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Listen up – to your own critic

You need to pay attention when you hear a message more than once. This week, a theme has been popping up and I think I need to examine it further.

I attended a talk given by Justine Dowd, PhD entitled “How to Succeed in Life by Being Kinder to Yourself”.  Justine is a post-doctoral fellow working with the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Her research is in the area of health behaviour change.

From Justine, I learned about self-compassion, a central construct in Buddhist psychology, and I was introduced to the thinking of Kristin Neff. According to Kristin Neff, self compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings, much as you are when you reach out to others who are suffering. To be self-compassionate, you need to tame your inner critic. Do you have an inner critic? I have an inner judge. She surfaces when I am under stress, and she is just as bad as a critic.

Your inner critic may prevent you from saying “no” when you need to. Your friend says “Come out with us Thursday. It will be fun!” and your inner critic says “You shouldn’t be hanging out at home alone. You watch too much Netflix.” Your go out, even though you know that you will be tired for your early morning meeting.  By Friday you are exhausted. Your inner critic won the battle and your health suffers.

The concept of self compassion challenges the idea that I grew up with, the Stiff Upper Lip. But I remain intrigued.

Later in the week I sat down at my desk to prepare a learning session for a client on negotiation strategies. On the hunt for some fresh material I went back to William Ury (he of the seminal Getting to Yes), and encountered “Getting to Yes with Yourself”. The guru of negotiation and lead thinker at the Harvard Negotiation Project published a new book in 2015 which can be thought of as a “prequel” to Getting to Yes. The first rule of negotiation is to listen first, and to listen empathetically. In his new book, Ury advocates that as you prepare for a negotiation, first you must listen empathetically to yourself.

When we are faced with a conflict, or a conversation with a “difficult person”, a difficult decision, our biggest obstacle is not the other’s behaviour, but ourselves. Without self-compassion and self-understanding, we risk reacting. We need distance and self-understanding to perceive the situation with a greater neutrality, and objectivity.

So through self-compassion we can make healthier choices. We can keep the strength we need to negotiate constructively through difficult conversations. Our empathy for our own views will also help us to be clearer and better advocates for our own needs. Looking after ourselves through self-compassion is not being selfish, it is being self-aware and strong.

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