A new mother who’s having trouble putting her baby to sleep believes she’s a terrible parent. A student who hasn’t scored the highest marks in class believes he will never get into college. A professional who just got promoted believes she doesn’t deserve it.
The three individuals in these examples follow a similar line of thought — that they’re not good enough. That anything they achieve is just a matter of chance. These are results of ‘self criticism’ i.e. the behavior of pointing out one’s own perceived flaws, regarding physical appearance, achievements, intellectual attributes, and so on. It’s the dominant, harsh, topdog voice in one’s head that keeps one from trying new things or believing that they are deserving of success. A self-critical person takes failure to heart — allowing it to negatively affect their (often already faltering) self-esteem and sense of self.
How to recognize signs of self-criticism
You don’t appreciate your successes
You don’t believe your achievements are results of your effort. If a project you’re handling at work goes well, you attribute it to external forces beyond your control, or simply to luck. Moreover, when you do reach your goals, you don’t take a moment to pat yourself on the back — instead focusing on what more you could have done.
You pass on new opportunities
Have you ever said no to a challenging task at work? Avoided unfamiliar situations for fear of failure and/or embarrassment? That’s a function of self-criticism. The fear of failure and its accompanying feelings are so extreme, that you’d rather not try at all.
You’re too harsh on yourself
Consider this — you work hard on your dissertation for months and submit it to your supervisor, who suggests several revisions. A self-critical person would take this feedback personally and consider themselves a failure for not getting it perfect the first time. They wouldn’t consider the effort they put into it, but only focus on the fact that they didn’t get it 100% correct.
You blame yourself for negative situations
Say your child is late to school. You immediately think of all the things you could have done differently to prevent it. Maybe you took too long to prepare his lunch. You didn’t push him to get ready fast enough. Perhaps if you didn’t have to go to work you could have dropped him to school instead of having him wait for the bus. In short — you take the entire blame, never once considering the other factors (e.g. your child waking up late, the bus not coming on time) that could have led to this situation.
Why do self-critical tendencies develop?
Negative childhood experiences
Early bonds and experiences have a major impact on an individual’s sense of self. When parents encourage their kids to have new experiences and allow them to fail without censure, they are more likely to grow up with a sense of self-confidence. However, when children are criticized, controlled, or not given enough attention and compassion, they grow up to be overly critical of themselves and those around them.
Impact of culture
Research shows that those raised in collectivistic cultures (such as those found in Asia) are more self-critical. This is because the ‘self’ in these cultures is understood in the context of relations with other people in different situations . In Western, individualistic cultures, the individual is encouraged to be independent, and think of themselves positively as an autonomous being — they therefore grow up with a strong sense of self and put great value on self belief.
How does it affect us
Self-criticism is beneficial, but to an extent. It allows us to acknowledge our mistakes, and work on improving them. It keeps us grounded and encourages positive change. But chronic self-criticism that impacts our day to day life is unhealthy and can lead to mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, body image-related disorders, and in some severe cases, self harm.
Often, self-criticism results in us projecting our negative beliefs onto others. This leads us to expect negativity and criticism from others, and in turn, affects our interpersonal relationships. We become afraid of voicing our opinions and experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Thus, while self criticism affects us, it also affects our interactions with those around us.
How to deal with self-criticism
At its very core, our inner critic is simply trying to protect us — from feeling the emotional pain of failure and helplessness. However, when this critical part begins affecting our self esteem, we need to stop and recognize the ‘tone’ in which this inner self critic is talking to us. Was there a gentler way you could have spoken to yourself? Was the situation really so bad that it warranted such harsh words?
Reassure the critic
Each of us has a rational, balanced side to ourselves that needs to step in when the critic goes overboard. Reassure the critic that you can handle any possible failure. That it’s important to try new things. Falling and failing is a part of life — and when you talk to your inner critic in a positive and compassionate way, is when you move from an unhealthy ‘critic’ mindset to a healthier and kinder ‘coach mindset’. This ‘coach’ mindset is one that allows you to work on improving yourself, without beating yourself up for your mistakes — real or perceived.
Evaluate the evidence
Say you have a big presentation at work, and you’re certain you’re going to fail. Take a piece of paper, divide it into two halves, and on each side, write down the evidence that supports that thought, and on the other, evidence that points to your success. Often, it’s the latter column that’ll have more evidence. Seeing it written down will help you steer your mind to a more positive place.
Self criticism is natural. All of us do it — and we should, in fact. It’s what helps us get better in every aspect of our lives. But it’s important for us to recognize and call out our self-critic when it’s being harsh, unkind, and putting us in a negative mindspace. With some simple steps, practiced consistently, you can go from fearing your inner critic to being friends with it!
Credits: Dr Divya Kannan – Clinical Psychologist, Cure.fit