. If problems remain nonetheless, then you can get judgy.
Notice how different this is from many other types of reading. It would be perverse to read a novel while scribbling ‘Oh yeah?’ and ‘So what?!’ in the margins. Many nonfiction books aim to inform you about history or science or politics or whatever, and they are not trying to convince you of something so much as give you the basic idea of what’s true. Of course, there may be times when you will want to ask: ‘Oh yeah?’ in response to dubious claims in these books. But philosophy books must be read with these questions in mind, because you simply won’t understand them unless you take this active, adversarial attitude. You can’t get strong by watching others at the gym. You have to do some lifting yourself.
Besides, active reading will help you to retain more of what you read. Unworked books are soon forgotten.
Philosophy is dialogue
Some philosophical books really are dialogues of characters conversing with one another. They read like plays, though if your local high school puts on a production of Plato’s Theaetetus – a lengthy dialogue about knowledge and judgment – I’d recommend staying home. Other books are straightforward treatises covering some topic in exhaustive monologue. But all philosophical works, even the monologues, are dialectical. They are conversations between someone making a claim and someone raising objections to that claim, or pressing questions to deeper levels. Indeed, philosophical books can become very complicated conversations, because not only are there multiple voices present in the author’s text, but now you have joined the conversation as well, conversing with those voices and your own voices. You and a book are now having a party.
Many philosophy books record the results of philosophers talking to themselves. The French philosopher René Descartes in his Meditations (1641), for example, argues with himself ceaselessly, paragraph after paragraph:
I will attempt to achieve, little by little, a more intimate knowledge of myself … Do I not therefore also know what is required for my being certain about anything? … Yet I previously accepted as wholly certain and evident many things which I afterwards realised were doubtful … But what about when I was considering something very simple?
Descartes is giving himself the ‘Oh yeah?’ treatment. In a way, it is a rhetorical ploy, since he is trying to make it seem as if anyone who is clear-minded and honest with themselves will drift inexorably into the charmed circle of Cartesian metaphysics. But never mind that; it is still a brilliant work of dialectical reflection. The reader is supposed to be carried along in this dialogue, thinking of the same objections that Descartes gives expression to and then tries to answer. But a clever reader such as yourself will probably ask some questions Descartes doesn’t raise, or you will come up with alternative answers he didn’t think of. So you have a part in the dialogue too. Take notes to keep track of it all.
This dialogue is essential to philosophy. Maybe it is essential to all thinking. We raise ideas, ask questions or pose problems, revise or extend those ideas, face new challenges, propose new ideas, and we keep batting questions and answers back and forth in the tennis court of the mind until we can’t think of anything new to say. But philosophy lives in this energetic back-and-forth, picking up on missed possibilities or raising new questions or going back to insert some distinctions before reaching disastrous conclusions. That’s the philosophical method: keep the conversation going, changing, evolving.
Philosophy, as I would define it, is grappling with ideas at the borders of intelligibility. As soon as the questions become fully intelligible and tractable, then a new discipline emerges, like physics or biology or psychology. But while we are still wrestling back and forth over what seems to be true and what seems impossible in matters we cannot see in high resolution, we are doing philosophy. There really is no way to proceed except in a dialectical, back-and-forth manner.
In reading philosophy, you want to be sure to take up the dialogue. To that end, you should keep a journal to explain to yourself what you think is being said in the book, what you think about it, what you’d like to ask the author, and what you would like to tell them (even if it’s impolite). As you make your thoughts explicit on the page, you will learn more about what you yourself think. Sometimes we don’t know what we think until we hear (or read) ourselves saying it. Taking notes in a philosophical dialogue is a way of learning new things about your own mind and your own experience. When you return to that blasted book for a third or fourth time, you will be armed with new questions and perspectives to bring into the conversation. It will be a new reading of it.
It has been said that you are never done reading a great book because each time you read it you become a different person. That may be an exaggeration, but there’s something to it. It is also sometimes said that as you read a great book, it reads you. That is to say, you may begin to understand your own life anew through the concepts the book has suggested to you. This is the inevitable result of any genuine dialogue. That’s when philosophy is at its best.
Philosophy is about you
Philosophy is not specifically about your problems at work, as in the self-help genre, or how to manage the contacts in your phone, or whether to drop all social media – though all those things might be illuminated by philosophy. It is about your life as a human being.
Imagine being sucked into a time vortex and ending up next to some person from ages ago. Once you work out a common language, could you become their friend? Could you share with them your worries, your hopes, your ideas, your faith? Of course you could. But your conversation would have to be between human and human, not between post-industrial educated technocrat and caveman. You could be friends based only on your shared humanity. Indeed, it might be the best friendship you ever had, because there wouldn’t be all that trivial crap standing in the way of a genuine conversation.
Many of the self-help books referenced earlier focus on the importance of finding out who you really are, as opposed to all the ways others have defined you. One might do this by gazing inward or trying out a new lifestyle. Philosophy urges a different approach. We can find out who we are by engaging others in conversation about who we might be. Plato, Aristotle and Avicenna all have ideas about this; so do G E M Anscombe,Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche; and so do Nagarjuna, Lao Tzu and Kwasi Wiredu. In the end, if we are to be anybody, we will be adopting some sort of definition coming from somewhere. Philosophy offers the opportunity of exploring multiple definitions and trying to find yourself among them – this is the shared activity of all philosophical reading.
Make use of secondary sources
The fact of the matter is that we live in an excellent time to be introduced to philosophy. YouTube abounds in explanations of philosophers and their ideas, and, though every video should be met with some measure of scepticism, many serve the broad purpose of getting us into the proverbial ballpark. Philosophy Tube, for example, offers witty and provocative explorations of philosophical questions. Many podcasts are also useful orientations: The Partially Examined Life, Very Bad Wizards, Philosophy Bites (co-run by the Aeon+Psyche editor Nigel Warburton) and Peter Adamson’s brave and brilliant History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps – and many others – all provide casual entryways into philosophy. Let us not be book snobs: Plato himself thought that real philosophy takes place only in live conversation, and a written text is at best only an imitation of the real thing. (And yes, he wrote that down in a text.)
There is also a wide world of secondary sources at your disposal to help tease out the intricacies of great philosophical texts: don’t hesitate to use them. One nice thing about a discipline as old as philosophy is that textbooks don’t exactly go out of date, and sometimes some old introductory textbook from 1970 can provide a nice overview of a tangled set of questions. As you read more and more, you might discover the shortcomings of older secondary materials, but you should count that as a win: you are developing your own philosophical perspective.
Finally, one should also never underestimate the value of friends as secondary sources (or even primary sources). If you form a reading group and talk about the great books you come across, you will learn how to interpret, object, argue and change your mind – all essential tools of any philosopher (as well as any human being).
Key points – How to read philosophy
Reconsider your expectations of philosophy. There is a certain mindset that helps when approaching philosophy – prepare to confront questions without answers, and problems without solutions.
Philosophy requires active, adversarial reading. To get the most out of reading philosophy, keep a pencil in hand, mark up your book, and challenge the author every chance you get.
Philosophy is dialogue: the back and forth, cut and thrust of ideas is what makes it exciting. When you read, pay attention to the dialogues that make philosophy. And be sure to take part as well.
Philosophy is about you. Philosophical conversation (with the book, or a friend) will always tell you more about yourself – who you are and what you think about the world. Philosophy is, in many ways, a process of self-discovery.
Make use of secondary sources. This is a great time to begin philosophising because there is a wealth of sources out there that make the greats accessible.
Why it matters
I am sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you are mortal. Before your end, though, you should eat right, exercise regularly, make friends, and be helpful to strangers. You might also take some time to wonder what it means to exist, what reality really is, whether there’s a god, and whether you have any purpose in living a human life. Answers are not guaranteed, but trying to find them may help you to feel as if you haven’t missed out on your one chance to understand what it’s all about.
Reading philosophy is the best way to grapple with these big questions. Again, no answers are guaranteed – or rather, too many answers are guaranteed! – but the conversations with great philosophers will help you discover what the big questions mean to you. All you need is time, some curiosity and a library card.
Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder. Wonder about what? It could be about your own consciousness; about whether any part of you will survive the death of your body; about the nature of love or beauty; about whether humans are always bound to mistreat one another, or whether our natures can be improved; about scientific knowledge, and whether everything can be understood. Human experience gives us plenty of occasion to wonder.
But in everyday life, this sort of wonder is often discouraged because it is seen as impractical. ‘There are no answers to these questions,’ we may think. ‘Empty speculation. Each to their own.’ So should we not wonder? Should we pretend that these questions don’t matter, merely because their value is extraordinary? Or should we seize the opportunity, at some point on the path from cradle to grave, to wonder over the most profound questions we can ask?
Links & books
People are interested in reading philosophy for different reasons. Some like quick and juicy puzzles, like the infamous trolley problem or questions about transporters. David Chalmers’s recent book, Reality+ (2022), offers a splendid array of puzzles of this flavour while raising provocative questions and insights about the reality of virtual reality.
Other folks might like to fill in some gaps in their knowledge in the grand history of ideas. Will Durant’s classicThe Story of Philosophy (1926) offers an overview of several canonical philosophers. It’s the book I most frequently recommend to someone who is starting out reading philosophy and wants a roadmap.
Bryan Magee offers a flashy update of Durant in his bookThe Story of Philosophy: A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas(2nd ed, 2016). One can easily advance from Durant’s or Magee’s overviews to collections of the classic works themselves, such as provided in Steven M Cahn’s anthologyClassics of Western Philosophy(8th ed, 2011).
If one is interested in what on earth contemporary philosophers are up to, Richard Marshall provides scores of straight-speaking interviews on his site, 3:16.
On the more general topic of reading, a classic instruction manual for active reading is How to Read a Book (1940) by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s definitely old-school in style and flavour, but it is a nostalgic delight to read such clear and wholesome writing, and the advice is undeniably useful for reading philosophy books.
Some nuts-and-bolts advice about reading philosophy can be found on this student blog from the University of Edinburgh. For anyone who would rather watch a video, similarly good advice is offered in the YouTube video ‘How to Read Philosophy in 6 Steps’ (2016) by Christopher Anadale.
Last, but far from least, Justin E H Smith’sbookThe Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016) will broaden your definition of what ‘counts’ as philosophy and what we may be interested in when we read philosophy. It is a useful corrective to anyone who wants to gatekeep the pursuit of wisdom.
My thanks to Kris Phillips, Elijah Millgram and other participants in the Intermountain Philosophy Conference (held in February 2022) for helping to guide my thinking about writing about reading philosophy, and thanks to Sam Dresser for so many valuable suggestions.
Self-compassion techniques aren’t self-indulgent – they’ll tame your inner critic while helping you change for the better
by Brooke Schwartz
Photo by Linda Raymond/Getty
Brooke Schwartzis a licensed psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, California. She practises behavioural therapy, writes about a variety of mental health topics, and is passionate about destigmatising mental health by finding humour in an oftentimes painful part of being human.
Imagine you’ve been planning for a high-stakes situation, such as a difficult conversation with a friend, an important sports game, or a presentation for your company’s leadership team. You’ve spent months rehearsing what you’ll say or do. But then, once you’re in front of your friend, the game starts, or you face your colleagues and superiors – you choke.
No words come out. You stiffen and miss your shots.
Anxious, embarrassed, you’re terrified you’ll lose your friend, get dropped from the team, or miss your chance at the promotion. Afterwards, you run somewhere private to cry or squirm, or both.
As you stand there, tears flowing and stomach churning, you’re hit with a flurry of thoughts:
She’ll never speak to me again. / I’ll never get picked for the team again. / I’m never getting promoted.
How did I mess that up when I practised for so long?
What made me think I was worthy in the first place?
I’ll never succeed at anything.
If you’re like many people who put unfair pressure or expectations on themselves, you may know these kinds of self-critical thoughts well. This doesn’t mean you like them, but they’ve frequented your mind nonetheless.
Self-criticism doesn’t work
When we respond with self-criticism in moments of emotional pain, we’re making a deliberate effort to reduce our suffering. In terms of evolution, self-criticism developed as a response to social emotions, such as shame, humiliation and guilt, with the purpose being to increase our sense of control, self-protect from others’ judgment, redirect our anger, and motivate ourselves to change our behaviour next time. In short, self-criticism is an evolved strategy to stay part of the in-group in order to survive.
I see this often in my work with clients: they believe that the harsher they are on themselves, the more motivated to change – and consequently accepted by others – they’ll be. If they just push themselves harder in the face of painful emotions, they’ll come out the other side stronger. If they hold themselves to impossible standards, they’re sure to meet them eventually. Their overarching belief is that self-criticism, in all its forms, means getting better, working harder, and achieving more.
But it’s not that simple. Self-criticism doesn’t increase your sense of control, but rather tricks your brain into feeling in control. Instead of protecting you from others’ judgment, self-criticism subjects you to your own. While it may redirect anger, this means emotions are suppressed rather than expressed. And while some will say they need self-criticism to motivate themselves to change, this goes against a core tenet of behaviourism: that punishment is not as powerful as reinforcement.
Fortunately, there’s a smoother, less travelled road you can choose to take, and it’s the antidote to self-criticism. This is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a beneficial alternative
The psychologist and self-compassion expert Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as
being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognising that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.
In short, self-compassion is being an ally to yourself rather than an enemy.
Self-compassion involves three closely connected components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is as it sounds: it’s the act of treating yourself kindly, rather than with harsh criticism. Common humanity involves acknowledging that humans are flawed works-in-progress who are all connected to each other, if only through the fact that they all struggle in some way. Finally, mindfulness is the process of neither pushing away nor clinging to any thought or feeling – it’s the experience of simply observing everything as it is.
Self-compassion is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem involves comparing your abilities with others’, or against a gold standard, in order to feel superior or valued, self-compassion orients you to the act of caring for yourself regardless of your abilities. Consider the following example:
High self-esteem: Yes! I got an A on that test. That shows I’m smarter than most.
High self-compassion: Yes! I got an A on that test. It’s a just reward for all the effort I put into my studies.
Self-esteem is outcomes-oriented, whereas self-compassion is process-oriented. Research shows that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem. And that’s not all.
Whereas the effects of self-criticism (for example, self-scrutiny and isolation) have the potential to develop into mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, self-compassion offers a wealth of benefits to your mental and physical wellbeing. Those higher in self-compassion judge themselves less, experience less depression and anxiety, use more adaptive coping strategies, are motivated to grow for intrinsic reasons (as opposed to for social approval), are more self-accepting, feel more socially connected, and report greater life satisfaction. Compared with those low in self-compassion, people high in self-compassion also fare better physically: they experience fewer symptoms of illness, lower-intensity pain and better-quality sleep.
These benefits are attributable, at least in part, to self-compassion’s ability to deactivate the body’s threat system (which is associated with insecurity and defensiveness) and to activate its self-soothing system (which is associated with feelings of safety). Whereas self-criticism signals to a brain structure called the amygdala that a threat is present – consequently increasing the body’s blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol – self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is involved in regulating stress and calming the nervous system.
Self-compassion doesn’t always come easy
Despite the extensive research demonstrating the mental and physical benefits of self-compassion, it’s an often unknown, overlooked or even avoided practice. Some people are unfamiliar with self-compassion because it was never, or only infrequently, modelled by their parents or caregivers. When children seek compassion, comfort and support, and are responded to accordingly, they’re more likely to develop these skills themselves. Moreover, children who feel more secure in their relationships (ie, they feel lovable and don’t fear abandonment) often have more self-compassion later in life. In contrast, when children are responded to with rejection, criticism or even overprotection, it invalidates their need for compassion, which lowers their ability to provide it to themselves, and often leads to the development of self-critical habits.
Even for those familiar with self-compassion, misunderstandings of what it truly involves can be another barrier. Many of my clients push back against self-compassion, arguing that it will make them self-centred, narcissistic, self-indulgent or lazy. They say they’re not deserving of self-compassion because they’re bad or unworthy. I see this as a fear of stagnancy and the risk of further self-judgment. This is understandable: I’m asking my clients, and you, to try something new. But consider that what you’ve been doing – criticising, judging and punishing yourself – actually disengages you from your goals and sends you deeper into patterns of avoidance, self-hatred, rumination and self-centredness. Taking a compassionate approach to your failures and mistakes will increase your motivation to change your behaviour because the prospect of future ones becomes less threatening.
And for those of you who believe you are undeserving, bad or unworthy, consider that these beliefs may be rooted in fear as well; fear of disappointing yourself and others more than you believe you already have. Fear of digging yourself deeper into the hole of self-hatred you’re already inhabiting. Consider that your self-criticism is an act of violence on yourself, that you are standing over the dark hole in which you live, refusing to pass yourself a ladder to help yourself out.
In this Guide I will provide you with several practical steps and exercises to get started cultivating and embracing self-compassion. May it be the ladder you use to escape the self-critical hole you’re in.
What to do
Learn to identify self-criticism
If you’re like many people, your self-criticism has become a deeply ingrained habit – it’s so automatic, you might not even realise you’re doing it. Yet recognising that you’ve fallen into self-criticism is the crucial first step in saving yourself from it and practising more self-compassion. As the psychiatrist Daniel Siegel puts it: ‘Name it to tame it.’
This step involves asking yourself questions that can help you understand your self-critical tendencies, rather than attaching to them as truths about yourself. It can be helpful, at first, to practise this when you’re feeling calm rather than in the heat of the moment, as a way of helping you build the muscle to more easily identify your answers in a future self-critical moment. Think back to the last time you were hard on yourself, and reflect on the following questions:
Did I call myself names? Notice any judgmental labels such as ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’, or ‘failure’.
Was I looking for the worst-case scenario? Check in to see what the threat is that you’re assuming. Thoughts such as ‘I’m definitely losing my job’ or ‘I bet they wish they didn’t invite me to the party’ are self-critical distractions from thinking about how you really feel (for example, ‘I feel insecure after I did that presentation at work’ or ‘I’m ashamed of how much I drank at the party’).
Did I use words like ‘should’ or ‘must’? If you’re ‘should-ing’ or ‘must-ing’, these are clues that you’re not accepting yourself or your behaviour.
Was my body showing signs of stress? Notice whether your body tensed up, your breaths became shorter, your eyebrows furrowed, you crossed your arms, or any other indicators that you may be at odds with yourself.
Self-criticism takes many forms and everyone experiences it differently, but if you find yourself answering ‘yes’ to some or all of the questions above, this may be a sign that you fell into self-criticism. Once you’ve identified your answers, remember to be on the lookout for these clues in the future – and now you’ve named it, you can begin to tame it and shift to a more self-compassionate attitude.
Befriend your inner critic
Many of my clients, after identifying the ways in which they’ve criticised themselves, ironically begin to criticise their inner critic, thus perpetuating the problem. It’s meta, it happens, and it’s the brain’s way of sticking to a pattern it believes has long served itself.
To avoid this trap, once you’ve identified how you self-criticise, you can begin to befriend your inner critic. This might sound counterintuitive, but it will pay off in the longer term. You can do this in retrospect or in the moment you catch your inner critic speaking to you.
Imagine your inner critic as a being that lives inside your brain and talks to you. Rather than taking what it says (eg, ‘You’re so pathetic’) to be true or criticising it for speaking up at all, approach your inner critic with curiosity — an ‘Oh, it’s you again’ attitude. Reflect, either internally or through journaling, on what your inner critic is trying to tell you. Consider answering the following questions:
Why did my inner critic show up and tell me that right now?
What emotion is my inner critic asking me to focus on?
Is my inner critic worried I’m in danger?
The principle here is the same as a mathematics teacher asking their students to ‘solve for X’. A wise student might ask: ‘Why? What will X tell me? What can I do once I’ve solved for X?’ Once you have an answer to these questions that help you understand your inner critic’s purpose, thank it for grabbing your attention. You may tell it: ‘Thanks, inner critic, for calling attention to the fact that my to-do list isn’t done today. I know you’re telling me I’m pathetic, but I think you’re also telling me to notice my worry that, if I don’t get to the items on my to-do list, I’ll fall behind on my bills and have to pay late fees. Thanks for that information. Time to problem-solve getting these bills paid.’
Reframe judgmental thoughts as factual ones
Alongside befriending your inner critic, here is another way to respond – try reframing your inner critic’s comments nonjudgmentally. Often, they will show up in the form of judgmental thoughts, such as ‘I’m so pathetic.’ Instead of taking these statements at face value, it can be helpful to reframe them in a factual, objective manner. In doing so, you will help yourself reflect on what this kind of self-criticism means in a less punishing, more compassionate way.
So, if your inner critic said: ‘I’m so nosy. I shouldn’t have asked such personal questions,’ you would restate this as factually as possible. For example: ‘I asked one question about my boss’s marriage that, in this moment, I wish I hadn’t asked.’
Notice the steps I took to rephrase this statement factually: I got specific about the number of questions I asked (one). I described what I asked about (their marriage). I removed judgments (the adjectives ‘nosy’ and ‘personal’). I replaced ‘should’ with a statement of wish or desire.
You may wonder what is the purpose of changing judgmental statements to factual ones. We need to make judgments, after all. They help us discriminate whether it’s safe to cross the street and whether to eat those leftovers at the back of the fridge. But some judgments distort our sense of reality – particularly those judgments that evaluate (for example, seeing something as good or bad, deserving or undeserving) – so that we’re not always seeing things as they truly are. And if we aren’t seeing things clearly, we can’t begin to accept them. This principle applies to your judgmental thoughts as much as to anything else.
Stripping down the situation to its indisputable facts removes the judgmental haze that can pull you into an alternative reality based on your interpretations and assumptions about yourself and the world. If you stick with ‘I’m so nosy’, you might conclude that speaking to your boss is dangerous, and they should be avoided at all costs. In contrast, if you take the behaviour for what it is (‘I asked one question…’) you have the opportunity to reflect on the behaviour itself rather than what the behaviour means about you. Rather than concluding: ‘I need to avoid my boss from now on since I clearly have no boundaries,’ you could conclude: ‘Going forward, I’d like to think more about what topics of conversation feel appropriate for the workplace.’ You’re dialling down the self-criticism and thinking more constructively about how you could learn from what happened.
Practise soothing touch
Reframing judgments as facts may not alleviate self-criticism entirely, which is where soothing touch comes in handy. Imagine a time in the recent past when you believed you embarrassed yourself. Maybe you accidentally wore slippers to work, had food stuck in your teeth, or called your boss ‘Mom’. These are all factual statements, void of judgment, and yet you still may have a visceral reaction in the moment or after the fact. Think about the exact moment the event happened, and you noticed you felt embarrassed. What did your body do? What’s it doing now as you recall the memory?
Most know that what happens in our brain effects what happens in our body – for example, you have a worrisome thought, and your body tenses up. Less known, but equally important, is that the relationship between body and brain is bidirectional. In self-critical moments you may find yourself posturing in specific ways: scrunching your nose, crossing your arms or stiffening your upper lip, to name a few. Because the relationship is bidirectional, changing your body posture can combat self-critical thoughts and increase self-compassionate ones.
One way you can do this is by practising soothing touch. Consider the way it feels when a loving family member, friend or partner hugs you, holds your hand or gently touches your shoulder. While we often depend on others to give us this sensory experience, you can in fact give it to yourself. So, for another way to practise self-compassion, try wrapping your arms around yourself, lying under a soft or weighted blanket, stroking your arm, or touching your heart or cheek with your hand.
Your own soothing touch is a resource that’s always available to you. It’s a technique you can use either during a moment of self-criticism (subtly if necessary) – for example, as you’re in front of your CEO and co-workers, and can’t find the words you’d rehearsed – or in a moment of cringeworthy retrospection. Despite being touchy-feely (pun certainly intended), gentle and soothing touch sends safe and nurturing signals to the brain, setting off the release of oxytocin, which decreases anxiety and increases feelings of trust and contentment.
Talk to a younger version of yourself
If you’ve reached this point and you’re continuing to find it difficult to get into a more self-compassionate place, here’s a further technique that may help.
Given that many of us have histories of criticising ourselves and scrutinising our every behaviour, it can be much easier — especially at first — to direct compassion outside of ourselves before we turn inward. This includes directing it toward your younger self.
When you offer compassion to a younger version of yourself, you’re stepping out of the cognitive rigidity that typically fuels your self-criticism and feelings of shame. By externalising and connecting with a version of yourself that isn’t technically present, you might find you can more easily access a compassionate approach.
I used this exercise with a client – let’s call him Jared – who believed he had failed to make a good first impression when meeting his partner’s parents. He told me he was certain he had ruined his relationship and, what’s more, he considered it was maybe for the best, because he didn’t deserve to be in one anyway. After he tossed through a tornado of self-judgment, I asked him: ‘What would you say to a younger version of yourself who was feeling this way?’
Jared pondered my question and replied:
When I think about how that dinner went, it brings up so much embarrassment for me. If my younger self were feeling embarrassed, what would I say to him? Maybe ‘Ugh! Being embarrassed is the worst. I know how uncomfortable that feeling is.’ I’m also feeling hopeless about my relationship. I guess I would tell my younger self something like ‘Feeling hopeless can be so dark and scary.’
As Jared demonstrates, it’s most effective to do this exercise by isolating the emotion that present-day-you is experiencing, leaving behind the context of your situation. In addition to younger-you probably not having experience with the current context – a four-year-old version of yourself probably isn’t ready to ‘meet the parents’ – isolating the emotion is also helpful in redirecting you away from the details that might fuel evaluation and self-criticism toward a more factual description. So, ‘I drew a blank when his mom asked me whether I wanted to have kids one day’ becomes ‘I feel worried his mom thinks I’m not committed. So, I’m feeling fear.’
This exercise works because, in the end, younger-you and present-day-you are one and the same. In speaking to a younger-you with care and tenderness, you are subtly developing a more compassionate perspective toward yourself. In especially self-critical moments, try asking: ‘What would I say to a younger version of myself who was feeling this way?’
Identify your values
You’ll find that practising self-compassion is more effective when directed towards supporting your needs, rather than being a vague promise to be kinder to yourself. To understand your needs, you must first have some sense of what you value most in life. It’s in the moments that you’re not living in line with your values – and subsequently not practising self-compassion – that you tend to suffer the most.
I went through this process myself over the past couple of years. I found myself taking on more clients than felt manageable, and agreeing to meet with them at session times that worked best for them – early in the morning and late in the evening, the times of day I would otherwise spend practising self-care and relaxing. I found myself stuck in a cycle of: (1) agreeing to something that pushed my personal limits; (2) judging myself for making that decision; and (3) rationalising the decision by reminding myself how much I care about helping others. Unsurprisingly, this cycle burned me out. I woke up most mornings dreading the long workday ahead, judging myself for biting off more than I could chew, and believing that my only option was to white-knuckle my way through the day.
So I dedicated 10 minutes to sit down and reflect on the same questions I ask my clients to help them clarify their values. These were my answers:
What do you want your obituary to say about you and how you lived your life? I do want my obituary to say how much I cared about helping others and how I dedicated my career to treating, researching and writing about mental health. But I also want it to say that I enjoyed my life to the fullest — that I travelled, spent time with people I loved, and did things that brought me joy, such as reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and taking spontaneous road trips.
What values can you extract from your obituary? While I value giving to and supporting others, it’s more nuanced than that. I clearly value the balance of taking care of others with taking care of myself. I value rest, creativity, learning and spontaneity. And finally, I value choosing myself when it’s healthy to do so, which sometimes means saying no to others.
In what ways are you not living in line with these values? I’m not taking care of myself the way I’d like to be right now. I feel overworked and depleted most days. I’m not making time to do the things I enjoy most.
What do you need in the short and long term? In the short term, I need to prioritise self-care, which means making minor changes such as reading for pleasure before bed instead of checking my emails. I also need to say ‘no’ more, even if it feels uncomfortable. Maybe a day off in the next few weeks would be helpful, and a nice way to model self-care for my clients. Long term, I might need to change my schedule – see fewer clients, end earlier in the evening, or consider a week off to recharge.
After answering these questions, my understanding of myself and my situation had changed. Beforehand, my judgments and self-criticism had been running rampant. Afterwards, I could see for myself that I had ended up in a position that wasn’t in line with my values, and I felt empowered to prioritise my needs. You can check in with yourself – and direct your own self-compassion – by answering these questions in challenging moments, or by setting aside a scheduled time to review them once a week, a month, or a year.
The more you practise self-compassion by using these exercises, the more likely you’ll find, I hope, that the tone of your inner voice changes and that your inner critic morphs into a loving and compassionate inner friend. Feel free to pick and choose the exercises that speak most to you, recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to self-compassion – it’s deeply personal and challenging work that requires some trial and error.
Key points – How to be kinder to yourself
Self-criticism doesn’t work. Instead of protecting you from others’ judgment, self-criticism subjects you to your own.
Self-compassion is a beneficial alternative. It’s not about boosting your self-esteem. It’s about self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness – and it brings many mental and physical benefits.
Self-compassion doesn’t always come easy. You might see yourself as undeserving. Remember that taking a compassionate approach to your failures and mistakes will increase your motivation to change your behaviour.
Learn to identify self-criticism. If it’s become an ingrained habit, you might not even realise you’re doing it.
Befriend your inner critic. This might sound counterintuitive, but it will pay off in the longer term.
Reframe judgmental thoughts as factual ones. By doing this, you’ll dial down the self-criticism and think more constructively about how you could learn from what happened.
Practise soothing touch. Try wrapping your arms around yourself, lying under a soft or weighted blanket, stroking your arm, or touching your hand to your heart or cheek.
Talk to a younger version of yourself. By externalising and connecting with a version of yourself that isn’t technically present, you might find you can more easily access a compassionate approach.
Identify your values. Self-compassion is more effective when directed towards supporting your needs, rather than being a vague promise to be kinder to yourself. To understand your needs, you must first have some sense of what you value most in life.
The social side of self-compassion
Like many others, you might find that you particularly struggle with self-compassion (and are at your most self-critical) during moments that involve emotions such as shame, disappointment or humiliation. These emotions can inspire the urge to hide, retreat and conceal – all of which create distance from the social environment. It’s a self-protective instinct, but it can be counterproductive. While it may be the last thing you feel like doing, and seem somewhat counterintuitive, often the self-compassionate thing to do in these situations is to engage with others.
For one, being around others offers the opportunity to receive compassion from them. Receiving validation from our environments is one of the ways we learn to give it to ourselves; inversely, not receiving validation from our environments (or being invalidated) can lead to self-critical patterns. Engaging with others also increases the likelihood that you see others practise self-compassion, which may make it easier for you to use these strategies because they’ve been modelled and normalised by people you trust. Finally, sometimes being in the presence of others is exactly what you need to stop your self-critical patterns in their tracks and shift the shame, disappointment or humiliation.
In fact, research shows that acting the opposite way to an emotional urge can be a meaningful way of moving away from that emotion. For example, say you’re feeling shame after sharing something personal with colleagues and your urge now is to eat lunch alone. Perhaps you have self-critical thoughts such as ‘No one wants me there anyway’ or ‘I screwed up any chance of us being friends.’ If you went ahead and ate lunch alone, this would reinforce the idea that you’ve done something wrong – something that deserves criticism. A more self-compassionate approach – one that communicates to you that you are deserving of company and having your social needs met – would be to identify a possible opposite behaviour to eating alone (eg, eating lunch with those colleagues anyway, or eating lunch at your desk while talking on the phone to your best friend) and making the decision to act on it.
Keep in mind, though, that sometimes being alone is an act of self-compassion when alone time honours a desire or need, such as rest, quiet or welcomed disconnection. Deciding whether to practise self-compassion privately or in the presence of others can be challenging for some, and a good place to start figuring out what works for you in a given moment is to ask yourself: ‘What do I really need right now?’
Links & books
Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion website is an online resource library that offers several free, guided self-compassion exercises. This can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with doing this practice on their own.
Neff’s TEDx talk from 2013 elaborates on the points of difference between self-compassion and self-esteem that I’ve made in this Guide, particularly around the science and research on self-compassion.
The blog ‘The RAIN of Self-Compassion’ (2021) on the website of the psychologist Tara Brach outlines a self-compassion meditation practice. Her acronym – ‘Recognise what is going on. Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Investigate with interest and care. Nurture with self-compassion’ – is a helpful way of making self-compassion more easily accessible when you’re on the go.
The bookThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (2010) by Brené Brown is a motivational and inspiring guide to embracing imperfections. Instead of focusing on being ‘better’ and doing ‘more’, this book emphasises living authentically, which is certainly in the spirit of self-compassion.
The exercise script ‘Compassion for the Younger You’ from Russ Harris’s bookThe Reality Slap: How to Find Fulfilment When Life Hurts (2nd ed, 2021) can be used by readers who want further practice exploring their inner child through a meditation format. This is particularly helpful for those needing extra guidance on how to treat your inner child with love and care.