The inner critic can be brutal.
It’s late in the afternoon and you’ve had a long day at work. You stop in the restroom before heading home and notice food stuck in your front teeth. It must have been there since lunch. You’ve seen several people this afternoon, including two new customers—no one said anything.
Which set of thoughts goes through your mind?
A: I’m such an idiot. Why didn’t I check the mirror after lunch? People must have been laughing at me all afternoon.
B: Oh dear, how embarrassing. Well, this sort of thing happens to everyone now and then.
Here’s another scenario: You applied for a job that you really wanted. Out of more than 50 applicants, you and two others were invited for interviews. Your interview went very well and you felt optimistic. However, this afternoon you learned that you didn’t get the job. You’re extremely disappointed. All evening you’ve been sitting on the couch, eating cookies and watching silly TV shows. Now it’s time to go to bed.
Which set of thoughts goes through your mind?
A: It’s disgusting how many cookies I ate. I have no self-control. No wonder I didn’t get that job. I really didn’t deserve it.
B: I’ve had a big disappointment. I was really qualified for that job, and it’s a shame I didn’t get it. Cookies and TV are okay for a little while, but I need to take care of myself. Tomorrow I’ll ask my friend to go for a walk with me.
Our thoughts might fall somewhere in between, but if we’re closer to option A than to option B, we may be falling prey to self-criticism.
It’s quite common. Most of us criticize ourselves frequently, often harshly (McKay and Fanning 1992). Self-criticism feels like an inner voice. Depending on the situation, it says things like I’m an idiot, I’m a loser, I’m not good enough, I made a total mess of that, I’ll never amount to anything, I’m disgusting (stupid, lazy, ugly, useless, crazy…), and so on. Sometimes it calls us by name, as if we were a separate person: Ruth, you’re hopeless. You can’t do anything right.
When we want to develop our skills or learn new ones, constructive criticism is valuable, even essential. It’s part of good teaching and provides the information we need to do better. A study of university students showed that when they received constructive criticism (rather than vague, insulting, personal, or one-sided criticism), they felt less angry and tense. They were more willing to collaborate with the person providing the criticism. They set higher goals and felt more confidence in their ability to reach them. A study with employees of a large company found criticism from supervisors that embarrassed or blamed the recipients without helping them improve was a major cause of conflict in their workplace.
The same principles apply to self-criticism.
If we’re going to criticize ourselves, we should think specifically about what went wrong, how we might improve, or how to get help if we need it. Unfortunately instead, we’re often vague (I did a terrible job), inconsiderate (My ideas are really stupid), judgmental of ourselves rather than our behavior or our work (I’m incompetent), and unbalanced (I can’t do anything right). Sometimes we threaten ourselves with future misfortunes (If I go on like this, I’ll never accomplish anything).
Facing our mistakes and weaknesses in a helpful way is already difficult enough. Insulting ourselves with harsh self-criticism makes us feel worse. It interferes with the ability to improve when improvement is needed. It also keeps us from accepting aspects of ourselves that can’t be changed or that are fine the way they are.
In one study, 180 overweight adults signed up for a weight-loss program (Powers et al. 2011). Before the program started, they completed a questionnaire measuring unconstructive self-criticism, they were then weighed. After six months of working on diet and exercise, they were weighed again. Those who were more harshly self-critical at the beginning of the program had lost less weight six months later.
University athletes in swimming or track and field showed a similar pattern (Powers et al. 2009). At the beginning of the athletic season, they completed a self-criticism questionnaire and identified their most important goal for the season, such as improving their time in the 100-meter backstroke or learning to do a triple jump. At the end of the season, the more self-critical athletes had made less progress toward their goals.
Why do highly self-critical people make less progress than those who don’t judge themselves so harshly?
Instead of motivating and energizing us to pursue our goals, self-criticism triggers feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, disappointment and hopelessness (Powers, Koestner, and Zuroff 2007). It saps our energy, morale, motivation and confidence, making it hard to keep going in the face of difficulties. We’re likely to procrastinate and avoid. We’re less likely to seek help when we need it. Progress slows, which leads to more self-criticism, creating a vicious cycle.
Unconstructive self-criticism has many other negative effects.
People who criticize themselves severely are more likely to become depressed, anxious and lonely. They’re more likely to have trouble in their romantic relationships, perhaps because they expect their partners to judge them as harshly as they judge themselves and are therefore less open (Lassri and Shahar 2012). Self-critical people are more likely to binge eat, especially if they grew up in critical or emotionally abusive families (Dunkley, Masheb and Grilo 2010). People who have experienced an extremely stressful event, like a serious accident or an assault, are more likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress if they’re highly self-critical (Harman and Lee 2010).
When asked why they criticize themselves, most people say that it’s for their own good.
Many of us believe that self-criticism prevents laziness, complacency and self-indulgence. We think it helps us meet responsibilities, maintain self-discipline and prevent mistakes. We probably learned this in childhood, perhaps from parents or teachers who didn’t understand the difference between constructive and unconstructive criticism.
When children are harshly criticized but rarely praised, encouraged, or given constructive feedback, they may learn that criticism is the only way to motivate good behavior (Gilbert 2005).
Emotions evolved because they help us survive.
For example, fear helps us escape danger, and anger helps us defend ourselves. Experts believe that shame may have a similar purpose (Gilbert et al. 2004). Most people feel a strong need to belong to a group: a family, a circle of friends, or a larger community. Most groups have rules of behavior. When a group member violates these rules, the group or its leaders may try to shame the wrongdoer as a way of controlling the person’s behavior. The wrongdoer who expresses shame may be treated more leniently and allowed to stay in the group. If the wrongdoer expresses no shame, the group may inflict severe punishment, such as rejection and isolation. Shame, therefore, appears to exist for a reason: It can help us avoid conflict and ostracism.
Unfortunately, most of us are so sensitive to rejection that we’ve learned to internalize this process, and we inflict it on ourselves. If we’ve done something that we fear others won’t like, we use harsh self-criticism to punish ourselves. Then we submit to our own self-criticism by feeling ashamed. This may be useful if it helps us avoid getting thrown out of our family, school, or workplace or keeps us out of prison.
But if the self-criticism is excessive, vague, demeaning, and unbalanced, it interferes with our ability to improve. It also interferes with our mental health.
Shame and guilt are similar but not exactly the same.
Shame is focused on the whole person and creates feelings of overall worthlessness (I am a bad person) and the desire to hide or disappear. Shame is so painful that we often try to escape it by shifting blame to others, lashing out in anger, or denying responsibility for misdeeds. Guilt is also painful, but it’s focused on specific behaviors and creates the desire to confess, apologize and make amends (Tangney and Dearing 2002).
We get caught in the trap of unconstructive self-criticism for several reasons. We learn it in childhood, and we believe it should keep us on track—and sometimes it does, at least for a while. But many of us are so sensitive to failure and rejection that we use it too harshly, forgetting that constructive suggestions usually work better when improvement is required, and that kindness is more helpful than cruelty whether improvement is needed or not.
Most self-criticism is a form of thinking: I’m a loser, I’m weak, I’m immature, I’m silly, I’m ugly, I’m stupid, and so on. When thoughts like this appear, we often believe they’re completely true. Psychologists call this fusion (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999).
When we’re fused with our thoughts, we take them seriously because we assume that they’re facts—that they reflect important realities.
So when we have a thought like I’m a complete idiot and I’ll never amount to anything, it probably feels like we’ve realized something significant about the way things truly are. Fusion with thoughts leads to negative emotions, such as disappointment, anger and sadness, along with unhelpful behavior.
Practicing mindfulness teaches us to understand thoughts in a different way.
We learn we’re constantly thinking, thoughts appear and disappear and they aren’t necessarily realistic, important, or meaningful. We don’t have to believe them or act on them. Instead, we can allow them to come and go in their own time while continuing to behave in ways that are consistent with our goals. We can choose to act on our thoughts when it’s helpful to do so, but we don’t have to be ruled by them.
This attitude toward thoughts is called defusion.
Suppose we make a mistake at work and the thought I’m so incompetent pops into our heads. If we’re fused with this thought, we believe it unquestioningly. It feels like the truth—like an important fact. The thought triggers emotions: we feel embarrassed, ashamed, disappointed and angry at ourselves. The emotions trigger urges: perhaps to curse, throw something, quit our job, or get drunk. If we’re being mindful, we recognize that I’m so incompetent is just a thought. Moreover, it’s a judgmental, unbalanced, unkind thought. We observe the emotions it triggers and the urges which follow. Okay, we say, I made a mistake, and now I’m feeling embarrassed and frustrated and I’m tempted to give up and go home.
Now we’re in a position to choose what to do.
We might curse, throw our coffee mug at the wall and storm out, or we might take a short break to allow for time to settle down. We might think constructively about how to remedy the situation, remembering to treat ourselves with respect while we do so, as we would a friend who had made the same mistake.
Mindfulness of thoughts doesn’t mean making thoughts go away.
In fact, trying to suppress our thoughts often backfires. The same is true of self-critical thoughts. Mindfulness involves simply observing thoughts without judging yourself for having them, and without necessarily believing them, taking them seriously, or doing what they tell you to do (Segal, Williams, and Teasdale 2013). This is a difficult skill to learn, but it isn’t impossible.
In my posts on this topic, we’ve explored several important psychological traps: rumination, avoidance, emotion-driven behavior, and self-criticism. These traps are not completely separate. We can easily fall into several traps in quick succession. Unpleasant thoughts and feelings arise and we try to avoid or suppress them. This works temporarily, but in time the thoughts and feelings get worse. Then we ruminate about our problems, hoping to find a more effective way of getting rid of them, but rumination intensifies the difficulties. We get so upset that we lash out, or we overindulge in food, alcohol, shopping, or other distractions. Then we criticize ourselves for our behavior, calling ourselves weak, immature, stupid and worse. This makes us feel even more stressed, anxious and unhappy. We try to suppress or avoid these feelings or the situations that bring them on, and the vicious cycle repeats.
There are several reasons why it’s very difficult to stay out of these traps.
When they’re constructive, persistent thinking, avoidance of difficulties, emotion-driven behavior and self-criticism help us learn, solve problems and survive. Unfortunately, each has an unhelpful version that isn’t constructive, but a trap.
Unless we’re paying very close attention to our behavior and its consequences, it can be hard to tell the difference between the helpful and unhelpful versions of these strategies.
In the short term, when we use the unhealthy versions of avoidance or emotion-driven behavior, we feel better. Likewise, rumination can make it seem that we’re doing something useful, like working on a problem and harsh self-criticism may seem to offer the hope of preventing laziness. As a result, we feel encouraged to continue using these strategies. Over time, these traps intensify the problems we’re trying to solve. This makes us think we need to try harder, but using the same strategies with increased effort gets us even more stuck in the traps.
We criticize ourselves harshly because we think doing so is necessary to prevent mistakes and laziness and to maintain our self-discipline. In reality, unconstructive self-criticism triggers negative emotions, reduces motivation and energy, and encourages procrastination and avoidance.
This can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, and unhealthy behavior.
Mindfulness of our self-critical thoughts helps us see these patterns and teaches us to recognize harshly self-critical thoughts, allowing them to pass through the mind without getting caught up in them or believe everything they say. When we inevitably make mistakes or our behavior needs improvement, mindfulness helps us respond wisely.
“If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people.” ~ Karen Armstrong
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Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: M Yashna/flickr (modified to fit article)