Criticism or Compassion – Which Will Move You Forward?

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted and bloated from the equivalent of about two Thanksgiving meals a day for weeks on end. That’s the Jewish holidays for you – starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the last dance of Simchas Torah.

I spent Succos this year in a Florida condo and so every meal necessitated walking down eight flights of steps and carrying not just all my food and beverages, but the paper goods, serving pieces, Kiddush cup, bentchers, etc. and schlepping everything to a hot Succah about 1/4 mile away.

The flip side to what I call the “Jewish Decathlon and the Eating Olympics” is that these holidays are spiritually sublime and I am lifted on the wings of possibility, profound insights, and a new-found dedication, commitment and connection.

Boy, do I make plans, so that this year my dreams for my big, actualized, transformed life – as well as being consistently kind, thoughtful, compassionate, disciplined, etc., of course, will come true!

So there’s the “me” before the Jewish holidays. And there’s this version of “me” that I really and truly yearn to become, to step into. My “one precious wild life” as well as a heckuva good person seems to be waiting for me on the other side of this invisible doorway, which is open wide.

And yet I seem to stand there, frozen, maybe afraid that I won’t be able to pull it off, that I’ll fall flat, come up short, or just never change. After all, the book never gets finished and I seem to be apologizing to the same people for the same stuff (and to God, too) year after year.

This year I really worked on myself. I got clarity. I “saw the light”. But now, my inner critic is pulling out all the stops. I can’t blame the critic. After all, if I died from the shame or embarrassment of failure it would have no place to live. It’s just protecting its real estate.

So I thought it was just hilarious that in this week’s Torah portion, Noach, I noticed a similar dynamic going on. Picture the scene: Noah and his family and all of the animals, birds, creepy crawly things, etc., have been in the Ark for many months before the waters finally receded so that they could finally be on dry land.

Conditions on the Ark were extremely challenging. It was hot, smelly, dark, and noisy. The animals were a ceaseless burden. To say the least, it was frightening, downright disgusting, distasteful, and dangerous. Imagine being tossed about in raging boiling waters while everyone and everything in existence (except for the fish, so they say) is being annihilated. Definitely not a good time.

And now, at long last, the doors of the Ark are flung open. Fresh air! Sunlight! Dry Land! And no one makes a move. No one does the Happy Dance. Why didn’t they have the frenzied urgency of soccer fans leaving a stadium? Noah was commanded to order everyone out, and if need be, to force them out against their will. How was this possible?

According to polls, one of the most common fears is the fear of failure, the fear that we won’t succeed if we try something new, and that we won’t make it doing what are really passionate about. Our heart shows the way and we stand frozen and afraid to follow.

The inner critic becomes the absolute and unchallenged voice of authority. It urges us not to step out on that dry land. After all, the Ark that you do know may be better than the challenge of creating civilization anew and repopulating the world. I could see being weird-ed out by that.

And being in that place – stuck between who you are and who you want to be – where your only obstacle is really yourself – is a painful place.  Now listen closely – how you deal with that pain makes all the difference of whether you remain stuck or whether you can move forward.  I subscribe to a free daily e-mail service from A Life Of Light, and this was today’s message in my in-box, addressed to me:

One of the most awesome things about liking who you are, approving of yourself, and loving yourself is that you get to hang around with Hanna all day.

Yea – I know. Trust me, I was rolling my eyes too. And then, as I was about to hit the delete button, I suddenly got a flash as to how important this idea is.
Honestly, how satisfying is your day being tied to someone you really don’t like? And that voice – that harsh critical voice! You would never talk to another human being the way you talk to yourself. (If you have no friends or family willing to be near you, however, then maybe this is not true for you.)


And if you don’t like yourself, if you can’t get comfortable in your skin, and yes, even love yourself (can you even say those words?), then you are locked in a prison of inner shame and blame. And that is not a place from which you can grow and transform yourself – or anything or anyone else for that matter.
“Wait – you say. If I like and approve of myself, or even love myself, then how would I change the things that I need to change? Won’t I stay exactly as I am? How is that a good thing?” Great question.
There’s a difference between seeing that you need to change because you made a mistake versus the inner shame which says, “I am a mistake.” See the distinction? You can love yourself, even if you make mistakes. Do you stop loving your family and friends when they make mistakes? As Geneen Roth so beautifully said:

For some reason, we are truly convinced that if we criticize ourselves, the criticism will lead to change. If we are harsh, we believe we will end up being kind. If we shame ourselves, we believe we end up loving ourselves. It has never been true, not for a moment, that shame leads to love. Only love leads to love.

So what do we do with that fear that keeps us in the Ark, or the voice that lies in wait for us to mess up again to prove we will never change and that it’s folly to bother?
Here’s one strategy that I suggest – C.A.R.E. – based on the book by Carolyn Neff, “Self-Compassion, Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind”.

CATCH. Notice when you’re engaging in self-criticism. (Notice the inner critic catching you slipping up, and trying to get you to just give up already, because you will never obtain this goal.)

ACKNOWLEDGE: Recognize the pain that the self-criticism is causing. Find the emotion in your heart and/or your body. Don’t resist it, just allow it and send it compassion.

REQUEST: Speak gently to your self-critic: (I know you’re trying to help, but you’re not actually helping, and you are causing me unnecessary pain. Please stop being so self-critical.)



ENCOURAGE: Replace the critical self‐talk with supportive self-talk, such as a wise and caring friend might offer. How would you speak to a friend who was down on herself? Give yourself the gift that you freely give others – an understanding and compassionate heart that speaks truthfully, but encourages with kindness and empathy.

The point is that we don’t have to “earn” the right to self compassion, or dole it out only to those we deem worthy because they are “blameless”, but as Carolyn Neff says, it belongs also “to those whose suffering stems from failures, personal weakness, or bad decisions. You know, the kind you and I make every day”.


In my long list of attributes I wanted to change and things I wanted to accomplish in the inspiration of the Jewish holidays, self-compassion was not even on my radar. As I stand now, wanting to take a step out of my comfort zone, however, I understand that treating my fear with contempt and harsh self-evaluation will only guarantee that I remain in place.


Self-compassion, liking myself, and yes – even loving myself – holds my hand and lights the way forward. And it lets me spend the day with someone whose company I actually kinda like. So go ahead and get your free email subscription to A Life Of Light. You never know when some little message of inspiration will make a big difference.

About the Author
Hanna Perlberger is an attorney, author, and spiritual coach. Her articles have appeared in numerous Jewish publications, and you can follow her weekly blog at PositiveParsha. Hanna's newly released book, "A Year of Sacred Moments: The Soul Seeker's Guide to Inspired Living," which blends Torah with Positive Psychology and coaching, offers readers a fresh optimistic perspective and way to find personal meaning and engagement with the weekly Torah portion. Hanna and her husband Naphtali, lead workshops for couples to take their marriage to a whole new level. Hanna also coaches women to unlock their potential to live inspired and create positive change.
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