Stop Using Self-Criticism as a Tool for Change

Some people believe that the best way to improve their behavior is with a “shaming-into-changing” approach to self-improvement.

This is a militant or judgmental way of reacting towards oneself when a mistake is made, in the hopes that it will inspire improvement, or at the very least, ensure that one won’t make the same mistake again. You may fear that if you’re kind or gentle with yourself when you make a mistake, that you might let yourself “off the hook,” making you susceptible to future mistakes.

 

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It all begins in childhood

What do children typically feel when they are scolded at? Lots of things, yes, but fundamentally fear – fear of being punished, rejected, and losing ties to caregivers that they depend on.

If you grew up in a judgmental atmosphere where love and affection felt conditional, and mistakes were disproportionately punishable, you may have learned that failure is dangerous; perfection equals safety; and fear of failure and rejection is an adaptive drive for perfection and sustaining relationships. And with a child’s limited capacity for logic and understanding cause and effect, failing a task was translated into “I am a failure,” and punishment interpreted as “I’m treated badly because I am bad.”

We carry these fears, beliefs, and insecurities with us into adulthood. They may present themselves in a variety of forms, such as difficulty relaxing or letting your guard down, even when it’s safe to; constant self-other comparison (what I call “compare and despair”); a tilted work-life balance; having inflexible ideas of what oneself and others need to have or look like in order to be acceptable or successful; and looking for love that resembles and reinforces this childhood insecurity (Rick Hanson, 2017).

 

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Negative self-view in our adult selves

As adults, perfectionistic behaviors and critical self-talk may represent this childhood adaptive strategy of avoiding feared risk of rejection and punishment if we fail. We protect ourselves from feeling good about ourselves and our accomplishments to reduce the risk of growing complacent and losing the drive for success. We cut ourselves down to avoid appearing arrogant, and risking disapproval from others. But because your negative self-view is largely a misrepresentation internalized from your confusing or harsh environment, this well-meaning attempt to protect yourself is misguided.

In a sense, being critical or judgmental of ourselves when we fail to live up to our (or others’) expectations is actually well-meaning. The hope is to motivate yourself to meet your full potential. However, it often has the unintended opposite effect of provoking feelings of anxiety, discouragement, demoralization, and depression over the long-term.

Precisely because the motivation for self-improvement is coming from a place of fear (e.g., of failure, rejection, etc.) rather than self-love (e.g., deserving of good things), these unintended feelings can be so paralyzing that they lead to procrastination or avoidance, which can lead to even more self-criticism. Ultimately, with the pileup of perceived “failures” and criticisms, you may start to believe that you’re not even worth doing the things that would benefit you. You think, “Why try? It’s not going to change the (inadequate) person I am.” This is what I call the “shame-drain” effect of gradually losing motivation and/or self-esteem due this shame-into-change approach.

 

Negative self-view in our adult selves

Perfectionism, self-criticism, and procrastination/avoidance all go hand in hand

In one sense, if you’re striving for perfection to either mask or compensate for your perceived sense of inadequacy, then what you achieve will never feel quite good enough, or deserving of reward. In fact, meeting your personal standards for perfection is more likely to bring relief than it is pride, because you have once again managed the risk of having your perceived inadequacies exposed (to others and/or yourself), and the fear of what might happen if that were to occur. Once you’ve simply met all of your expectations, you’re quick to move onto the next thing, but never feeling fully satisfied with yourself.

If you’ve gotten to a point in the shame-drain cycle where your negative self-talk has effectively lowered your self-esteem, self-sabotaging behaviors begin to emerge once you are living up to your expectations. It becomes too difficult to tolerate your success because it conflicts with the negative view of self you happened to have internalized from the outside world.

Or maybe the unconscious act of being authoritarian with yourself and then rebelling against your own orders reminds you of a conflictual parent-child relationship you once had or witnessed. In either case, when the negative self-talk is present, so too is the insecure child waiting to be met with the love and understanding they have always needed.

My question to you is: Whom do you resemble when you speak to yourself in this unkind manner when you err?

Who from your past (or present) are you being loyal to or identifying with by speaking to yourself in this way? What would be the pros and cons of psychologically breaking yourself away from these people if you spoke to yourself in a more kindly manner? What do you imagine (or fear) would happen to you or your relationships if you started to be on your own team, rather than against yourself?

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Self-love is the most sustainable motivation tool

Remember this: Motivating ourselves from a place of self-love is always more sustainable than from the energy-draining place of fear and self-loathing. Because when we believe that we are fundamentally worthy of feeling, having, and doing good things for ourselves, we have reason to keep striving.

When we struggle, relating kindly and compassionately helps soften our tension, making it easier to problem-solve and for us to get back up when we fall. Simply put, because self-love helps us acknowledge our strengths and meet our struggles compassionately, we more easily manage a balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance.

You might consider these steps to changing your negative self-talk, easing your tension, and increasing your motivation:

  1. First, appreciate the ways in which your perfectionism is trying to protect you from failure and rejection, and how self-criticism is a well-meaning but misguided attempt to keep you striving for better.
  2. Distinguish your True, original self from this pattern of negative self-talk by:
    • Recognizing any possibility that your habit of negative self-talk could be a by-product of your early or present environment. Understand that, because you weren’t born speaking to yourself this way, this habit doesn’t belong to you. Let it go.
    • Giving a name to each type of self-talk (e.g., the Critic, the Perfectionist, the Worrier, the Victim, etc.), so when it gets on loudspeaker, you can clearly recognize that it’s the habit talking, not you.
    • Playfully catching your inner Critic/Perfectionist/Worrier red-handed. Again, appreciate the way it’s trying to look out for you, but remember that it is an old, borrowed habit, distinct from who you fundamentally are and what you want for yourself today. Then swiftly return your attention to the present moment.
  3. Listen to your body: self-talk affects how we feel emotionally and physically. When we don’t know what we’re thinking or feeling, our body can clue us in. Notice; do you sense tension, urgency, pressure, or a squeezed feeling? Rather than push through and past it, give it the conscious attention and care you normally would to a child or loved one.
  4. Praise yourself for throwing a wrench in the hamster wheel of negative self-talk. This is an important part of establishing new neural networks associated with your desired behaviors of non-judgmental, positive self-talk.
  5. Know that the world doesn’t need you to be small but rather loving, inside and outside.

 

Citation: Hanson, Rick. (2017, August 30). Is it truly urgent? The Practice: Lower The Pressure [Blog post]. To subscribe to Rick Hanson’s blog, go to: http://www.rickhanson.net/

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Post is a Psychological Assistant at Well Clinic in San Francisco.

In her Stephanie’s own words, “Working with me is a collaborative and reliable experience. I offer a reflective and nonjudgmental atmosphere for you talk about what’s important to you, and together, we develop practical solutions and goals that are aligned with your core values.”

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