Not long ago I was speaking to a woman who had nothing good to say about herself. She viewed herself as a failure in her relationships with others, the choices she made, her perceived lack of intelligence, and her looks. She even went on to say how awful it must be for others who had to put up with her. If ever a person needed some self-compassion, she did.
Her story might sound a little extreme, but people can be fragile creatures and sometimes all it takes to tip the balance are thoughts that suggest we aren’t measuring up. After that it can quickly become a vicious cycle.
Of course, a little self-criticism can be motivating. There are times when I’ve thought I could do better at something and pushed myself to try a bit harder. But when it comes to criticising yourself over every little error (real or perceived) then you’re doing yourself an injustice. If we can’t be kind to ourselves we stand a real chance of affecting our mental wellbeing.
Are you too self-critical?
We’ve all said it about ourselves: “What an idiot,” or “Why do I bother?” Self-chastisement is a mark of frustration, and who hasn’t been down that path? As to whether you are too self-critical, it’s one of those areas where I’m not sure if we’re always honest with ourselves. What exactly do I mean by “too” self-critical, anyway?
Try answering these questions:
- Even if things are going well, I’m still able to see problems in myself. Yes / No
- I spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about the issues I dislike in myself. Yes / No
- If I spot a flaw or fault in myself I can’t let it go. Yes / No
- I deserve everything that’s thrown at me if I mess up. Yes / No
These statements can highlight the kind of thinking used by people who are overly self-critical. My feeling is that if you’ve said “yes” to any one of these you may well be a member of the self-critical club.
Why we beat ourselves up
How is it that we can run ourselves into the ground for other people, yet we can’t see what we’re doing to ourselves in the process? It seems the answer lies in our biology, our beliefs and our relations with others. Let’s take these in turn.
Our biology is tuned in such a way as to protect us from harm. We are naturally wary because our brains are hardwired that way. When a threat is perceived we rapidly switch into fight-or-flight mode. Therefore, we have an inbuilt negative bias that latches on to negative issues fairly rapidly. By comparison, our rational brain, the part of us that does the real calculation as to what’s important or not, is slow to catch up. For some people it either never seems to catch up or its influence is ignored. It takes effort and thought to put negative thinking in its place.
Our beliefs aren’t necessarily real or valid, but we treat them as though they are. Quite often we’ll move through life without ever really challenging some of the deeply held beliefs about ourselves, or others. It may never have occurred to some people that they can be nice to themselves.
Our relations with others change over time but the groundwork is established from quite an early age. If a child is brought up in an emotionally impoverished environment their capacity to learn compassion is considerably reduced. They may grow up and learn to treat others with respect, and even love them, but their love for themselves is hidden.
What can I do?
I’ve had enough conversations on this topic to know that some people regard self-compassion as a weird form of self-indulgence. They view it as wishy-washy and just the kind of thing a psychologist like me is likely to come out with. Well, the reason I’m addressing the issue is because I know that self-criticism is a form of negative thinking that fuels so many mental health issues. Anxiety, stress, depression, anger, and alcohol and drug misuse are just a handful of painful issues that people deal with on a daily basis. If we get trapped in a cycle of self-criticism we maintain a level of arousal that is quite simply unhealthy.
What I’ve written about here are a few of the signs that indicate a loss or absence of self-compassion. Later on, I’ll address how to break down some of the barriers we put up for ourselves in order to make things better.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.