Do people ever say to you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and your inner voice replies with something like, “But I don’t know how not to,” or “If I’m not, who will? I won’t get very far in life”?

One of my yoga teachers talks about the “Little Man” in our head who tells us how we’re not going to succeed. “You can’t balance on one leg for five seconds – you will fall! You’re not good enough for them – they’re out of your league! You have to do everything yourself – you’re a loser and no one is going to help you! You’re gonna miss that bus, then you’ll be late to work, and then you’ll lose your job!”

All of these messages come from that voice in your head & can really beat you down, causing stress, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. The majority of the time we are our own worst critic.

But here is the secret: That voice is not really you! You may think it is you because it’s coming from inside of you and and it sounds like you; but it’s not a part of you. That voice and those messages are a part of someone or something else. They grew from a little seed (or 2 or 20 seeds) that you unknowingly swallowed along time ago.

From a psychological perspective this is called an introjection. An introjection is “the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others.” These voices or messages in your head are just ideas from someone else you started to believe without question.

Not all introjections are negative or make us feel bad about ourselves, but it’s wise to be curious about all of our unconscious beliefs. Introjections can be ideas we picked up from our family or community about religion and spirituality, politics and money, sex and identity, race and culture. They can also be ideas about who we are – things that people told us about ourselves as we grew up.

So, if you grew up in a home where you received messages about being smart, attractive and successful, after a while you probably started to believe that was true because it’s what the authorities in your life told you. And if your school environment was supportive of your growth, encouraging you to think critically and told you you were smart, then you probably believed that too. But imagine if you had parents and teachers who were unhappy, stressed, angry or sick, and blamed your for their suffering. If this went on for a few years, then after a while you started to believe that it’s true. We internalize these messages about ourself and the Little Man is not so nice – he is our own worst critic, judge and tormentor.

Now the question becomes, How do I get rid of the Little Man? I believe that the Little Man is not something we want to get rid of, but something to change. That voice is something which can be helpful when it says things which help us feel good about ourselves. It takes time to change that voice and the messages. It’s takes consciousness, awareness and effort. Think of it as retraining your brain to think differently about yourself.

This is where self-compassion comes in to help soften the voice and soothe the Little Man, so he doesn’t get defensive when you tell him he’s wrong. That would be like arguing and yelling “Shut Up! You’re wrong!” That’s not going to help someone change their thinking. Self-compassion brings in a level of understanding your own suffering allows the mind to open to other possibilities. This takes time and discipline, just as with any new skill we learn.

One of the best tools for working on this is practicing a Loving-Kindness meditation (or Metta from the Buddhist tradition). This practice has two parts: sending loving-kindness to yourself and to others. For the practice of self compassion I suggest focusing just on yourself. The basic practice is to get into a mindful state and focus on this mantra:

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.

I suggest starting with just five minutes a day, every day. Over time these messages will start to become more natural and automatic, and eventually the Little Man may adopt them into his arsenal.

There are many other ways to work with introjections and cultivating self-worth and self-esteem, such as working with a therapist. This is just one way to begin the work on your own.

~ May you be free from suffering ~

– Nick Venegoni, MFT

Buddhism is not only a religion, but a philosophy, a science and a psychology as well. The Buddha studied the nature of the mind very deeply, the way a biologist studies a cell on the nuclear level. Buddhist psychology is a complete science unto itself, of the nature of the mind and the ways in which the human mind creates suffering, joy and liberation within the mind. Buddhist psychology explicitly gives instructions on ways to support yourself and others to find liberation from suffering and to live in joy and complete bliss. The tricky part, especially for us westerners, is that it is a continual practice, not just a one time quick fix, like taking a pill.

Let us start with empathy: What is it? In his new book on compassion, “A Fearless Heart,” Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. (former Tibetan monk and principal english translator of the the Dalai Lama) defines empathy: It’s our natural ability to understand other people’s feelings and share in their experiences. It thus consists of two key components: an emotional response to someone’s feelings, and cognitive understanding of his or her situation. So it is a perceived feeling and knowing what others feel or experience. This is very helpful for both parties involved: the one in pain feels understood and less alone in their suffering, and the one who is witnessing has a visceral experience of understanding and relating in their own way to the experience of suffering.

Now, for some people having empathy can be challenging. Many of us grow up not learning skills or knowing how to cope with our own suffering, let alone others suffering. I’ve heard it said that in today’s modern, technology driven society, there is a significant deficit in empathy. Many aspects of our culture have cultivated a sense of narcissism that makes it easy to disconnect from what others might be experiencing.

Then there are others who are overwhelmed by empathy. Some people are quite sensitive and attuned to other people’s experiences, but without proper self care this can be exhausting. Many people in helping professions, such as nurses and therapists, end up leaving their profession because of what’s called “compassion fatigue,” but I would argue that they are really experiencing “empathy fatigue.” These people may believe they have a responsibility to take on the suffering of others because they know how to digest it more easily than the original owner, but this is very taxing on the mind, body and spirit. Hence the fatigue and burn-out occurs, and we have talented helpers and healers who are very much needed, leaving their professions. So, what is the solution?

This brings us to compassion and kindness. Compassion is really quite simple, yet our experiences of empathy can sometimes impede compassion. Compassion is a deep and sincere wish or desire that another’s suffering come to an end. It’s as easy as a wish. Kindness is then the action we take toward the one suffering as a result of our compassionate wish. Jinpa says: Compassion is a more empowered state and more than an empathic response to the situation. Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping, a basic form of altruism. Compassion is what makes it possible for our empathic reaction to manifest in kindness.

This action of kindness is another place we can get stuck, however. For those of us who are helpers and healers we get stuck in feeling helpless and not knowing what to do to help another person. Sometimes there is nothing to do but just be. Often times simply holding compassion for the sufferer in their presence is enough kindness. It doesn’t sound like much but it can be quite powerful. It can take fierce compassion to stay present with anothers suffering knowing there is nothing you can do about it because only they know the best way through and out of their experience. Expressing loving kindness toward them means they don’t have to feel so alone as they walk that path.

As a therapist, I often think of myself as an old-fashioned, cast iron oven, sitting in the middle of the room and emanating a heat and warmth of compassion and loving kindness. Those who are on their journeys of healing and self discovery can stop by to warm and center themselves before they carry on again. Yes, I have other tools and practices to offer them as well out of kindness. But, as Jinpa said, “compassion is a more empowered state” for all involved, than simply feeling empathy for the sufferer.

– Nick Venegoni, MFT