Self-criticism or the act of pointing out one’s perceived flaws can be a healthy way to increase and achieve personal growth but it may also prove a barrier to one’s self-esteem and peace of mind.
Self-criticism may often help facilitate the process of learning from one’s mistakes and can also be helpful when one attempts to overcome areas of weakness or unwanted habits.
A high level of self-criticism that prevents individuals from taking risks, asserting opinions, or believing in their own abilities may be unhelpful or detrimental to well-being.
Examples of Self-Criticism
Self-criticism is typically experienced as negative internal thoughts about oneself or more specifically about one’s behaviors and attributes. When self-critical thoughts apply broadly rather than focus on a particular behavior, they may be more likely to impact well-being negatively.
• I am a failure
• I can’t do anything
• I am not good enough
• I’ll never get better
• I am so stupid
• I am just so ugly
• I am so weak
• I can’t do anything right
Origin of Self-Criticism
The predisposition toward self-criticism originates in our early relationships.
• Excessively self-critical thoughts may often have their roots in negative experiences with caregivers in childhood. Parents may have extremely high expectations. We may have a sibling who excels academically, in sports or in some other area and always receives attention and praise for his or her super achievement.
• Rigidly demanding teachers or punitive coaches may also contribute to this predisposition.
• Culture or society may also install high demands on ourselves that further our sense of not feeling good enough.
• Friendships can also fuel this type of inner critic.
These earlier experiences may contribute to overtly intense perfectionism driven to avoid shame- in the eyes of others and oneself. Additionally, they may contribute to feeling flawed, unlovable, and undesirable when seeking connection with others.
The Effects of Self-Criticism on Mental Health
Self-criticism can be beneficial when it allows for the acknowledgment and assessment of mistakes and failures or the cultivation of humanity and positive change. But when one’s self-critical tendencies impede the ability to thrive, any benefits of self-criticism may be overshadowed by possible harm to mental well-being.
Occasional self-doubt is generally considered to be a normal part of life, but chronic and excessive self-criticism may contribute to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, body image issues, or feeling of worthlessness. A tendency to blame oneself when things go wrong may lead to feelings of failure, lowness, or a depressed mood. Highly self-critical individuals may also feel guilty or ashamed when something goes wrong, believing the fault lies with them, it can also be linked with perfectionism, self-harm, eating, and food issues.
Self-criticism as an expression of Anger
Self-criticism can generate a variety of feelings including shame, guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, and hopelessness. At the same time, it may stem from an ongoing sense of anger toward oneself. It is then understandable that such criticism can foster a tendency to feel isolated.
While many of the individuals who seek my services for anger management direct their anger outward, those who experience depression or anxiety often direct their anger inward in the form of self-criticism. Such anger may blend with a sense of self-disgust, a revulsion regarding some aspect of ourselves or ourselves as a whole.
Self-reflection, self-evaluation, and self-criticism
The capacity for self-reflection is a key quality of being human, such reflection can be helpful when it involves an objective evaluation of ourselves, our thinking, feeling, and behaviors. It can be beneficial to our wisdom in a variety of ways. Self-reflection helps us connect with ourselves and by doing so it can help us to notice negative patterns in our lives, support our motivation to achieve a goal, look at the bigger picture in our lives, promote self-soothing for difficult emotions, identify values, and support decision making.
Constructive self-evaluation offers us information about what went wrong and what we might do differently the next time. It focuses on the task with objective attention to the details of the task and our actions.
Therapy to Address Self-Critical Tendencies
There is no specific type of therapy that is used, a variety of therapeutic techniques may be beneficial. One effective intervention for self-criticism is self-compassion or practicing kindness and understanding towards oneself. A therapist can teach ways to practice compassion and can help a person seeking treatment explore any potential barriers to self-compassion.
Mindfulness interventions also serve as another effective method of combating self-criticism. Mindfulness, which refers to a nonjudgmental awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings, has been linked to enhancing self-esteem. Therapy can improve insight into thoughts and feelings and those with greater mindfulness skills may be better able to verbally describe internal experiences, consider thoughts and emotions without judgments, focus on present events, and avoid lingering or reacting to every negative thought. Mindfulness is believed to be likely to further one’s ability to self-validate and challenge negative thoughts.