Have these thoughts ever come across your mind? “Why didn’t I do better?” “How could I have missed that point? I’m such a fool…” “I could have seen that coming! If I had been more careful…” etc. Self-criticism is common and it exists as almost part of our daily lives. We criticise ourselves more often than we think we do, it has become so natural that we may not even be aware that we do so.
The question worth pondering upon is, why do we criticise ourselves? If you’re able to take a moment, close your eyes and try to visualise your self-criticism in human form. How does he/she look? What is he/she saying to you? What tone of voice does he/she use? Try to imagine if you’re going to let this self-critical voice go, what might be your fears?
A lot of the time, we criticise ourselves unknowingly to avoid making future mistakes, and possibly to motivate ourselves with the intent to improve. We (subconsciously) believe that our self-critical voices will do us good. However, we aren’t born with the habit of self-criticism. Our self-critical voice may represent internalised criticism received from others in our earlier experiences. These are often painful memories or experiences that we want to avoid. Therefore, we internalised them as part of our self-criticism to avoid future rejection, disappointment, humiliation etc. This process develops over years and becomes almost a part of ourself.
Unfortunately, we know that self-criticism has more costs than the intended benefits.
Many research studies have shown that self-criticism is associated with depressive and anxiety symptoms, it may also be a transdiagnostic factor underlying psychopathology. Highly self-critical individuals are more prone to feelings of shame, guilt, failure and inferiority. Moreover, people with self-critical traits benefit less from psychosocial interventions. This implies that self-criticism can be a stumbling block that stops us from feeling better.
The good news is, compassion may be the antidote to the toxicity of self-criticism. Being able to be self-reassuring and compassionate towards oneself have been shown to be positively linked with psychopathology. Neuroimaging studies have shown that self-criticism and self-reassurance has a neural basis to it which implies encouraging compassion to oneself may be helpful in managing self-criticism.
So, how can we manage self-criticism?
The first step is to be aware of them, self-criticism often exists in your self-evaluation or judgement. At the beginning it may be hard to detect them. But you can always invite a friend or a partner who knows you well to help you out. When you call them up and vent about something, ask them to listen for any signs of self-criticism. Ask them to notice if you’re judging yourself too harshly, and if your friend believes so, you probably are.
Second step is to bring an understanding to why you might be doing so. Ask yourself, what is my self-criticism trying to achieve here? Trying to avoid mistakes? Pushing me to reach a higher standard? Protect me from rejections or disappointments? To fit in and avoid being excluded? To punish myself?
Third step is to brainstorm how you might achieve the above goals in a more supportive and compassionate way. You may now see how unhelpful self-criticism can be. It makes us feel worse about ourselves when we face setbacks. Self-criticism often focuses only on our deficits, past errors, self-criticism judges us unfairly and makes global statements about ourselves. On the other hand, compassionate self-correction focuses on strengths, growth and learning points. Compassion supports us with understanding and encouragement. Now, bring to mind a kind and supportive figure in your earlier life, e.g. your favourite teacher, what would he/she say to support you in this stressful situation?
Next time when you notice your self-critic, consider the above three steps and try to have an internal dialogue with yourself. Notice what you want to achieve and how are you going to achieve it in the kindest possible way. It takes practice and hopefully the seed of compassion will eventually grow as you learn to be more kind to yourself.
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Longe, O., Maratos, F. A., Gilbert, P., Evans, G., Volker, F., Rockliff, H., & Rippon, G. (2010). Having a word with yourself: Neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance. NeuroImage, 49(2), 1849-1856.
Löw, C. A., Schauenburg, H., & Dinger, U. (2020). Self-criticism and psychotherapy outcome: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 75, 101808.
Werner, A. M., Tibubos, A. N., Rohrmann, S., & Reiss, N. (2019). The clinical trait self-criticism and its relation to psychopathology: A systematic review–Update. Journal of Affective Disorders, 246, 530-547.