Self-criticism refers to an inner dialogue that you have with yourself. This inner dialogue consists of negative judgments and evaluations of your own personal traits and actions. Specifically, there is a focus on one’s flaws, deficiencies, or imperfections.
While self-criticism has its helpful purposes (i.e., improving behaviors, can promote personal growth), it is not typically used in an encouraging way.
More often than not, engaging in self-criticism frequently creates a habit of relating to yourself in a negative way. It can be so automatic that you may become unaware of when you are doing it.
Additionally, the harsh words and tone of this inner dialogue can lead to and worsen anxiety and depression symptoms. This is more of a toxic self-criticism and can be detrimental to your overall emotional and mental health.
The good news here is that it doesn’t matter when or how long the inner critic has been with you. There are strategies you can start implementing to quiet the mind and form kinder ways of relating to yourself.
What is Toxic Self-Criticism?
Toxic self-criticism refers to harsh, negative critiques and judgments that seemingly serve to control and regulate behavior. The difficulty with this strategy, is that it only does this through a punitive format.
Toxic self-criticism is problematic when it is a consistent pattern and the primary method of relating to yourself. Everyone occasionally reprimands themselves for something. For example, imagine finding the newly purchased milk container out on the counter after several hours being away from home.
A swift comment such as, “Ugh, I got careless and forgot to put the milk away” might slip out. You acknowledge your mistake, put away the milk and move on with your day. You might make a mental note to ensure all groceries are put away next time. No harm, no foul.
But, if this human error moment triggers an automatic response to harshly criticize yourself, you may be in harmful territory. Instead, you say to yourself, “Ugh, I can’t do anything right; just another reminder of how I’m not good enough”.
In he first scenario, there is acknowledgement of the mistake and a planned future behavior change (i.e., put away groceries).
In the second scenario, there is a critique followed by a negative judgment on your value as a person. The second scenario is more likely to lead to negative feelings about yourself.
Toxic Critiques Vs. Constructive Self-Criticism
Toxic self-criticism is the opposite of constructive self-criticism, which also aims to regulate behavior. The difference is that constructive self-criticism serves to guide you into making positive and beneficial behavior changes.
Constructive self-criticism promotes a more optimistic, growth-oriented opportunity to build upon your strengths. This differs from toxic self-criticism which focuses on punishing you for having normal human flaws and weaknesses.
Disadvantages of Self-Criticism and Harsh Self-Talk
Harsh self-talk and negative judgments are harmful because they do not promote healthy, motivational, supportive and encouraging behavior change.
Self-blaming, guilt-tripping, criticizing, scolding and self-punishment also do not result in positive mood. They actually lower your self-esteem and self-confidence and create self-doubt in your own abilities.
In addition, self-criticism is connected to developing and sustaining anxiety, social phobia, perfectionism, and depression. As you can see, it takes an emotional toll that can negatively affect many aspects of your life.
Examples of Disadvantages:
- Get stuck in pattern of negative judgments about yourself
- Trick your mind into believing negative thoughts about yourself are true
- Less likely to try new things and put yourself out there
- Impacts interpersonal relationships
- Lowers self-esteem and confidence
- Creates resistance to change
- Leads to feelings of shame, guilt and worthlessness
- Leads to avoidance and emotional shut down
- Get stuck in patterns of using negative labeling and name calling
Stopping Self-Criticism Patterns
Practice Awareness of Your Thoughts
One important strategy to begin quieting self-criticizing thoughts is to practice increasing awareness of when they are present. Consider how you would answer the following questions:
Which situations tend to trigger a negative conversation with yourself? Are you aware of how you talk to yourself when something goes right?
Are you aware of how you talk to yourself when the results of your performance is uncertain? What about when you make a mistake? What types of comments do you tend to make to yourself when you do find personal flaws or weaknesses?
Are your comments constructive or harmful? Increasing awareness of your thoughts can illustrate moments when negative commentary is happening in your own mind.
Self-criticism examples include thoughts such as:
- “I should have…”, “I should be able to…”
- “I don’t have what it takes to…”
- “I’m dumb…”
- “I’m a disappointment…”
- “I’m a bad person…”
- “I don’t deserve…”
Keep a Thought Record
Writing down your thoughts in a notebook or on a piece of paper will help you maintain awareness.
Create two sections on the paper. One section is titled “situations”. The second section is titled “thoughts”.
Jot down what happened prior to engaging in harsh self-talk or negative judgments. This will help you connect and understand what types of situations trigger a negative and hurtful inner dialogue.
Practice Awareness of Your Emotions
Negative emotions tend to follow negative self-criticism. For example, feelings of shame, disapproval, embarrassment, guilt, contempt, remorse, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, etc.
There are various types of emotions. And emotions also vary in their intensities, meaning the strength in which we feel them. We can feel emotions very intensely, causing emotional distress which can disrupt and impact mood.
Our emotions provide useful information and insight into our personal experiences. To increase awareness of your emotions and connection to harsh self-talk, pause when you notice a shift in your mood. Take note of how you are feeling and name the emotion.
You can jot down your emotions and the intensity of emotion from 0-10, with 10 being the most intense. To gain insight into what is happening, see if you can connect your emotions to any recent negative thoughts or judgments about yourself.
Awareness of Your Behaviors
Social isolation, shutting down and avoidant behaviors and are related to toxic self-criticism. Other examples include, self-sabotaging or self-destructive behaviors: procrastinating, using negative coping skills, and rigidity and inflexible to new ideas.
In addition, consistently choosing to use negative coping skills above other more positive options, also reflects that you feel bad about yourself. Many times, we can tie this back to toxic self-criticism.
Keep track of your coping skills and behavioral reactions. If you are treating yourself unkindly, this can indicate that you are also talking to yourself unkindly.
Awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and how they connect to negative inner dialogue can give you a starting point. You can then decide where you want to make a change that will lead to a kinder way of relating to yourself.
Replace Self-Disapproval With Self-Compassion
Self-compassion involves acknowledging your own suffering and responding to your suffering with kindness. Developing a self-compassion practice helps to defuse the inner self-critic.
You can start introducing self-compassion into your life by recognizing when you are feeling hurt. Notice any tendencies to be self-critical and take a pause.
Remember that you are not alone in your suffering. Many people around the world also struggle with the inner critic.
Ask yourself what you are needing in this moment to kindly ease suffering and help you feel better without criticizing? And proceed to offer this to yourself.
Perhaps you need a moment of silence to practice breathing exercises. You can also offer yourself a compassionate and supportive phrase to replace the critique.
For example, “May I be patient with myself”, “May I learn to accept myself as I am”. The phrase you choose to use will be personal to your own experiences. Whatever feels right to you.
Self-compassion can help to build a warm, kind, and positive relationship with yourself. Try to use it in place of negative self-talk.
Shift Your Focus to Areas of Personal Development
When we don’t like something about ourselves, we have two choices. We can stay down and angry about it or take the necessary steps toward changing it.
As mentioned earlier, constructive self-criticism will push you towards making healthier improvements in your life. And harsh self-talk may lead to shutting down behaviors.
Shifting your focus from personal weaknesses and shortcomings toward growth and development can also quiet self-critical talk. For example, if you don’t like how you currently cope with stress, shift your focus on developing stress management skills.
You may identify starting a yoga class, journaling, painting, talking with a friend when you feel overwhelmed, etc. This is far more likely to result in improved mood.
Likewise, attending to personal development means that you purposefully build and develop new strengths. As you gain new strengths and abilities, it will naturally help you improve overall confidence and wellbeing.
Highlight a Successful Moment
Toxic self-criticism always leans toward the negative side of things. To counteract it, you must actively highlight the positives in your life. Shift the mind to highlight a successful moment and identify things that you did right.
Start with naming 3 things everyday that you did well. What are your mini wins for the day? It doesn’t matter what it is. The only thing that matters is for you to get used to highlighting ordinary, everyday tasks and moments of success.
Make sure to celebrate all accomplishments, despite their size (big, small, or tiny). Don’t discount any positives in your day. Allow yourself to feel good about the things you do. For instance, preparing a healthy meal even though you felt exhausted after work.
Words of Encouragement & Positive Affirmations
Words of encouragement are a form of emotional support. When you notice a friend is in a rut, you may offer a word of encouragement to help them along. Something like, “You got this”, can help to build confidence or maintain a positive mindset.
Likewise, positive affirmations help to defuse negative thoughts about oneself or situation and instead, lean towards the good. Due to the automatic and persistent nature of toxic self-criticism, it’s difficult to access encouraging words during times of need.
Furthermore, individuals who engage in self-criticizing talk have previously heard discouraging comments from others. If you aren’t used to hearing or offering yourself encouragement and positive affirmations, it can feel uncomfortable.
It can also feel funny and you may not believe in them just yet. However, it is still helpful to practice because slowly and overtime, you will get used to treating yourself with kindness. Below are a few encouraging phrases you can begin to offer yourself:
- “I can try again”, “I am proud of my progress so far”
- “I did not achieve the outcome I desired, butI did what I could in the moment and given the circumstances”
- “I am motivated to continue trying until I reach my goals”
- “Making mistakes is part of life and I am learning everyday”
- “I use the information from my mistakes to inform my next steps”
We all hear that nobody is perfect. But, the self-critical part of yourself may still strive for perfection.
Toxic self-criticism will keep you believing that you will never be good enough and must continue to punish yourself for this.
Accepting yourself as you are, flaws and all is an advantageous challenge. And it is very much a challenge. But, it is doable and can make a huge difference in the way you approach yourself and others.
Learning to give acceptance, forgiveness, and kindness to ourselves also teaches us how to do the same for others. The side effect is often healthier and more fulfilling relationships with people overall, ourselves included.
Exploring to Understand: Where Does Self-Criticism Come From?
Another strategy to begin quieting self-criticism is to understand how it first developed. It’s important to recognize that no one is born with intention to criticize themselves and experience shame. This was learned somehow throughout life and it is not your fault.
Commonly, self-criticism originates as a way to motivate or protect you in some way. Maybe at one point it served to keep you safe from hurtful, abusive or other challenging situations.
Growing up in a highly criticizing home environment and having history of abuse increases susceptibility to development of self-criticism.
Many criticizing messages may have first come from various outside, external sources. Family systems such as parents or siblings. Societal messages and other persons including friends, teachers, romantic partners, etc.
If you take a moment to explore, does the inner critic sound like anyone else in your life? Maybe that person’s voice has somehow transformed into a self-critical part of you now?
Other explanations are also possible. And the origination for each person will be different. Despite how or when it started, gaining insight into this can help your journey to be kinder to yourself.
Rest assured that you can learn to respond to yourself gently and compassionately. Even if you didn’t receive this or learn how to do this as a child.
It is difficult to explore a painful past. Mental health counseling is useful in helping to uncover ways to process and understand your own personal experiences. With a supportive therapist, you can improve self-care and reduce harmful ways of relating to yourself.
Start Therapy With a Licensed Counselor in NY State
Many people struggling with the inner self-critic are also dealing with anxiety, perfectionism, or stress. If you live in New York State and are looking for support, schedule a complimentary fifteen minute phone consultation.