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State of Mind

Overcoming self-criticism

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When enough really is enough

We all juggle many roles and responsibilities in life —parent, spouse, employee, friend, neighbour, sibling, child. Amongst this though, it’s important to remember that we also have many responsibilities to ourselves and our own welfare.

Many people deal with self-criticism on a daily basis so if you feel like they are being too critical of yourself, you are not alone. There are simple ways of dealing with self-criticism though and everyone can incorporate these into their personal lives when feeling insecure.

What is self-criticism?

The terms self-criticism, self-critical and self-critique are all related, but there are subtle differences as shown through common dictionary definitions:

  • Self-criticism: the act of or capacity for criticising one’s own faults or shortcomings
  • Being self-critical or critical of oneself: inclined to find fault with oneself
  • Self-critique: the act or an instance of critically examining oneself

Self-criticism is an evaluation of yourself that is often considered harsh or negative.1 Self-critics may not only suffer for elevated negative feelings about themselves but may also struggle to be able to generate self-supportive images and positive feelings at all.2

Productivity, achievement, perfection – possible triggers for self-criticism

Why are so many people in today’s society prone to self-criticism? It could be that society is often focused on productivity, achievement and perfection, and these ideals lead to us applying huge amounts of pressure on ourselves. Social media can also be a trigger for people who tend to be self-critical, as it can prompt you to compare yourselves against others and the lifestyle and goals they choose to share – whether or not they are reflected truthfully.

Everyone has goals and it’s great to strive for them but not at the expense of putting too much pressure on yourself to achieve them. Whether you achieve your goals or not, it’s important to learn to accept when you are doing the best you can and to know that is enough.

Self-criticism can in fact stop us achieving our goals altogether and studies have shown that it is negatively associated with goal progress.3 It’s a vicious circle as failure, or the fear of failure, can trigger self-criticism in itself.

Are you an overly self-critical person?

There are different types of self-criticism that are common in different environments.4

Do you recognise any of these character traits when you consider yourself in your work environment?

  • Doubting yourself – “I’ll mess up the presentation at work tomorrow”
  • Blaming yourself – “It’s my fault that we didn’t win the pitch”
  • Labelling yourself – “I’m such a bad speaker”
  • Writing off positives – “I did well at the presentation, but anyone could have”

There are also common ways to be self-critical in your home or personal environment:

  • “I’m a horrible cook.”
  • “I’m too unfit to exercise.”

The problem is that these small messages we tell ourselves can then cascade into stronger messages, such as “ We order takeaways too often. I don’t cook enough. Why am I so lazy?” or “I’m always making excuses. I’m so lazy.”

Does this sound familiar? Most of us have experienced these types of feelings which goes to show that none of us are alone with feeling overwhelmed or not good enough.

7 tips for dealing with self-criticism

If you are being hard on yourself, remember that you’re not alone. Here are our top tips for dealing with self-criticism and negative thoughts:

  1. Dream big but set your goals realistically
  2. Don’t be too harsh on yourself – take one step at a time
  3. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can – you are enough
  4. Turn negative thoughts and feelings into positive ones by focussing on the good
  5. Strive to be the best version of yourself, without forgetting to love yourself in the progress
  6. Use self-criticism in a healthy way – to turn your weaknesses into strengths
  7. If you realise you’re losing yourself in self-critique – ask the people around you for support and to lift you up

A change in perspective – turn your weakness into strength

If you have realised you are too self-critical, don’t think badly of yourself for it. That is just continuing the cycle! Instead, try to transform your self-criticism into self-compassion, thereby developing a stronger self-esteem and achieving personal growth.

Self-criticism that is constructive, rather than just negative, can lead you to question yourself, serve as a motivation or help you learn from past mistakes.4

Focus on the positive aspects of what you do and who you are. Don’t ignore the areas in need of improvement but give a greater voice to what you do well.

Don’t dwell on your self-criticism but give it time and space to recognise what is important for personal progress, taking personal accountability and setting realistic expectations.

Be realistic, realign your goals

We can hold ourselves accountable to our core values and goals, but at the same time, allow ourselves the space to not do it exceptionally all of the time – a great example of this would be an under-slept parent who wants to get up early in the morning to exercise but is too tired.

A study from the Department of Psychology, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA showed that setting realistic goals was important and that people who had an overly inflated view of their performance showed a decrease in subsequent motivation, compared to people who viewed themselves more realistically.5

Transform self-criticism into self-compassion

Being self-compassionate is more helpful than being self-critical. A recent study showed significant reductions in depression, anxiety, self‐criticism, shame, inferiority and submissive behaviour on the one hand and a significant increase in the ability to be self‐soothing and focus on feelings of warmth and reassurance for the self on the other hand, by being compassionate to yourself.6

Balancing self-improvement and self-acceptance is a great goal. By finding your balance between wanting to improve yourself and accepting who you are, you are putting yourself in the best position to truly appreciate that you are doing the best you can and that you are enough.

  1. http://academic.udayton.edu/jackbauer/PGSG/Neff%2003%20self-comp%20alt%20health%20copy.pdf []
  2. https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgrjcp/20/2/183 []
  3. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2007_PowersKoestnerZuroff_JSCP.pdf []
  4. https://counseling.uoregon.edu/overcoming-self-criticism [] []
  5. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e5e2/8c92005f42e9ba6d75123e185dddf3f8d4e3.pdf []
  6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cpp.507 []