Self-criticism is at the heart of so many mental health issues. When you’re constantly feeding yourself negative messages, it can be hard to find the energy you need to get through the day or to challenge yourself in meaningful ways.
But this view of criticism is narrow and the solutions that most people spout — “Just be more positive! Don’t be so hard on yourself!” — don’t show us how to turn criticism into a tool that works for us, rather than against us. Here’s why criticism is a good thing, and how you can leverage your critical tendencies to your benefit.
Critical Thinking Is Valuable
Critical thinking is a valuable skill. When we think critically, we are examining objects, people, and situations closely to determine its component parts and evaluating those based on something like its utility, its potential for danger, or its pleasurable qualities.
This skill is something that is distinctly human, and it’s not something that we can stop doing or get rid of. Instead, we need to learn how to direct our critical thinking in beneficial ways and balance our thinking with action.
Critical thinking is an important part of problem-solving. What often happens when we are self-critical is that we have created an unsolvable problem out of ourselves (for example, “I’ll never be good enough”) and we instead need to identify a better problem, a solvable problem. We do this through constructive criticism.
Constructive Criticism Is the Way We Learn
Anyone who is familiar with a creative discipline knows that there is a difference between negative criticism and constructive criticism. Creatives learn to distinguish between the two and embrace the latter because the latter allows them to grow and improve.
Constructive criticism has the following characteristics:
- It is specific. Constructive criticism focuses on particular aspects, not the piece as a whole. When criticism is vague, it is difficult to disprove it if it is unwarranted. Negative self-criticism is often vague — for example, “I don’t like this, but I don’t know why.” The vagueness is partly why it’s so damaging.
- It provides a clear path for action. Because constructive criticism focuses on specifics, it is clear what needs to be worked on in order to improve. Vague, negative criticism leaves you without direction, so you have no clues as to what you can do to change how you feel.
- It brings you closer to your goals. Even if criticism is given with the best of intentions and is specific and provides clarity, it’s useless if it’s unrelated to your goal. For example, a painter whose goal is to express her emotions in an abstract manner can ignore criticism from someone who prefers photorealistic painting.
How to Give Yourself Constructive Criticism
Now that you understand what qualities constructive criticism has, it’s time to use your skill of critical thinking to begin giving yourself constructive criticism.
First, you need to know what you are working towards. What are your goals? Is it to get a new job, become healthier, or be a better parent? This is what you’ll use to measure if the criticism is ultimately beneficial.
Then, look at the specific problems related to your goal. If your goal is to get a new job, do you need to brush up on your skills or connect with more people in your industry? If it’s to be healthier, do you know what your current unhealthy habits are? The more specific and refined your “problems” are, the better you will be able to give yourself constructive criticism.
Last, take one of the specific problems identified and find a solution. Solutions could include:
- Seeking professional help, like hiring a personal trainer to help you get healthier
- Creating accountability with friends or family who share your goals
- Doing research and obtaining information you can use to take your next step
Attempts to eliminate critical behaviors or thoughts are usually unsuccessful because they don’t acknowledge that the behavior is a very human one. Instead, our goal is to direct our behavior and attention in ways that support our growth.
Humans are problem-solving creatures, and we sometimes make up new problems to solve out of boredom. The point of constructive criticism and critical thinking is not to spend all your time in that thinking and problem-solving realm, but to move into action.
This last step is important, and it’s why constructive criticism is a valuable skill. The best way to “get out of your head” is to take action, but when we engage in negative self-criticism, we have no idea what action to take. With constructive criticism, we gain a realistic perspective of what we can do to improve our wellbeing and our lives.