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Learn / The Psychology of Self-Criticism: Why We Tear Ourselves Down and What to Do About It

The Psychology of Self-Criticism: Why We Tear Ourselves Down and What to Do About It

By 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.
|
 January 3rd, 2024

Self-criticism affects how we think, feel, and behave. We often criticize ourselves more than others and can harshly judge our own decisions and actions. This tendency to be self-critical can have profound implications on our mental health and well-being. 

So, what drives this inner critic, and what’s it really about? Why do we struggle to talk kindly to ourselves? And what can we do about it? 

What is Self-Criticism?

Self-criticism is a cognitive and emotional process of evaluating yourself negatively, focusing on personal flaws, mistakes, and perceived inadequacies. It involves a critical and harsh internal dialogue, often driven by high shame, guilt, and self-blame. Those who self-criticize tend to hold excessively high standards for themselves and are prone to self-judgment and self-punishment.

Self-criticism is often associated with psychological distress, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It can hinder personal growth, impair interpersonal relationships, and contribute to a cycle of negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. 
Moreover, self-criticism has been linked to maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, such as perseveration, rumination, and avoidance, which can worsen psychological difficulties.

Understanding the Nature of Self-Criticism

The fundamental premise of self-criticism lies in the fact that we are our own worst critics. We may find it easier to forgive others for their mistakes or overlook certain behaviors, but struggle to do the same for ourselves.  This could stem from a desire for perfectionism or a fear of failure, perhaps due to an underlying need for approval from those around us or an inability to accept our imperfections. 

Cognitive Dissonance, Attachment, And Our Past

Various psychological theories attempt to explain why we feel compelled toward self-criticism. The cognitive dissonance theory suggests that humans experience cognitive discomfort when their beliefs don’t match with reality, leading them towards self-judgment as a way of reducing this tension. 

Meanwhile, attachment theory proposes that our early childhood relationships shape how we form attachments later in life. If these were negative, then it could lead to low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy in adulthood, which can manifest as self-criticism. 

Our past experiences also play a role in our likelihood to self-criticize; trauma, challenges, and/or criticism from parents or peers during childhood can stay with us into adulthood and affect our present view of self. While understanding the nature of self-criticism can help us identify its root causes, ultimately, we choose how we react—whether by embracing compassion or continuing down the path of judgmental thoughts.

Why Do We Engage in Self-Criticism?

We self-criticize for many reasons. One reason is that we’re trying to motivate ourselves to do better. We might think that if we tell ourselves how bad we are, we’ll be more likely to work harder and improve. But instead of motivating us, self-criticism can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Another reason why we engage in self-criticism is to please others. We might think that if we’re constantly critical of ourselves, others will think more highly of us. However, people are more likely to be drawn to those who are confident and self-assured.

Finally, we might engage in self-criticism because it’s a habit. We’ve been doing it for so long that it’s become automatic. But if self-criticism is getting in the way of your life, it’s time to break the habit.

The Impact of Self-Criticism On Mental Health 

The damaging effects of self-criticism can have a deep impact on mental health. It can lead to a fear of failure, preventing us from forming meaningful relationships with others. Self-critical thinking is often seen as a cycle that can be hard to break—the more we criticize ourselves, the more likely we are to continue this pattern. Here are some examples of how self-criticism can impact your mental health: 

  • Constant self-criticism can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
  • Self-criticism can create a disconnect between your thoughts and emotions, making it difficult to understand yourself and your feelings.
  • Self-criticism can keep you from  pursuing goals due to fear of failure or rejection.
  • Self-criticism can make it more challenging to form meaningful connections since negative feelings about yourself can lead to avoidance of social situations.

Recognizing the signs of negative thought patterns is essential to manage these destructive cycles before they become too habitual. If you find yourself frequently engaging in self-deprecating talk or comparing yourself harshly to others, then it’s important to take steps toward replacing these negative thoughts with positive affirmations and realistic goals.

Self-Criticism And Addiction

Self-criticism can lead to shame, guilt, and depression. These emotions can then lead to substance use or other unhealthy coping mechanisms in an attempt to escape or numb the pain. In addition, self-criticism can interfere with your ability to develop healthy relationships and maintain healthy behaviors, which can further contribute to addiction.

For example, someone with addiction may feel ashamed of their behavior. This shame can lead to guilt and depression, which can then make them more likely to use substances to manage their emotions. 

In addition, self-criticism can make it difficult for people to build healthy relationships. If someone constantly criticizes themselves, they may be reluctant to open up to others and share their struggles. This can lead to isolation and loneliness, which can also increase the risk of addiction. 

Self-criticism is not the only contributing factor for addiction. However, it can be a significant factor, and should be considered when addressing addiction. 

If you are struggling with addiction, it is important to seek help from a professional who can help you  address the underlying issues contributing to your addiction. Many rehab facilities and programs can help you navigate addiction and co-occurring issues stemming from self-critical tendencies.

How to Overcome Self-Criticism 

You can break the habit of self-criticism with the right strategies. To start, it’s important to acknowledge our negative thoughts and challenge their accuracy. We can also engage in positive self-talk, focusing on mindfulness, gratitude, and optimism rather than dwelling on failures or shortcomings. 

Additionally, exercise and hobbies can distract from negative thinking while allowing creativity to flourish. Mindfulness practices such as meditation and setting realistic goals are also essential for managing expectations without placing too much pressure on ourselves. 

Through these steps, we can learn how to be compassionate towards ourselves and build a healthier relationship with our inner critic—one that encourages self-compassion above all else. With this understanding, we will gain greater confidence in ourselves, which leads us down a path of improved relationships both internally and externally.

What Can I Do to Control the Criticism?

An important step is to be aware of your thoughts and feelings. When you catch yourself engaging in self-criticism, take a moment to challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself if they’re really true, and if there’s a more helpful way to think about the situation.

Harnessing Perception: Reframing Negatives to Positives

Keeping yourself in a negative frame of mind can have adverse effects that can create or exacerbate depression, anxiety, ADHD, insomnia, and so much more. In addition, maintaining a negative perception can make you more likely to notice only the bad things in life, making it harder to access, appreciate, and believe the good. 

Changing perspectives and focusing on controlling your perception can help you maintain a positive attitude and approach. So, instead of focusing on the negative, challenging yourself to reframe the same to a positive can help shift the existing behavioral pattern. For example, if you typically say: 

Negative:

“You are a loser and you need to work harder to get your results” 

shift to 

Positive: 

“I aspire to be healthy and strong and will work harder to match my vision”

Once practiced, this type of reframing can help shift perception from negative to positive in multiple areas of your life. 

Some steps you can take to change negative self-talk to positive self-talk: 

  • Challenge the validity of the negative thoughts, then…
  • Replace them with more positive thoughts (use the example above).
  • Focus on gratitude daily (consider keeping a gratitude journal).
  • Consistency is key. The more you practice reframing to the positive, the more likely this will become your new way of perceiving things and living your life. 

Positive Affirmations to Practice: 

  • I am worthy of love and belonging.
  • I am capable and competent.
  • I am worthy of success and abundance.
  • I am grateful for all that I have.
  • I am a gift to the world.
  • I am beautiful. 

You can also customize affirmations to specific activities and goals, for example, here are some affirmations for working out: 

  • I am worthy of being healthy and fit.
  • I am strong and capable.
  • I am getting stronger every day.
  • I am loving the process of working out.
  • I am grateful for my body.

Practicing saying and writing positive affirmations and gratitude daily can help improve your mental health and well-being. While starting this practice can often feel forced, the more you do it, the more likely you are to reach your goals. 

Finding Help for Self-Criticism

It can help to talk to a mental health professional about your self-criticism. A rehab program, therapist, counselor, or coach can help you identify the root of your self-criticism and develop strategies for coping with it. Some questions to ask and explore with your provider can include: 

* Is my self-criticism helpful or harmful?

* How can I be less self-critical?

* What can I do to be more positive about myself?

* What are some of the benefits of being less self-critical?

* What are some of the risks of being too self-critical?


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