The Bully and the Compassionate Teacher

Many of my clients believe that they need to be harshly self-critical if they’re going to better themselves: that if they bully or beat themselves up, they might whip themselves into shape and become more motivated to take charge of their lives. This is a common belief.

Perhaps you have memories of teachers or coaches who tried to motivate you through derision or harsh criticism. It may have seemed to work, but in fact this kind of verbal punishment rarely produces a positive behavior change. Such punishment often results in a decreased frequency of positive behavior, not an increase of it. More often than not, our attacks on ourselves, in the guise of “whipping ourselves into shape,” actually have the effect of narrowing our range of behaviors and increasing our anxiety, rather than helping us live our lives more calmly, evenly, and effectively.

If you allow yourself to be engulfed by your anxious thoughts and feelings, and if you surrender your behavior to your fear or to avoidance, you’re not actually living from a compassionate intention; however, if on the contrary you train your mind to respond with compassionate thinking, adopting compassionate self-correction rather than verbally attacking or criticizing yourself, you’ll be better able to respond to your experience of anxiety and shame. Training your compassionate mind can help you experience positive emotions more readily, overcome anxiety, and more effectively pursue your goals.

Compassionate self-correction is grounded in the desire to alleviate suffering and to help us realize our hearts’ deepest desire to be able to behave as we’d wish to. Paul Gilbert has illustrated this difference by contrasting the styles of two imaginary teachers—one critical, the other encouraging and supportive—each working with young children who are struggling to perform at grade level.

The critical teacher believes that it’s beneficial to focus on the deficits and faults that a child might have and that teasing and chiding her pupils for their mistakes will help them learn. Her students come to fear and resent her when she looks over their shoulders at their work, and she herself spends a lot of time feeling angry and anxious about how her students are performing. The encouraging, supportive teacher pays a lot of attention to the strengths and talents that her students demonstrate. Her expectations are clear, and she gives specific behavioral feedback to the children about how they could improve their performance. She does not chide them or tease them. She’s encouraging, warm, strong, and wise.

Did you have teachers like this when you were at school? Which one did you study harder for? Which one did you prefer? Which teacher might have shaped your sense of self-confidence and, as a result, helped build your capacity to respond to frustration and anxiety with warmth and ability to tolerate distress?

Compassionate self-correction is not about denying your mistakes or weaknesses; instead, it focuses on radical self-acceptance: accepting your fallibility, your frailty, and your suffering, all of which are essential aspects of your common humanity. Such acceptance also involves a deep kindness and appreciation of your desire to alleviate your suffering, to grow, to develop, and to realize your valued aims.

As Gilbert wrote: “Compassionate self-correction is based on being open-hearted and honest about our mistakes with a genuine wish to improve and learn from them. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves, ‘Oh, I think I will make a real cock-up of things today, just for the hell of it.’ Most of us would like to do well, most of us would like to avoid mistakes, most of us would like to avoid being out of control with our temper. We need to recognize that our genuine wish is to improve.”

This passage is excerpted from The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, by Dennis Tirch.

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