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Self-criticism: why we do it and how not to

Like many aspects of our seemingly irrational selves, the basis can often make perfect sense. Self-criticism and self-blame are at the heart of many of our negative thoughts and have an impact on self-esteem and in turn our ability to tackle challenges and setbacks without having a detrimental effect on our mood and anxiety.

Self-criticism and self-blame start in childhood. We blame ourselves to make sure we don’t get angry at someone who is bigger and scarier than us. Self-criticism can, therefore, begin as a strategy to protect ourselves from a more powerful other. People with dominant, unpredictable or aggressive parents often become self-critical. Reflecting on the environment you grew up in might help you to think about aspects of this background that made it difficult to blame or challenge others and how you may instead have learned to internalize this criticism.

Negative beliefs about ourselves aren’t comfortable so we tend to develop ways of living that mean we don’t have to endure this harsh self -critique. Often people who are self-critical tend to be driven and develop unrealistic high standards for themselves. There are many benefits to this when things are going well, but the moment a self-imposed high standard is not met (and it is only a matter of time before this will happen), those self-critical thoughts come flooding back in. We tell ourselves it’s our fault, we’re a failure and not good enough and our mood, anxiety and motivation suffer as result.

It is better then to adopt a way of thinking and being that keeps what’s great about high standards (e.g. being motivated, driven, producing good work), that doesn’t come at such a cost when things don’t go well. So rather than an absolute black and white thinking style marked by all or nothing thinking (e.g. “I made a mistake in the presentation, so I’ve failed”), aim instead for more balanced, kinder thinking (e.g. “There was enough that was excellent about my presentation to make up for the error I made).

It might also be helpful to think about what purpose self-criticism is serving now. Is there something about the dynamics amongst your colleagues or relatives that make it difficult to place the criticism somewhere other than at your own door? If it’s not possible to challenge others for mistakes that were made, don’t take it on yourself instead.

Dr. Marie Thompson, Clinical Psychologist

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