For many of us self-criticism is just the way we talk to ourselves. Our inner dialogue regularly sounds like this: I can’t do anything right. I look horrible. What’s wrong with me? I’m such an idiot!
We assume that such self-critical statements somehow safeguard against laziness, mistakes and complacency; that they’ll somehow keep us in line and ensure we achieve our goals.
But the opposite actually happens.
According to Ruth Baer, Ph.D, in her book The Practicing Happiness Workbook: How Mindfulness Can Free You From 4 Psychological Traps that Keep You Stressed, Anxious and Depressed, “self-criticism triggers feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, disappointment and hopelessness.”
It drains our energy and confidence and paralyzes progress. “…[M]any studies show that harsh self-criticism actually interferes with progress toward our goals.” And people who criticize themselves harshly are more likely to become depressed, anxious and lonely.
Baer makes a distinction between constructive self-criticism and unconstructive self-criticism. Constructive criticism, she writes, provides specific insight into what went wrong and what to do differently next time; it’s considerate and respectful; it focuses on the work, not the person; and it speaks to both strengths and weaknesses.
Unconstructive self-criticism, however, is vague, inconsiderate, judges the person (not our work or behavior) and is unbalanced.
The good news is that we don’t have to resign ourselves to a life steeped in severe self-criticism. We can change how we speak to ourselves.
Below are several exercises from Baer’s valuable workbook that can help.
Understand Your Patterns
First, it’s important to gain a better grasp of your self-criticism patterns. Pay attention to your self-critical thoughts and write down the following:
- Day and time of each thought.
- The situation that triggered the thought and what you were criticizing yourself about. “What was going on? Were other people involved? Was it your behavior, thoughts, feelings or urges?”
- The specific self-critical thought. “What were you saying to yourself?”
- What happened after you criticized yourself. What were your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations or urges? How did it affect your behavior? Did you do anything self-defeating?
- What would you say to a friend who was in the same situation?
Be Mindful of Your Thoughts
When we have self-critical thoughts we often assume they’re 100 percent true, an accurate reflection of reality. But the actual reality is that they’re not. Our thoughts aren’t necessarily realistic or even meaningful. And we don’t have to believe them or act on them.
By being mindful of our thoughts, we simply observe them, without judging them, believing them or taking them seriously.
For instance, “you recognize that I’m so incompetent is just a thought … You observe the emotions that it triggers and the urges that follow. Okay, you say to yourself. I made a mistake, and now I’m feeling embarrassed and frustrated and I’m tempted to give up and go home.”
Then you can figure out a constructive next step, remembering to treat yourself as you would a good friend in the same situation.
Baer suggests labeling self-critical thoughts as thoughts when they arise. Include these phrases in front of those thoughts: “I’m having the thought that…” or “I’m noticing the thought that…”
For instance, “I can’t do anything right,” becomes “I’m having the thought that I can’t do anything right.”
If you’re having multiple thoughts, you can say, “I’m noticing a lot of self-critical thoughts right now.”
Experiment with Self-Criticism
If you think that self-criticism is still the best way to lead a fulfilling life, try this two-day experiment (which Baer adapted from the book The Mindful Way Through Anxiety). On the first day, criticize yourself like you normally would. On the second day, practice observing your thoughts without judgment (and the exercise above) and give yourself only constructive criticism.
For both days, pay attention to how you feel and how you behave. Consider these questions: “How does it compare to a typical day? How motivated are you to pursue your goals? Are you achieving more or less than usual? Is your behavior constructive and consistent with your goals?”
Pay attention to how each day differs. As Baer writes, “There’s a good chance you’ll discover that you’re happier and more effective when you’re kind and constructive with yourself.”