Dealing with self-criticism
Dealing with self-criticism
Thursday, 16 July 2020
Too many of us are quietly, privately, hard on ourselves. We walk around with a drill sergeant in our heads, shouting abuse at us, telling us we’ll never amount to anything.
Sometimes we feel such pressure to achieve that self-criticism seems like a necessity in today’s world. There’s a myth we can hang on to telling us that having a harsh inner critic is useful to getting where we want in life.
Self-criticism is a very common experience
However, self-criticism is generally rarely useful. Realising that can help reduce its influence on you.
The good news is, there is an antidote. First, you need to understand how and where your self-criticism comes from.
What is an inner critic?
We all have inner monologues. You know that little voice that narrates your life, reminding you to do things and probably warning you not to do things.
When an inner voice gets critical of you and what you’re doing or trying to do, it can sound sarcastic, angry, disappointed, pessimistic or just mean. Self-criticism often has an underlying theme that we are not enough. Maybe for you it’s not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough, not [fill in the blank] enough.
Sometimes self-criticism is so rooted in our way of thinking that we can’t tell the difference between the self-critic and our real point of view. This way the negative thoughts we have can firmly become facts in our mind.
When we’re in a challenging situation or one that causes us self-doubt, our inner critic can escalate. Some young people don’t even realise it’s there because it’s like talk radio in the background, chattering away like a channel they always have on. It can get so familiar that they’re not aware enough to stop what they’re doing, question what they’re listening to. Most importantly of all, they don’t change the channel.
The problem with self-criticism
Self-criticism can sometimes seem like it’s there to motivate you. Maybe you think it’s the voice that will drive you to run faster, study more, try harder, perform better, etc. A motivating, encouraging voice is OK. The problem is when we become overly harsh with ourselves.
Studies show self-criticism does the opposite. It reduces our chances of achieving our goals and can actually slow our progress. Critical self-talk can be destructive, crushing motivation and leading to procrastination. It can slow us down and drain our energy. It can damage our self-esteem.
When you tell yourself you’re going to mess up, you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-criticism can trip up professionals and even elite athletes too. In a special podcast on ‘choking’, Freakonomics interviewed Jeremy Abbott: one of the best figure skaters in the world when he competed at the Olympics in 2014 hoping for a gold medal. In the middle of his Olympic routine, Abbott fell hard on the ice and gave what the NBC commentator called “a disastrous performance”. He finished 12th and retired shortly after. He told Freakonomics years later that “the moment I went out… every insecurity that I had about myself and about my skating was just magnified by a million.”
In Jigsaw, we get young people to listen to and challenge their inner critic.
Understanding where self-criticism comes from
“You didn’t lick it off a stone” is a great Irish phrase. It means we are influenced by the people around us, those we grew up with and those we share genes with.
In Jigsaw, when we support young people whose self-criticism is affecting their wellbeing, we ask them to try to understand their self-critic better. That usually means asking, who does it sounds like? Does it speak like someone that bullied you in school? Does it remind you of an overly critical parent or relative? A harsh teacher? Or someone you had a difficult relationship with?
Some teenagers find that when they were younger, their parents or a teacher used some harsh words to try to get them to do something. These early experiences leave an impression on them. They think that if they’re really hard on themselves they’ll get things done, or at least make the people around them happy.
Borrowing someone else’s words or attitudes and adopting them as our own is called internalising. There are times we can have very good reasons for internalising someone who is critical of us. It can help us predict an attack from them, and give us the chance to avert it. Self-criticism can be a misguided way to protect ourselves.
If this sounds familiar, know that you don’t want or need an inner critic to be in the passenger seat for the rest of your life. There are ways to turn down the volume on it. Recognising that it is there and where it came from will already reduce its power.
The great antidote to self-criticism
The opposite to self-criticism is self-compassion.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion means treating yourself with kindness and empathy. When a friend is worried or in trouble, we can usually find some kind and wise words to say to them. The trick is to find those words for ourselves.
Self-compassion replaces the drill instructor with an encouraging coach who cheers you on from the sideline. The coach recognises your effort and never compares you to others. Instead of ‘you are not xyz enough’, the coach says ‘you are doing your best’, or ‘you’re making great progress’. If there is something you might like to improve but don’t have time for, your coach reminds you that ‘you are focusing on more important things right now’.
Self-compassion isn’t permission to give up, to let yourself off the hook, or to blame other people. Instead, self-compassion is speaking to yourself with a different voice. The voice understands you have flaws like everyone else, but are doing your best. It is accepting that everyone is a work in progress.
There are ways to tweak how you speak to yourself to make it more compassionate.
Other tips for dealing with self-criticism
Mess with the voice
When you recognise your inner critic chattering away, don’t tell it go away. Instead, change its voice to an annoying cartoon character. Make it sound like Donald Duck or Dora the Explorer and it will sound ridiculous. This can make it hard to take what it’s saying seriously.
Challenge the statements
Self-critical thoughts are rarely true, and often over-the-top negative. When you hear these thoughts, pause, and calmly ask for evidence.
If you think, “I’m a total idiot and will mess up this exam/game/project,” respond with ‘let’s look at the evidence’. On a piece of paper write down all the proof you have that points to failure. Then on the other side of the page, list all the evidence that you aren’t going to fail. For example, you can list other exams you passed, or the fact you were good enough to be given this project or place on the team in the first place.
Then sit back and look at the evidence on both sides. That should give you a more rational and clearer view of the situation. If there are obstacles ahead, you now have the chance to plan how you’ll tackle them.
If you’re too overwhelmed to do this exercise yourself, ask someone to help you with it.
If you never meet your goals and are never happy with what you achieve, you could be deliberately setting standards so high that you’ll never meet them. This is called perfectionism. It is a form of self-sabotage and can cause you great unhappiness in the long run.
Take a long hard look at the expectations you have of yourself. Are they realistic? Where are they coming from?
Try to break these down and start to learn to live with flexible expectations.
- Issues with self-esteem? is a workbook from NHS south Glasgow.
- Watch this lecture on Perfectionism by Dr Keith Gaynor, Senior Clinical Psychologist, St John of God
- Try these self-compassion exercises from expert Dr Kristin Neff
- Read ‘My brain feels like it’s been punched’: the intolerable rise of perfectionism