Are You Highly Self-Critical?
We live in a fast paced world. Our time is scheduled around ‘to do’ lists. We make plans and practice self-discipline in order to achieve our goals and aspirations. We work hard towards a better car, a bigger house, a better paying job, a smarter child, a more fulfilling life. We like goals, results and outcomes. But what is our impetus, what propels us? How do we motivate ourselves? And what do we do to get there?
As a Relationship Counsellor and Psychotherapist I see many clients who are highly driven to succeed. Their desires and outcomes vary. But there appears to be one common theme for many - they use self-criticism as the ‘vehicle’. Many believe that self-berating ways and thoughts will keep them on their toes, in-line, and focused on their goals. They have come to believe self-criticism is the way to achieve their goals and dreams. And they also fear that if they stop being really hard on themselves, they are being ‘slack’ and their goals will fall by the wayside.
At the same time, others are unaware of their self-criticism, and it exists only as a ‘critical’ inner voice. Only when it is uncovered during therapy sessions do they begin to see what is driving them. But whether or not they are aware of their self-criticism, those who are highly self-critical almost always suffer some unwanted consequences.
The Impact of Being Highly Self Critical
Self-criticism affects our bodies. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment and trigger a fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks (anger, criticism, put downs) - from ourselves and others. So self-criticism triggers the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response sending signals to increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol, getting us ready to confront or avoid the threat. And when we are highly self-critical, our blood pressure rises and cortisol produced can lead to weight gain, migraine as well as suppressing our immune system.
Psychologically, excessive self-criticism is shown to be associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. And how can it not be? The key to self-esteem is the way you think and feel about yourself. Most people assume their thinking is a mirror of reality. Therefore, if you are frequently self-critical, you are likely to believe the things you say to yourself. We can get away with a small amount of self-criticism, if we use it as a reality check. However, it has a way of becoming a habit and over time, in particular stressful times, the voice can get louder and more believable.
Self-criticism induces guilt, telling us how inadequate or flawed we are, which induces shame. Shame paralyses us into inaction. And sometimes, this is where we stay ‘stuck’. On the surface, we may seem to be functioning well, but shame robs us of feeling good about our efforts and ourselves. Shame attacks the person and denies us the opportunity to look objectively at our behaviour. Being highly self-critical robs us of the space to self-reflect, which is the gentle form of what we can do, to learn.
Why Are We So Highly Self Critical?
Self-criticism is a learned behaviour. We all have an inner voice that speaks, with various levels of intensity, when we are frustrated or disapproving of ourselves or our actions. These voices tend to stem from our childhood.
Children are like sponges. They absorb it all, everything they see and hear without discernment. Parents can say to children: ‘You are dumb, you are smart, you are pretty, your sister is prettier than you.’ And it does not even have to be verbal. They can convey these messages via pursed lips, a nod of approval, a raised eyebrow or the roll of an eye.
Children believe everything the parent says and does. Emotionally, the child feels when the parent is loving, angry, disgusted, approving or disapproving. Whatever a parent says or does is etched on the mind of the child. These messages are downloaded by the child and become the child’s inner voice. As the child grows, these messages are used by the child to figure out who he/she is, forming his/her identity. Read more about families and children.
As we get older, we are further informed, by action and words from teachers, friends and other adults as to who they see us to be. We are now more able to decide which message we will accept or disregard. We learn to accept messages from people important to us and ignore messages from people we don’t much care about. But all these messages add up to how we see ourselves and how we feel about ourselves. It forms the foundation for, and sets the level of our self-regard (self-esteem).
In some cultures, it is the norm to believe that criticism or guilt-induced comments will motivate behaviour. And even where it is not the norm, this tactic is often used by well-meaning parents who were most likely parented in the same way. They speak and act toward their children in a way that is highly critical. And sadly, some parents convey messages via emotional abuse, using sarcasm, shaming, comparing a child with others, making put-down comments, threatening , or even showing disapproval through physical punishment by hitting or slapping.
As adults, without awareness, we continue to listen to this critical voice we heard when we were a child. It is now the voice that we use to get things done, better and faster. We use it to push ourselves to lose weight, to scrimp and save, to get better marks at school, to aim for that promotion, to achieve our dreams, to go on Paleo diets, to have alcohol free nights. It goes like this: ‘I have to lose weight or else I won’t find a partner. I have to buy a house or else I am a loser. I must have straight A’s or else I am a failure. I have to be promoted or else I’m not good enough. I have to succeed or else people will discover I am dumb.’ And on it goes. We may not necessarily share this voice out loud or even be aware of it, but it is certainly active and ever present.
Is Self-Criticism Affecting You?
Perfectionists are highly self-critical. Others who are self-critical are easy to spot as they are also easily critical of others. They have high expectations of others as they have high expectations of themselves. The way they justify it is like this, "if I can treat myself this way, then I can treat others this way. In that way, they walk the talk. Does that sound like you?
Check in on yourself right now. How many times today did you say: ‘I should, I could, I must, I should have, If only I, I will never be as good as, I should have known better, I could have been more proactive, I should have done more?’ And, is there an inner voice that self-chastises, telling you: ‘You are inadequate, You’re an idiot, You can’t do anything right, you are not good enough, you are useless, you are a fraud, you are unlovable, you are a loser, you're a failure?
Or maybe that inner voice is very subtle. In any event, self-criticism may be affecting you negatively if you know that you:
1. Have a hard time opening up to people
2. Are eager to please or feel the need to be a giver
3. Take everything personally
4. Are a big procrastinator
5. Know your critical inner voice is hurting you but believe that is the price you have to pay for success
6. Get overly defensive when criticised
7. Are overly self-effacing and embarrassed by compliments’
8. Rarely take time out and ignore your health
9. Are highly critical of others.
10. Don’t let others know about what you want and need.
11. Feel hopeless, unimportant or alone.
12. Do not expect your needs to be met, feel unworthy.
13. Feel overly obligated or overly guilty.
How to Do Different
Develop self-awareness. Be awake to the critical inner voice. Practice this regularly: Stop, Tune In, Act. Set aside 10 minutes 3 times a day to sti quietly by yourself. Tune into your inner voice. Notice what it i saying. Do not judge it or tell it to go away. Simply notice it's presence and let it be. Then slowly try to locate the voice that is respectful, considerate and does not attack you as a person, no matter how small this voice is. This can help focus on your behaviour, not you as a person, and can provide specific insights, shedding light on both your strength and weakness. If the voice is vague, harsh, unbalanced, attacking, acknowledge its origins and gently allow it to pass.
Develop self-compassion. We cannot re-write our past but we can certainly begin to give ourselves what we may not have received as a child. If this is difficult for you, try holding the image of a loving friend in your mind and see what they say to you that is soft and encouraging. Alternatively, notice how you are with a close friend or loved one, look at how you care for them - you may provide kindness, soothing, encouragement and gentleness. Be that way with yourself. Read more about 'Loving Yourself'
Stay connected. As humans, we are hard-wired to form close bonds.We are not meant to be alone. Choose to spend time with people that, at the end of your time together, authetically make you feel good about yourself.
Seek the help of a kind and loving therapist, professionally trained and accredited. She/he can provide a healing relationship known as a Therapeutic Alliance. In a sense, this relationship will act as a new template in meeting your valid needs for soothing, encouragement, comfort, validation, and learning. More importantly, this relationship provides you an opportunity to discover, reinvent, and truly find your authentic and loving voice. Self-criticism is a difficult habit to break. Partly because you need to replace the critical voice with a kind, compassionate voice that is healthier and will last the distance. People often make the mistake of thinking giving up their self critical voice will stop them from achieving what their hearts desire. That is simply untrue. Many many successful people eg Richard Branson, Warren Buffett are successful and kind to themselves and inevitably to others. Take the right step.
Grow Loving Self-Care - Daniel F. Mead
If you would grow to your best self
Be patient, not demanding
Accepting, not condemning
Nurturing, not withholding
Self-marvelling, not belittling
Gently guiding, not pushing and punishing
For you are more sensitive than you know
Mankind is as tough as war yet delicate as flowers
We can endure agonies but we open fully only to warmth and light
And our need to grow is as fragile as a fragrance dispersed by storms of will
To return only when those storm are still
So, accept, respect, and attend to your sensitivity
A flower cannot be opened with a hammer.