Self-criticism can profoundly impact our emotional well-being and hinder our personal growth. In this article, we will explore the nature of self-criticism, its consequences, its mistaken role in self-improvement and ways to overcome self-criticism.
What is Self-Criticism?
Self-criticism involves a harsh, judgmental inner dialogue focused on our perceived flaws and shortcomings. Some examples include:
Appearance: “I hate the way I look. I’m so unattractive compared to others.”
Intelligence: “I’m not smart enough. I always make stupid mistakes.”
Performance at work: “I’m such a failure. I can’t seem to get anything right.”
Relationships: “It’s all my fault. I’m not lovable, and I always mess things up.”
Creativity: “I’m not talented. My ideas are worthless, and I’ll never be as good as others.”
Decision-making: “I always make the wrong choices. I can’t trust myself to make good decisions.”
Social skills: “I’m so awkward. I never know what to say, and people probably think I’m weird.”
Productivity: “I’m lazy and unproductive. I can’t seem to accomplish anything worthwhile.”
Parenting: “I’m a terrible parent. I always feel like I’m failing my children.”
Personal goals: “I can’t achieve anything. I’ve tried before and always give up or fall short.”
Why do People Criticize Themselves?
Adverse Childhood Experiences: If people have repeated negative upbringing experiences, such as trauma, bullying, criticism from caretakers, or repeated failures, it can contribute to self-criticism. It is important to note that a single negative experience (e.g., being blamed by parents for a few times) won’t likely let people consistently criticize themselves but repeated negative experiences are likely so.
Comparison and Social Pressure: Comparison to others, especially in the age of social media, can fuel being critical of self. People often compare their achievements, appearance, and life situations to others, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-judgment. In an overly competitive environment, it is easier for people to be critical of themselves and others.
Discrimination: Discrimination based on people’s background and identities can have a significant negative impact on people’s perception of themselves, such as internalization of stereotypes, diminished self-worth, imposter syndrome, and disrupted self-identity.
High Standards and Perfectionism: Many individuals hold themselves to excessively high standards, aiming for perfection in various aspects of life. They believe that anything less than perfection is a failure, leading to criticizing themselves when they fall short of their own unrealistic expectations.
Low Self-Esteem and Negative Self-Image: People with low self-esteem or a negative self-image often criticize themselves as a way to reinforce their negative beliefs about themselves. They may believe they deserve criticism or that self-criticism will motivate them to change.
Unresolved Emotional Issues: Unresolved emotional issues, such as unresolved guilt, shame, or unresolved grief, can fuel self-criticism. Individuals may believe that by constantly criticizing themselves, they are atoning for their perceived wrongdoings or
The Impact of Self-Criticism
Emotional distress: Self-criticism often triggers feelings of shame, guilt, fear and sadness, and it is usually the underlying psychological reason for various mental health struggles, such as anxieties and depression.
Negative self-esteem: Chronic self-criticism erodes self-esteem, making it difficult to appreciate our strengths and achievements.
Perfectionism: Excessive criticism of self fuels perfectionistic tendencies, leading to unattainable standards and self-judgment.
Fear of failure: Self-criticism intensifies the fear of making mistakes, limiting our willingness to take risks and embrace growth opportunities.
Interpersonal and romantic relationships: Highly critical people tend to have high expectations of themselves and those around them. They usually think they are not good enough or their friends and partners are not. This mentality may cause them to overly put others before themselves (i.e., people-pleasing tendency), excessively need validation, have difficulty expressing needs and defending their boundaries or be very critical of others and argumentative, making it hard to get along with them. Therefore, they struggle to have fulfilling relationships.
Why it is Hard to Change Self-Criticism?
Motivation for Improvement: Self-criticism can serve as a great driving force for personal growth and self-improvement. Individuals may be motivated to strive for better outcomes and develop new skills or behaviours by identifying areas of perceived weakness or shortcomings. This is usually the biggest reason why people stick with criticizing themselves, even if they know it is unhealthy. Self-criticism can be very effective in driving people to progress up to a certain point (it varies from years to decades). When people reach that point, they will only feel the pain of criticizing themselves without having the ability to be more productive. Whenever people hear “don’t be too harsh on yourself” or “be more compassinate toward yourself”, they automatically associate it with being lazy, self-indulgent, weak, and narcissistic. However, people usually confuse self-criticism and self-reflection in the role of self-growth.
The Difference between Self-Criticism and Self-Reflection
Focus: Self-criticism tends to emphasize personal flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings. It often involves critically evaluating oneself, and highlighting perceived failures or inadequacies.
Tone: Self-criticism typically has a negative and harsh tone. It involves self-judgment, self-blame, and a tendency to magnify negative aspects or mistakes.
Intention: The intention behind self-criticism is often to express dissatisfaction with oneself or to motivate change. However, it can be fueled by self-doubt, self-criticism, or a desire to conform to unrealistic standards.
Focus: Self-reflection involves a broader examination of oneself, including thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and experiences. It focuses on understanding oneself, personal growth, and gaining insight into patterns and motivations.
Tone: Self-reflection is characterized by a more neutral and objective tone. It involves curiosity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to explore both positive and negative aspects of oneself.
Intention: The intention behind self-reflection is to gain self-awareness, learn from experiences, and make informed decisions. It aims to foster personal growth, self-understanding, and the development of insights that can lead to positive change.
While self-criticism can be destructive and demoralizing, self-reflection is a constructive and empowering process. Self-reflection allows individuals to better understand themselves, make informed choices, and foster personal development. It encourages self-compassion, acceptance, and a balanced perspective on strengths and areas for growth. Unfortunately, due to the abovementioned reasons, people usually confuse self-reflection with self-criticism, they think it is the latter that keeps motivating them to move forward, but actually, it is the former that does the job. In other words, people can reflect and improve without criticizing themselves.
How to Overcome Self-Criticism?
Overcoming self-criticism involves cultivating self-compassion and embracing personal growth. In psychotherapy, the combination of Cognitive Behavoral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Emotional-Focused Therapy (EFT) can help people break free from the detrimental effects of self-criticism and foster our own development and well-being.
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