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Dwelling on Our Mistakes: Why do We Judge and Shame Ourselves?

Most of us spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves.

For example, if the thought comes up ‘I’m so ugly’, and we dwell on all the moments we felt unattractive, it gains power. When we stew, chew or brood, we are investing more energy in a thought and in turn give it significance. The more we think of something, the more it comes to mind.

Now if someone came up to us and said ‘You’re a purple elephant’, we would probably not get insulted. There is no offensiveness, there is no value judgement that we have, which goes ‘I believe that I might be a purple elephant and that is a bad thing.’

On the other hand, if someone comes up and says ‘You would look better if you lost 15 lbs and got rid of that double-chin’ we might get very upset. In fact, even after reading that last sentence, we feel a little jab like “they’re right, I do have kind of a double-chin, I should really get rid of that.”

That’s because somewhere in our minds we have an agreement that (a) we might have a double-chin and (b) having a double-chin is a very bad thing to have. So when someone points that out, or we see an advertisment with a 120-lb model, our mind comes up with “I’m ugly” and we agree with it.

So the key is to stop agreeing with our negative thoughts. This doesn’t mean arguing with them or resisting them though. If someone said “You’re a purple elephant” we wouldn’t argue about how we really aren’t and how even purple elephants have feelings – we would just shrug and say “OK, whatever”. We have no charge on it. That is the attitude to cultivate with our negative feelings and thoughts – a mental shrug. “Ok, that’s what my mind is doing, whatever.”

We can learn to ask ourselves the questions: “What am I trying to achieve?” and “What difference does it make?” We may have assumed since childhood that every word or gesture was important, that everything made a difference. Our childish judgment was not sophisticated enough to make fine distinctions between the extremes of important and unimportant. Our naive judgment as a child predisposes us to overreact as if every occasion of unfairness were equally earth-shaking.

Now, we can at least ask the question, “Does it really make a difference?” Most of the time, the answer is no, that these things don’t amount to a hill of beans. It is quite reasonable to feel displeased about things we do not like. It makes no sense to lash out when we do not get what we desire, or things are not as we want them to be. However, we can use this anger constructively to energize us to change situations we are unhappy with. In this way, we can choose to see anger as being neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ just human.

Dwelling on Our Mistakes: Why do We Judge and Shame Ourselves?

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2020). Dwelling on Our Mistakes: Why do We Judge and Shame Ourselves?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Feb 2020
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