By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Clients who are frequently self-critical view themselves as flawed, so they are quick to highlight what they perceive as their negative aspects and minimize their positive traits and behaviors, and their strengths. They also struggle in their relationships, feeling that they need to perform well in some way in order for others to accept and value them.
While it is tempting to try to correct their flawed thinking, this tends to mobilize them to try to prove you wrong. They’ll find ways to show you just how flawed or inadequate they are. So, instead of trying to “break through” to them, it is often more effective to approach them in a nonthreatening way and to encourage them to develop compassionate self-awareness, a combination of self-awareness and self-compassion.
Begin by simply noting their perception of themselves as flawed and encourage them to clarify the experience. Your goal at this point is twofold. First, you want to enrich their understanding of their sense of inadequacy. Secondly, you want to gain a greater appreciation of their experience in order to increase your compassion for them. This process will hopefully enable them to sense that you truly “get,” accept, and care about them.
As their self-awareness increases, you can guide them in becoming more aware of their inner struggle. Do this by empathizing with how painful it is to be on the receiving end of their self-criticism. In addition, empathize with the part of them that is self-critical. This part is desperately trying to drive them to perform better so that others will accept and value them. With time and repetition, they can come to accept your compassion for all of their conflicting levels of experience. They can also work toward developing self-compassion for their struggles.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, author, and speaker. She writes The Art of Relationships blog for WebMD and is the relationship expert for WebMD’s relationships and coping community. She also writes the blog Making Change for Psychology Today. Becker-Phelps previously served at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ, as director of women's psychological services and chief of psychology in the department of psychiatry. She lives with her husband and two sons in Basking Ridge, NJ. Find out more about her at www.drbecker-phelps.com.
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