Self-criticism exists on a continuum; we are all critical of ourselves at times. In smaller doses, self-criticism, or self-reflection, can be useful. It helps us recognise things in ourselves that we’d like to change and take steps to work towards that goal. It can help us evaluate something we feel we did wrong and consider how we can do it better in the future. However, it is a slippery slope, and useful self-reflection can devolve into harmful self-criticism that becomes the default way of thinking and looking at the world.
People who are overly self-critical tend to be afraid of failure and rejection. They are constantly analysing themselves and how they are doing in various aspects of their lives and can get easily annoyed or frustrated with themselves. Even when they succeed by most standards, they might feel that they have failed because they have not achieved their own, very high expectations. It is common for people who are overly self-critical to turn their attention inwards and take things personally that aren’t personal at all, which can lead to a negative spiral of emotions. Too much self-criticism can also prevent people from taking risks and sharing their opinions.
Why are some people much harsher on themselves than others? There are a few reasons. Self-criticism can stem from early relationships with caregivers. If you had parents with high expectations, were controlling and less affectionate, you are more likely to be critical of yourself. You may have learned that, if you criticise yourself more, your parents will see that you’ve already done it and be less likely to criticise you. The same can be said for friends, teachers, coaches and other significant influencers in a person’s life. Some people simply have a genetic predisposition and temperament that makes them more sensitive to criticism and prone to negative thoughts and low mood. You may feel that, if you criticise yourself more, you’ll work harder and, therefore, avoid criticism from others. You may also think that the criticism you receive from others will hurt less because you’ve already made yourself feel badly enough. Excessive self-criticism can also be related to having a hard time asserting and communicating your needs to other people and then feeling frustrated or blaming yourself when things go wrong.
When we are too harsh on ourselves, the results are more damaging than they are constructive. Whereas a small amount of self-criticism can drive people to do better and propel them forward, too much self-criticism can cause stagnation and isolation. It can bring about feelings of hopelessness, disappointment, shame, guilt, sadness and frustration. Self-criticism also promotes rumination, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Getting caught up in feeling badly can also prevent people from being fully present and engaged in their lives. These feelings can also limit the development of new relationships and friendships, trying new activities and developing new skills. Too much self-criticism can ultimately lead to increased unhappiness and stress and a decreased ability to reach desired goals.
Self-criticism can also be a reaction to an event that feels threatening. Some examples of events that can cause this are: feeling ignored by people, observing others’ achievements, seeing a picture of friends having a good time without you. Research has demonstrated that the same areas of the brain that respond to an external threat are activated by self-criticism. Therefore, self-criticism can lead to the same “fight-flight-freeze” response that occurs in any type of threatening situation. Research has also shown that negative physical and emotional symptoms arise when these states are too frequently activated.
What can you do if you are overly critical of yourself, and it’s negatively impacting your life? There are several different approaches you can take. One is trying to have more self-compassion. It is important to note that self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. Some examples of self-compassion include being kind to yourself when you are experiencing emotional pain, recognising that failure is a part of life and when something bad happens, trying to take a balanced view of the situation rather than fixating only on what went wrong. If having self-compassion sounds like letting yourself off the hook, consider the fact that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with lower levels of reported back pain, headache, nausea and respiratory problems. In addition, people who are able to cultivate higher levels of self-compassion are more motivated to make positive changes in their lives than people who are more self-critical.
Pay attention to your inner dialog and notice how you are feeling when it gets too harsh. Are you feeling angry, anxious or sad? If so, consider how those feelings might be different if you eased up on the negative self-talk. Try not being quite as tough on yourself and see how your feelings change accordingly. You may think you did a terrible job or that something went badly but allowing yourself to also look at the good parts of what happened could help tone down the self-criticism. When you are less critical, you won’t feel as bad, and you’ll have more energy to consider what changes you can make to improve next time rather than simply feeling dejected or paralysed.
Strengthening resilience can also help overcome being self-critical. Resilience includes developing self-soothing skills, or the ability to calm our bodies and emotions when we are upset. Being overly self-critical is a habit that evolves over time. As you learn to replace self-criticism with more balanced self-evaluation, you will create new pathways in your brain that will allow self-evaluation to become your default way of thinking rather than self-criticism.
Start noticing what happens when you start to be self-critical. Remind yourself that just because you are having these thoughts doesn’t mean that they are true. Thoughts are just that, thoughts, they are not facts. Try not to attach meaning to the thoughts. Just because you didn’t do your best doesn’t mean you are useless. It just means you didn’t do your best this time. Allow yourself to consider other possible explanations for what happened and evidence that might exist that would prove that your thoughts are wrong. Remind yourself that no one does their best all the time, and this was one of those times for you. That’s just part of life. Perhaps most motivating, remind yourself that self-criticism won’t make you a better person. In fact, it might prevent you from reaching your goals. Work towards self-reflection instead of self-criticism for a happier, more successful life overall.
Written by Ilissa Howard
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