Self-Enquiry into self-criticism, self-blame, and shame

A mentor of mind, Kelly Wilson, said the following years ago about himself and it’s always stuck with me.

The levels of self-deception are endless.

There are certain phrases that stick with you because they resonate deeply. I’ve had so many times in my life where I thought I knew the answer and yet my knowing had blinded me to what I needed to learn.

However, as a person who’s been highly self-critical much of my life, I have often found it difficult to reflect on myself. Reflecting on myself brings evaluation and judgment.

I’m “self” – “critical.” When I become aware of my “self,” I tend to get critical.

My thinking can sometimes loop in brooding rumination, endless, repeating self-analysis. For those who are self-critical themselves, you know what I mean.

Yet, being able to reflect on ourselves is to be important in continuing to grow as a human being. There’s a reason why Socrates’ statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living” has stuck around for a few thousand years. It’s important for us to be able to reflect on our beliefs, our actions, and our emotions. However, self-reflection can easily just become a self-reinforcing cycle where in our pre-existing views are just further reinforced and where our justification and rationalizations for our behavior can become even more entrenched.

Two major reasons why self-reflection becomes unproductive

  1. Circularity – We get stuck in rumination, looping through the same thoughts over and over again. This just reinforces what we already believe we know about ourselves, others, or the world. It’s not productive. New learning isn’t happening and new information isn’t being incorporated.

  2. Blind spots - We don’t know what we don’t know. We all have edges to our awareness and things we don’t know. We can be self-deceptive or simply unaware of important aspects of ourselves, our behavior, or our impact on others. If we aren’t aware of something about ourselves, then we can’t reflect on it.  

Question: Have you ever been taught how to reflect on yourself in a skillful way? If not, what might this say about what you need to learn?

I think I can confidently say that most of us have not been taught methods for how to reflect on ourselves in a productive manner. It’s especially so for those who are self-critical which, by definition, means that we get stuck in loops of criticism when we reflect on ourselves. How are we expected to do this well when we’ve never been taught? This human mind does not come with an instruction manual. It can be rough to have a human mind and we’ve often not been given the tools for living well that we need.

Self-enquiry – asking yourself good questions to help learn

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT) and a practice called self-enquiry. Self-enquiry is a central part of RO-DBT and is kind of mindfulness practice in which you ask yourself good questions to help you to find your “edge.” Your edge is your personal unknown - the place where you have something to learn. Our endless levels of self-deception means we all have an edge.  

Our edge usually occurs in situations where we feel uncomfortable. It’s also a place that may tend to elicit self-criticism or rumination.

In particular, self-enquiry tends to be helpful when we find ourselves struggling with a feeling, ruminating about a problem, strongly defending against or rejecting feedback or perceived criticism, or quickly agreeing with feedback or perceived criticism from others.

According to RO-DBT, it can be helpful to see these situations as opportunities for growth. Self-enquiry involves turning toward our distress with the intention to learn from it. We look for our edge (i.e., our personal unknown) and ask ourselves good questions that can help us learn.

The most central self-enquiry question is “what do I need to learn (from this situation or experience)?”

Self-enquiry into self-criticism, self-blame, and shame

Reflecting on self-criticism, self-blame, and shame can be particularly difficult. 

However, the places where we most need to learn are often the places where our self-criticism and shame are the most powerful.  For example, we often need to learn something in those places where we are most stuck, where we have failed repeatedly, or where we judge ourselves most harshly. These might be places where we feel like we’ve failed to exercise self-control or have engaged in impulsive behavior or addictive patterns. Or they may be places where we find ourselves hurting others, but may  not be aware of the damage until after we’ve already acted. These are usually the kinds of places where we most need to learn but they are also the places where our self-judgment gets triggered and makes that learning very hard.

When we reflect on these areas, we tend to get stuck in painful rumination or brooding or we learn to distract ourselves and not think about it. Either way isn’t very productive.

Instead of self-criticism, we need to develop ways to reflect on ourselves and our experience that are not loaded with self-loathing, excessive self-doubt, shame, or self-criticism.

Self-enquiry can help you to reflect on yourself and your experience in a way that is likely to help you learn and grow.

How self-enquiry avoids circularity and blind spots

Self-enquiry avoids the pitfall of circularity by keeping practices brief. It’s recommended that you practice for no more than 5 minutes at a time. After 5 minutes, do your best to move on from whatever it is and turn your attention to other things. It’s often helpful to return to the same topic over multiple days, in brief practices each time.

Self-enquiry avoids the pitfall of blind spots by focusing on questions, rather than answers. The goal of self-enquiry isn’t to get the right answer, but to keep asking questions that help us to learn. There is no end-point to the process. It is a way of seeking our personal unknown while acknowledging that “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”

Guidelines for practicing self-enquiry

Step 1. Turn toward your edge rather than problem solving, soothing yourself, validating yourself, avoiding, defending yourself, or ruminating. For no more than 5 minutes, see if you can focus on exploring your experience in order to learn from it. Do this in writing. Write down the self-enquiry questions that emerge and your observations of your reactions to them as you practice.

Step 2. Try to find a question that helps you get closer to your edge. Tips for good questions:

  • Good questions tend to make you feel uncomfortable
  • Good questions tend to be about the things you don’t want to think about
  • Be cautious about asking too many questions that start with “why” since they tend to get us caught up in problem solving, blame, or justification.
  • If you can’t think of a question, review some of the ones below to see if they can help you get started.

Step 3.
Write down the thoughts, feelings, urges, memories, or other reactions that show up in response to your self-enquiry question.  As you practice, consider the following:

  • Did this question move me closer to my edge or further away?
  • If the question moved me further away, what can I ask that will move me closer to my edge (to my place I need to learn)?
  • Be cautious about accepting your first answer. Our immediate responses often reflect what we already know. Instead, self-enquiry recognizes that we “don’t know what we don’t know” and that we all have more to learn. Practice allowing yourself space and time to discover what you might need to learn rather than quickly finding a way to justify or explain things or finding a way to feel better.

Step 4.
Repeat steps 2 and 3 until 5 minutes are up. It’s common to judge yourself at first for not having good questions. If this occurs, is it possible this is an opportunity, rather than a problem? If you were able to see it as an opportunity, even for a moment, what would it say about what you need to learn?

Step 5. Identify the self-enquiry question that most strongly elicited your edge and circle it. Consider returning to this question for the next couple days for a couple more practices (remember, keep them short!).

Step 6. Consider sharing what you are learning about yourself with someone you are close to or who you’d like to get closer to. Remember that we tend to like people who are humble, who recognize their limitations, who are open to learning, and who acknowledge their failings and foibles. Sharing what we our learning about ourselves reveals our inner lives and can help us feel connected others. Being open to their reactions to our disclosures can also help reveal blind spots.  

Step 7. If you find yourself being harsh with yourself after the practice or experiencing shame, considering doing something to activate your social-safety system. For example, you might try:

Example questions that can help you get started with self-enquiry:

General questions:

  • Do I believe I already know all the facts about this situation? Do I find myself wanting to justify or explain my version of the facts to myself or someone else? What might this tell me about what I need to learn?
  • Do I believe I already know all the facts in the situation I am in? Do I find myself wanting to justify and explain my reactions or responses (including self-judgment or self-hatred)? Is it possible there is another way to see the situation or myself in this situation? If so, am I willing to explore what that might be? If not, what might this say about what I need to learn?
  • Am I finding it hard to question my current point of view or reflect on myself?
  • Is there a part of me that is insisting it is right or that it’s viewpoint is the true one?
  • Am I using this experience as another way to beat myself up or provide how worthless or useless I am? Is there a part of me that is hoping I will fail? If so, what might I need to learn?
  • Am I willing to respond to myself in a new way in this situation? If so, what might this contribute to my own well-being or the well-being of others? Am I willing to do this new thing without using it as another way to judge myself for my failure (remembering, “something worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.”)?
  • Is it possible for me pause and really listen to what I need in this situation? What am I afraid might happen if I really paused and listened to myself?
  • Have I taken the time to look at what I really need in this situation? If not, what might I need to learn?
  • What do I need right now? If I don’t know what I need, do I want to know what I need? If not, what does this say about what I might need?

Questions related to self-blame, self-judgment, or shame:

  • Am I automatically blaming myself or someone else for what is happening or happened?
  • What am I afraid might happen if I were to drop my self-judgment, even if only temporarily?
  • Is there some part of me that doesn’t like me?
  • Is there some part of me that is blaming me for what I’m feeling or thinking? Does this part of me have my best interests at heart?
  • Is there a part of me that is feeling blamed or judged? If so, what might that side tell me if I were to listen to it? Can it be allowed to have a voice?
  • Did I hurt or injure someone with something I recently did? If so, what might I need to learn about that? Is there something to make amends for? Do I need to forgive myself? What do I need to learn?
  • Am I believing that it would be bad or wrong to let go of blaming myself or let go of judging myself? If so, what am I afraid would happen if I were to stop judging myself?
  • Is there something in me that thinks I deserve the bad things that happen to me? Does this part of me have my best interests at heart?
  • Is are part of me that feels like forgiving myself would be condoning something harmful and that I’ll then do it again? What does this say about what I need to learn?
  • Is there some part of me that believes if I forgive myself that I will never improve? That there’s no hope for controlling some part that I don’t like?
  • What would I have to feel or experience that’s difficult if I let go of self-blame?
  • If I stop blaming myself what would I have to open to that’s difficult?
  • What is my mind trying to communicate to me through self-judgment? What is the message underlying the judgment?
  • What stands between me and offering support to myself in this difficult time? What might I feel if I talked to the part of me that was hurting and said, “’I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” or “forgiven. forgiven.”?
  • To what extent does my judgment match with my values?
  • Do I ever use self-judgment as a way to avoid taking responsibility, achieve a desired goal, or get someone else to take care of me?
  • How does my self-judgment impact my relationships?
  • Am I keeping my self-judgments a secret? If so, where did I get the idea that keeping my self-judgments secret is a helpful way to live?
  • To what extent do I reveal my judgments or shame to others? What prevents me from talking about this with another person?
  • Is there a part of me that feels small, judged, scared or condemned? If so, what does that part of me need from me?
  • Am I telling myself that I need my self-criticism or harsh judgment for motivation? Is it possible that there might be other ways of interacting with myself that could be more motivating?
  • Am I afraid I will feel guilty if I do something caring or kind for myself?
  • Do I believe that letting myself off the hook for something will mean I am selfish or immoral?
  • Did I actually do anything wrong here according to my own values? If not, what might I need to learn in relation to what I am feeling? If so, who do I need to admit my wrongdoing to? Myself? Someone else?
  • How open am I to considering that I might be wrong about my judgments of myself?
  • Am I condemning myself for a mistake I made in the past?
  • What are my expectations or predictions of what might happen if I were to “let myself off the hook” for this situation? What do I fear would the outcome if I tried a new behavior?

If you find yourself judging your judging:

  • What is my mind trying to tell me by judging my judging?
  • What I am I afraid would happen if I were to let go of judging my judgment, even temporarily?

If you find yourself resisting self-enquiry:

  • Am I feeling tense as I do this exercise? If so, what does that tell me about what I need to learn?
  • Is it possible that my bodily tension means I am not completely open to what I may need to learn? If so, what might I this mean?
  • Am I resisting doing self-enquiry? If so, is there something I need to learn from my resistance?
  • Am I trying to do self-enquiry “properly” or perfectly? What am I afraid might happen if I gave myself space to explore what will work for me?

If you are wanting to punish yourself or are extremely harsh in your self-judgment

  • How does punishing myself help me or others?
  • Is it possible that punishing myself for past mistakes or perceived wrongdoings actually creates the ground for those mistakes or problems to occur again?
  • Do I feel like I’m harming others in this situation? If so, does hating or condemning myself for harming others make it less likely that they will be harmed by me?
  • Do I feel like I’ve done some harmful behavior this difficult for me to forgive?  If so, does hating myself or condemning myself for it help at all?
  • Is it possible that my reactions are my fault? Can I see ways in which it might not be completely my fault?
  • Is it possible that I don’t want to let go of or change a harsh judgment?
  • If I am holding onto a grudge or resentment, how is this hurting or helping me? Is it hurting or helping other people in my life? What might I need to learn?
  • What am I afraid would happen if I were to allow myself to feel my feelings? What might be possible if I were able to fully feel what I feel?

If the situation involves another person

  • If the other person seemed tense or critical, is it possible that this has nothing to do with me? Could it be that this person is struggling with something personal? If, so what might I need to learn?
  • Is it possible this other person finds their own emotions difficult or troubling? Could their behavior be the result of past trauma or painful events in their past that I don’t know about that are affecting them? If, so what would this mean for how I’d want to respond?
  • Is it possible this person has difficulty with conflict? If so, what might I need to learn?
  • Is it possible that this person sometimes struggles with being compassionate toward others or fails to appreciate the impact they have on others? If so, what might this mean for me?
  • Am I failing to see the world from their perspective? If so, what might I need to learn?
  • Does holding onto resentment, self-blame, or judgment help me in this relationship with this person? Does it make it easier to harder or easier to be in a relationship with this person or people like them?


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