Are You Self-Critical?

I’ve posted this topic on social media and have been inundated with messages asking me to explain how a person comes to be self-critical, what self-criticism looks like, and what to do about it. I unpack this hefty topic a few blog posts.

Keep scrolling to learn what self-criticism is & in part 2 (here) you can discover some habits of self-critical people. In the third blog, I jump into why people become self-critical & explore the relationship between mood, mental health & harsh self-criticism. Finally, check out part 4 where I offer some strategies to navigate this largely unwanted, mood destroying habit. Let’s go!

What is self-criticism?

We all are self-critical on occasion. You can probably identify your critical voice as that relentless (and often unhelpful) inner voice that judges your actions, decisions & choices. The critical voice judges our efforts and sternly observes when we’ve missed the target. That self-critical voice then directs our attention to areas that need further improvement so that we can, eventually, become “good enough.” That’s the idea anyway. Beware, this is a lie you keep telling yourself… Let’s dive in.

Helpful vs. unhelpful self-criticism

Like it or not, your inner critic has sneakily concocted an invisible, imaginary bar that you need to reach. For example, you might have said to yourself, “I must get good grades in school” or “I must pass a performance review at work.” Ok fine, achievement is certainly it’s a part of life & most of us aspire to make progress in our lives. BUT what separates healthy achievement and helpful self-criticism with unhealthy self-criticism is this important detail. Unhealthy self-criticism directly links achievement or perfection with “your worth” as a person. So, the more you achieve or the more flawless you appear to people on the outside, the more worthy you allow yourself to feel.

Of course, everybody wants to feel worthy & loved. It’s a fundamental human need. But this way of meeting that human need has consequences. Please don’t forget that the opposite will feel true as well, such that the less you achieve, the less “perfect” you appear, the less worthy you feel. And this is one of the reasons that lingering sentiments like “I am not good enough” or “I’ve done something wrong” or “I am not worthy” tend to eat away at our core.

Feeling “good enough”

This underlying need to feel worthy and “good enough” by our own standards drives a lot of this self-competitiveness & achievement orientation. For example, some people might not actually be after those high marks as much as they trying to avoid what the low marks could possibly mean about their work ethics, their talents, or their sense of worth as a person.

The kicker is that this self-critical voice isn’t likely to be your voice! Rather, you inherited your inner critic from your childhood caregivers, teachers, coaches or other influences. It’s likely the way they spoke to you! What a legacy to inherent, she said sarcastically with a huge eye roll. Your inner critic is likely a hybrid of all the critical voices from your childhood with a doppelganger voice for added self-inflicted pain. What a gift!

But listen, we all have self-critical tendencies. The truth is that most of us want to reach the goals we set because we want to live a life that makes us feel happy & proud. To get that life, we need to push ourselves to be better, stronger, & work harder. That’s ok. Some self-criticism is good & it helps us get where we want to be. But also be mindful of what is actually “good enough” for others vs. what is considered good enough for you. Likely you hold yourself to a higher (dare I say unrealistic) standard.

When self-criticism becomes a problem

I know it’s probably not you but some of us are unnecessarily hard on ourselves. So impossibly hard, in fact, that we make it difficult to get started (oh, hi procrastination) or stay the course to reach our goals (bye, bye, motivation) because all we can hear is that critical voice in our head telling us we are not good enough. It takes the wind out of our sails.

It’s a very painful thing to hear (even if it’s totally untrue, some part of you believes it). And so, we end up shying away from experiences that trigger this fear that we aren’t good enough. Because if it did, we would have evidence of our fear that we are not actually good enough or not doing enough or not being enough, and this triggers deep feelings of worthlessness & failure. What a horrible self-fulfilling prophecy! Overtime, this fear traps us and makes us feel stuck, unmotivated & unfulfilled.

If you’re worried that this sounds a bit too familiar, keep reading. Subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a new post.

Lots of love,

Dr M

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