what is self-criticism

Self-Criticism: What It Is and How It’s Harmful

Self-criticism means evaluating and judging yourself, often with a focus on perceived flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings.  This negative internal dialogue can manifest in various ways, from second-guession your decisions and doubting your abilities to engaging in negative self-talk. 

Examples of self-criticism 

When self-criticism takes the form of negative self-talk, it might sound like: “I always mess things up,” “How stupid can I be,” or “I should have done better.” This version of self-criticism can also be called an ‘inner critic.’ More examples of self-criticism include:
  • Perfectionism: Setting unrealistic standards for yourself and feeling a constant need to achieve flawlessness.
  • Comparison: Measuring your worth against others’ achievements or external standards.
  • Overgeneralisation: Drawing broad negative conclusions about yourself based on isolated incidents.
  • Catastrophising: Magnifying the significance of mistakes or weaknesses until they become the worst possible disasters in your mind.
  • Personalisation: Taking responsibility for external, negative events or blaming yourself for things beyond your control.

What is self-criticism

Everyone evaluates themselves to one degree or another; this action is healthy when it takes the form of self-reflection. Self-reflection is a curious, objective, and constructive review of yourself, your thoughts, emotions, and actions.  However, self-criticism means evaluating yourself and finding yourself lacking. The tone of self-criticism can range from gentle chiding – “Why did I do that? I know better than that” – to severe and harsh judgement such as “Who could ever love someone as useless as me.”

How self-criticism develops

Self-criticism is typically a learned behaviour – we’re not born thinking poorly of ourselves. Instead, self-criticism has roots in our early childhood relationships. A tendency toward self-criticism is often influenced by one or more of the following:  
  • Parents who dismiss or invalidate children’s emotions
  • Parents with high expectations for children’s excellence
  • Parents who self-criticise aloud
  • Strict religious upbringing
  • Peer pressure to conform
  • Demanding teachers, coaches, tutors, or mentors
  • Anxious or perfectionist personality
Cultural influences, such as societal emphasis on success and perfection, can also contribute to the development of self-critical tendencies.  

How self-criticism affects mental health

Self-reflection is healthy. And even a certain level of self-criticism can be motivating for many of us, propelling us to try harder, dig deeper, and achieve more. But over time, self-criticism can be profoundly damaging to mental health. Persistent self-criticism contributes to and worsens low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. It is closely linked to feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, and inadequacy. Continuous negative self-talk can create a cycle of self-doubt, leading to increased stress, diminished well-being, and less capability. Over time, we may become trapped in a pattern of self-sabotage, as our self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that hinders personal growth and fulfilment.

How self-criticism affects relationships

Specifically, self-criticism can spill over into our interactions with others, lead us to assume our loved ones critique us just as much as we judge ourselves, and ultimately strain relationships. We may become defensive, irritable, depressed, or anxious, and as a result, elicit the negative response from others that we expect. We may even withdraw socially, due to feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness fed by our inner critic, and become lonely and isolated. Professionally, when negative self-talk leads us into a cycle of self-doubt, our performance can suffer, as we become less and less capable. We may self-sabotage by procrastinating, avoiding new opportunities, avoiding accountability, or suppressing new ideas. Relationships with colleagues and managers can become strained as a result, and over time, career advancement can stall. Ultimately, negative self-talk can affect all of our relationships – personal, professional, and especially our relationships with ourselves. Extreme self-criticism over time can lead to self-neglect in the form of tolerating injustice towards ourselves, staying in emotionally unhealthy relationships, and refraining from asking for even the bare minimum we deserve.

How to manage self-criticism

Self-criticism can be a difficult habit to break. Many people try to simply ignore the negative voice, thoughts, and feelings about themselves. But two decades of research suggest the more we try to suppress a thought, the more we think it – an outcome called Ironic Process Theory in the field of psychology. Additionally, our attempts to ignore or suppress negative self-talk requires effort, even if we don’t realise it. This effort puts additional strain on our cognitive load and leaves us with diminished cognitive capacity for our work, hobbies, and relationships. Ultimately, the goal of recovering from self-criticism is to develop a balance – a more neutral, compassionate inner evaluation that provides a counterpoint to the instinctive judgement. So, instead of effortfully suppressing or ignoring your self-critical thoughts, try:
  • Replacing self-criticism with positive affirmations that regularly remind yourself of your strengths, accomplishments, and capabilities.
  • Identifying your own values and setting your own realistic goals. Measuring your progress against someone else’s expectations or success can undermine your sense of achievement and self-worth.
  • Setting boundaries to protect your well-being. Saying ‘no’ when needed keeps you from becoming overwhelmed and allows you to focus on priorities, reducing the likelihood of self-critical thoughts.
  • Practicising self-compassion, that is, treating yourself with the same kindness, acceptance, and support as you would a friend who makes a mistake, struggles with a perceived flaw, or experiences a setback. (Learn more about practising self-compassion.)
  • Reframing negative self-criticism into constructive self-talk. This means consciously observing your thoughts so you can notice a thought like, “I’m not good enough,” and reword it as “I am not feeling good enough,” which helps you separate what you think and feel from who you are. (Learn more about reframing negative thoughts.)
  • Reminding yourself that you are not your thoughts. While recognizing and understanding your internal dialogue is essential, it’s equally important to detach your sense of self from internal self-judgement. Thoughts are simply thoughts; not every thought that passes through your mind is a fact.
Self-criticism can take a long time to recover from. Developing the counterbalance of a more neutral, accepting, and encouraging self-perspective takes time and practice. Therapy – whether a digital program or in-person sessions – can help you build strategies and skills that encourage this balance.SOURCES:
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Raksha Rajesh (M.Sc., M.Phil., CRR No. A80195) is a clinical psychologist licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). She has 5+ years of experience in helping people from diverse backgrounds build skills to understand and manage their emotions.

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