January can be a powerful month for many of us. It’s a time of reflection, action, and creativity. Sometimes though that reflective process can get out of hand! We might notice all the ways things did not go according to plan or the ways we didn’t show up the way we wished. We might even then start criticizing ourselves which can zap our self-worth and motivation. If you’ve ever wondered “why do I do this?,” or “How can I shift this pattern so I can be kinder to myself?,” please keep reading! I hope these ideas help you find ways to honor your journey and motivate you towards your goals with kindness.

Why do we tend to be so critical when we’re going through a hard time? 

When we’re going through a hard time, it can be easy for many of us to be critical of ourselves. This can happen for a number of reasons.We might respond with criticism in these times because

  • criticism was a familiar method that was used by ourselves or important others to move us into action (even if it damaged us)
  • other people or even institutions may have used criticism or contempt to put us down, and we may unconsciously try to “beat them to the punch” so it hurts less
  • criticism was a way to gain control, identify mistakes, and try to prevent repeating them
  • we never learned how to offer ourselves unconditional kindness and as a result may offer ourselves kindness only when things go well
  • we might think kindness is the same thing as indulgence and are afraid that we will stop doing what we need to do if we give ourselves kindness
  • we might go into tunnel vision where we can become hyper focused on specific aspects of our experience and ignore or even forget other experiences. As a result, when times are tough, we are less in touch with our full story which makes it more difficult to empathize with ourselves.

So now you know some reasons many of us can be critical towards ourselves in times when we might most benefit from kindness. Knowing the reasons and knowing that we’re not alone can be really helpful. In addition, identifying ways to shift this pattern can be powerful.

What are 5 concrete ways we can be kind to ourselves when we’re struggling? 

  1. Set realistic goals. Often when struggling, we can forget to adapt our existing goals and commitments to our current situation. Try instead to reassess and shift goals and commitments so they feel more realistic. 
  2. Take care of our physical health as much as realistically possible, especially since many of us experience stress in our bodies. For example, if caffeine is now a bigger part of your life, can you also make sure you’re hydrating? If going to the gym is not possible time-wise or financially, can you find places to go for short walks? If it’s difficult to prepare food, are there ways to make sure you can eat? 
  3. Pause the self-critical loop by soothing ourselves. When we feel really terrible, we can get very critical of ourselves. We can then, in our effort to be kind, be critical of our criticism! In these moments, it can be helpful to acknowledge that pattern and shift focus on calming and soothing oneself. When we’re calm, we can then feel more able to strategize productively about what we need if we choose to. 
  4. Be intentional about what experiences you invite into your life, whether it’s online or in person. Identify the people, behaviors, and activities that are helping you digest and heal, and identify what might be making you feel worse. Will scrolling on instagram help you? Are certain friends more helpful during times like these than others? Set those boundaries kindly, Some examples include: “I’d love to see you this week but I’m beat. Can I check back in when things get easier?” or “I’d love to do dinner but can we order in and hang out?” 
  5. Offer honest gratitude whenever possible. Humans have a tendency to focus in on all the errors and issues, which is called a negativity bias. This bias probably helped us keep evolving. At the same time, when overused, it can really distort how we see ourselves, our potential, and our choices. So try shift it gently by taking a few minutes to offer gratitude to the ways you approached your day – it can be a helpful way to acknowledge what you are doing (rather than just focusing on what you’re not).

Much of this material was originally created in response to wonderful prompts from PsychCentral’s Margarita Tartakovsky. Read her blog on how to be kind to ourselves.