What do you do when things go south in your life? Do you immediately focus in on your character flaws, saying things like “Of course, I didn’t get that job. There’s nothing impressive about me” or “No wonder he never called me back. Why would he want to spend time with someone as dull as I am?” or “I totally flubbed the presentation and it was dumb of me to think I could have tried it to begin with because I’m not smart or appealing to people.”
This habit is what psychologists call self-criticism. It is the default and learned response to any setback, mistake, or failure which was learned in childhood. Basically, the person who self-criticizes attributes whatever has gone wrong—large or small—to deep-seated and unchangeable character flaws. This is unconscious behavior and so habitual that the person doesn’t even register it without therapy and a growth of conscious awareness.
What makes it all worse is that self-criticism can be easily confused with taking responsibility. In truth, the two are very different.
Self-criticism versus taking responsibility
Children who are mocked, marginalized, or made to feel inadequate by their mothers or fathers internalize what is said about them and to them which, by adulthood, becomes the habit of self-criticism. A controlling parent or one with an authoritarian parenting style doesn’t just undercut a child’s independence but actively undermines the validity of his or her thoughts and perceptions; that child is apt to grow up believing that taking responsibility is a synonym for being blamed.
My mother’s way was the only way. If I dared to challenge her—especially as I got older—her reaction was withering. I hear her voice in my head telling me I’ll never amount to anything, how stupid and wrong I was.
Mothers (and fathers) high in narcissistic traits tend to see their children as extensions of themselves and, again, it’s their way or the highway. In order to please their parent, these children disconnect from their own thoughts and feelings; if they chose to rebel, they will be made to feel terrible about themselves and may be gaslighted or scapegoated. For them, too, self-criticism is a default setting.
Children whose emotional needs are met, who are given the freedom to explore their own wants and desires, and who are brought up knowing that if they fail, falter, or make a mistake, people will still love them can take responsibility for those setbacks without falling apart or attacking themselves.
The habit of self-criticism not only destroys self-esteem but makes an individual less resilient since life is full of setbacks and bumps. People who are afraid of failure because they think it reveals an essential truth about themselves are not only more likely to fail but less likely to recover when they do.
6 steps to take to battle the habit of self-criticism
These strategies are all adapted from those outlined in my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. Because self-criticism is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned with effort by becoming consciously aware and substituting a new way of thinking about yourself. This is best accomplished in therapy but you can also help yourself.
- Recognize the habit and its source
This is half the battle: understanding how self-criticism is an automatic default setting for you and why you do it. While recognizing the overall effect of your childhood treatment on your current behaviors is hard work, tackling just this one habit is relatively straightforward. Pay attention to how you react when you’re stressed or feeling defensive; is your first thought self-blame? When you get into an argument with someone, do you always apologize and say “It’s all my fault,” even though you really don’t feel that way deep inside? One reader wrote me the following:
I always thought that I was defensive by nature but I’m finally beginning to see that the habit of self-blame keeps me in relationships and situations that make me unhappy but for which I’m wrongly taking responsibility. If someone treated me badly, I was more likely to think that I deserved it than to see the treatment clearly. That’s beginning to change.
Your own reactivity to stress and perceived slights may also trigger self-criticism so you need to begin to understand your own emotional habits.
- Examine your beliefs about the self
Research shows the people who believe personality and the self are malleable and can be changed actually recover from setbacks and failures better, are more likely to learn from them, and are less likely to blame themselves than those who believe that personality is set in stone.
Do you think you can change? Do you think people generally can change? Knowing what you think—and seeing how your beliefs may be obstacles to your own healing—are important steps.
- Talk back to the voice and bring it into consciousness
I mean this more literally than not—but, obviously, it’s best to do it in private. When you hear the voice in your head telling you that you’re worthless or stupid or unlovable, counter it by enumerating the qualities you admire in yourself. If you’re having trouble actually coming up with things you like about you, ask a close friend or an intimate.
You can also use journaling to counter the voice by enumerating your good qualities.
- Begin practicing self-compassion
No, this isn’t a call for self-pity which is self-referential but another way of shifting perspective and seeing yourself in a different light. The concept, originally Buddhist in origin, has been thoughtfully expanded by the work and research of Dr. Kristin Neff. Neff describes self-compassion as having three parts, the first of which letting go of judgment in favor of kindness and understanding in times of trouble or setback. The second is seeing what happened in the larger context of humanity, rather than an experience that speaks volumes about you. Finally, self-compassion requires you to acknowledge your painful feelings while not being overwhelmed by them.
I won’t pull any punches here and will come right out and say that self-compassion is extremely difficult for unloved daughters and sons to learn, and even harder for those who default to self-criticism. But with practice (and more practice) and self-awareness (and more self-awareness), it can be mastered.
- Put setbacks in context
Learning to weather the times we think we’ve failed is part of life’s journey, and the habit of self-criticism hobbles us in these moments. Use what psychologists call “cool processing” when you think about these moments by seeing them as though they happened to someone else, and not you. See them as if from a distance and a stranger might.
- Working on seeing yourself clearly
This is, overall, a larger task than simply isolating the habit of self-criticism since children whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood grow up to be adults who don’t see themselves clearly at all. Again, self-kindness and a more distanced perspective can begin to allow you to see both your strengths and your flaws—we all have them—in context and without self-blame or even self-hatred.
Self-criticism is a way of tearing yourself down and keeping yourself trapped in your childhood room, and it’s high time you set yourself free. Really.
Photograph by . dima_goroziya Copyright Free. Pixabay.com
Neff, Kristen D., The Development and Validation of A Scale to Measure Self-Compassion,” Self and Identity (2003),2, 223-250.