How to reduce self-criticism
Shahar (2015) defines self-criticism as “the tendency to set unrealistically high standards for one's self and to adopt a punitive stance towards the self once these standards are not met”.
We all have the ability to beat ourselves up over the littlest of things but for some, this can be a regular occurrence.
In Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Fennell (1999) asks the reader to imagine a person you know who is quite self-confident. Then imagine following them around, pointing out every little mistake they make, telling them what they have done is all very well but that it could have been better, calling them names and telling them to ignore or discount anything that went well.
This imagination experiment illustrates beautifully, for want of a better word, what self-criticism looks like. How do you think this person would feel after receiving that kind of feedback day in day out? They would no doubt feel pretty rubbish being constantly reminded how much of a failure they are. Their thoughts are likely to become quite negative. They probably would start to second guess themselves and doubt their abilities which would lead to a drop in confidence and self-esteem. They might avoid doing things or not bother attempting to do things because they don’t see the point. They might even start to experience anxiety or depression. This is what we do to ourselves when we are repeatedly self-critical.
Powers, Koestner, & Zuroff (2007) studied the effects of self-criticism on working towards a goal. The research showed that people who were self-critical struggled to make progress with what they wanted to achieve. When working towards a goal, it’s important that your goals are in alignment with your interests, values and meaning in life as this has been shown to positively affect your progress and success at achieving your goal. People who are self-critical often set goals for themselves which are not aligned in this way and are instead controlled by other internal or external factors. But it is not just for this reason that people who criticise themselves struggle to achieve their goals. The research also showed that there was an association between self-criticism and rumination and procrastination, all of which impacted on progressing towards their goal.
Further studies have also found that people who are self-critical tend to have fewer positive life events. (Shahar et al., 2003) This could be because their self-criticism stops them from going after things that make them happy because of a fear of failing or feel that they are not worthy of it. Or perhaps they do strive for such things but their self-critical thoughts get in the way of actually obtaining them.
Whether your goal is to eat healthier, stop smoking, change careers, overcome a phobia, start exercising, or anything else for that matter, reducing those self-critical thoughts is important to ensure that you achieve it.
Here are a number of ways that you can help to reduce those self-critical thoughts to help you achieve what you want to achieve and to boost your self-esteem:
Be aware of your thoughts. Building your awareness of thoughts is where it all starts. You can only start to make a change to the way you are thinking, once you become aware that you are thinking in an unhelpful way. When you spot the self-critical thought, you can then choose to think about it differently or about something else entirely.
Would you say that to a friend? Often we say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dare to say to anyone else. I bet if you walked up to someone in the street and said one of the self-critical thoughts that you have about yourself to them, they’d probably slap you! When you notice yourself thinking self critically, think to yourself would I say this to a friend or a loved one? If the answer is no, start to think about why you say it to yourself and whether there is a more constructive way of achieving the same thing.
Practice self-compassion. Instead of beating yourself up, go easier on yourself. You’re only human. You do not have to be perfect. This is not about letting yourself off or excusing your behaviour but helps you to see things with greater perspective.
Monitor self-critical thoughts. Make a note of your self-critical thoughts as well as when and where you have the thought and what you were doing at the time. Rate the degree to which you believe the thought and what did having the thought make you do. This can be a really useful exercise to see the types of thoughts that come up and what causes them to occur. You can then start to dispute the thoughts, perhaps by noticing where the thought gets you and looking for what evidence you have for and against it. With this insight, you can form alternative thoughts to have instead. Afterwards, you can rate the degree to which you believe that self-critical thought now you are seeing the bigger picture.
Choose another way to motivate you. Often we think that being critical of ourselves will motivate us into making a change but as you’ve seen above, this often falls short. Think about what you really want, what your values are, who you want to be, and use this to motivate you to make the changes you wish to make.
Stop comparing yourself to others. When we compare ourselves to others, we end up falling short. Quite often, we don’t even want to be that way or have that thing that society says we should. So instead, think about or write down what you want, how you want to be, what you want in life. Focusing on what you don’t have can inform what your goals are and what you want to change but that will only go so far. Focusing on how you want to be is required thereafter to help you move towards your goals.
Control your inner voice. Think about one of the self-critical thoughts that you have. Say it to yourself in your mind. Notice where the voice is that says that to you. Then imagine moving its position, perhaps moving it a little further away from you. As you do, imagine what it would sound like as it starts moving away from you. Does it get quieter, softer, or harder to make out what is being said? Then turn your attention to the tone of voice that is used to say the self-critical thought. Is it harsh, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or embarrassed? Imagine changing the tone of voice to something that is friendlier, calmer, happier, supportive, and comforting. Make any further changes that you feel you need to your inner voice. With those changes made, say the self-critical thought again and notice the difference. Does it have a different effect on you when it’s said in a less judgemental way? Then come up with an alternative thought and say this to yourself with the more constructive inner voice.
Practice self-acceptance. Accepting who you are and where you’re at can help reduce the level of criticism you aim at yourself. Acceptance does not mean you just have to put up with your flaws or whatever it is you tend to be critical about. Self-acceptance allows you to realistically appraise who you are but still offers you the opportunity to commit to making improvements.
Focus on your positive qualities. Write a list of your qualities, talents, skills and strengths. Most people find this a difficult task to do but it can be a really useful tool to help build and strengthen a more positive view of yourself which in turn helps to reduce self-critical thoughts. You might like to think about how someone you know would describe you if you find it difficult to come up with things.
Through awareness of your thoughts, consciously disputing and restructuring them, you can start to reduce self-criticism.
Fennell, M. (1999). Overcoming low self-esteem. London: Robinson.
Powers, T.A., Koestner, R. & Zuroff, D.C. (2006) Self-Criticism, Goal Motivation, And Goal Progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), pp. 826-840
Shahar, G., Henrich, G. C, Blatt, S. J., Ryan, R., & Little, T. (2003). Interpersonal relatedness, self-definition, and their motivational orientation during adolescence: A theoretical and empirical integration. Developmental Psychology, 39, 470-483