You need to be nicer to yourself

By JOSHUA WILSON,

The brain is a magnificent creation, and, last time we talked, I told you about its built-in fight-or-flight system controlled by the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped structure deep within our gray matter.

We talked about how hyperactive the amygdala can be and how it can incorrectly label a situation as threatening, causing panic when little – or none – is necessary.

This so-called “amygdala hijack” is a function that was useful to the human race thousands of years ago during the time of hunter-gatherers. Imagine hunting for food and encountering a towering beast intent on your destruction. The fight-or-flight instinct was needed, and it would kick in instantly, allowing an immediate defense while the rest of the brain processed the situation.

Nowadays, we are unlikely to encounter such beasts, but our instincts remain the same. Unnecessary panic is just one side effect of our brain’s reaction process. An additional side effect, called the negativity bias, can be just as distressing.

The negativity bias has been defined by psychologists as “the instinct in us all that makes negative experiences seem more significant than they really are.”

This instinct, like the fight-or-flight system, was designed to keep us out of harm’s way; it developed over thousands of years, allowing us to avoid danger by being hypersensitive to negative situations. Unfortunately, now, this instinct empowers self-criticism, prompting us to give most of our attention to our failures and hardly any to our successes.

Self-criticism and its close relatives, self-doubt and self-loathing, can lead to anxiety, depression, health issues, and even accelerated aging.

Of course, the negativity bias is not the only thing influencing our need to self-criticize. Our society has a huge impact, telling us that we must be tough on ourselves in order to meet sometimes impossible standards.

So, how do we conquer self-criticism when it is, quite literally, embedded in our DNA and reinforced by our society?

“You probably need to be nicer to yourself,” advises Lori Gottlieb, a Los Angeles-based therapist and the bestselling author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.” (I mention the title of her book because it is worth the read. I finished it in two days.)

Self-compassion, or “the practice of being kind and understanding to ourselves when confronted with a personal flaw or failure,” takes practice, and therapists say the first step is making a commitment to, as Gottlieb says, “be nicer to yourself.”

Another step is to reframe your thoughts by considering how you would treat a child or a friend during a difficult situation. You would not beat them with bad vibes, insults, or a lack of empathy. Instead, you would offer them encouragement and understanding. Give yourself that same grace. Therapists also recommend practicing mindfulness, the state of active, open attention on the present. By practicing mindfulness, we tune into the present moment instead of rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness brings with it a ton of benefits, including a boosted immune system, decreased anxiety, and better focus.

Meditation apps, such as Calm or Headspace, offer guided mindfulness activities. Research says these apps help in building self-compassion.

It is important to note that self-compassion is a learnable skill, but it requires action and commitment. You may be able to start your self-compassion journey by simply reframing your thoughts, or it may take visiting with a therapist.

Most importantly, self-compassion requires a positive mindset, which can be difficult because of our innate negativity bias. However, with practice, we can beat back self-criticism and learn to enjoy life without intrusive negative thoughts.

Joshua Wilson is a marketing and public relations practitioner living in Hattiesburg. Write him at joshua@jowil.media.

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