“Do not beat yourself up. Even if you think you know your flaws, there is no need to advertise them. Most people won’t have noticed.”— Philip Toshio Sudo
Self-criticism can be helpful or unhelpful.
If you have unhealthy habits, for example—letting out your anger or frustration on your partner or on the dog, spending way too many hours in front of a screen playing computer games, regularly overeating or rarely exercising, constructive self-criticism can be a positive thing.
It can be the first step towards making better, more life-affirming choices to improve specific patterns or behaviours.
Unhealthy self-criticism on the other hand, is often characterised by blanket beliefs such as “I’m not good enough, I’m a failure, I’m stupid or I never get anything right.”
These generalised beliefs are not related to any specific pattern or behaviour. They stem from a general lack of self-worth.
People who habitually criticise themselves in this way often use words such as always, never, nothing, or everything… “I always miss out, I never do anything right, nothing I try ever works out” etc. etc.
If you have a tendency to make these kind of sweeping generalisations, it’s helpful to become consciously aware whenever they arise and to get into the habit of questioning whether they are actually true or not… one of the remedies I’ll cover later in the article. [hint: they are rarely, if ever, true].
Where Does Unhealthy Self-Criticism Come From?
Unhealthy or toxic self-criticism is usually passed on from generation to generation.
Parents who were themselves judged harshly as children— told repeatedly that they are not good enough or downright stupid, that ‘good boys’ shouldn’t behave like this or like that, not treated with respect or kindness—often pass the same unconscious behaviour patterns onto their own children.
And, in a sense, no-one is to blame.
Unconsciousness can only breed more unconsciousness. This is why multi-generational self-criticism is universal.
When children are frequently criticised by their parents, they are much more likely to grow up overly critical of themselves and others.
As kids, we lack the maturity to discern truth from untruth. If you’re continuously judged or put down, it’s inevitable that you’ll come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with you— that you are unacceptable as you are and basically flawed.
It’s not until a later age that we realise our parents are far from perfect themselves and are screwed up in their own ways, by which time it’s too late.
And then 20, 30, or 40 years later, you’re walking around in a grown up body, still acting out the emotional trauma of the unhealed inner child.
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The Consequences Of Self-Criticism
Toxic self-criticism can negatively impact our lives in many ways.
It can make us feel anxious, fearful or depressed and can trigger negative feelings such as guilt, shame, disappointment, unworthiness or insecurity.
The fear that voicing an opinion will lead to criticism can cause you to hide your true feelings and not live authentically. This can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation and inner dissociation.
Toxic self-criticism can manifest as an inability to accept praise, to never be satisfied with our own achievements and to compare ourselves unfavourably with others.
So, how to turn things around and stop beating yourself up?
Here are 7 practical steps you can take right away.
7 Ways To Drop Self-Criticism And Be Kind to Yourself
1. Be Mindful of Your Thoughts and Unconscious Reactions
If the habit of self-criticism is deeply entrenched, it is most likely running unconsciously on autopilot. It’s your default mode.
Our minds will always gravitate towards the thoughts we dwell on the most.
The first step towards kicking the self-criticism habit is to start making the unconscious thinking patterns and reactions conscious.
Whenever the old mind movies “I’m not good enough” or “There’s something wrong with me” start playing on autopilot in your head, STOP, hit the pause button, take a slow conscious breath, step back and objectively watch the mind in action.
Instead of getting unconsciously dragged into the movie and swept away, as you usually do, take a step back and watch the whole unconscious scenario unfold, with an attitude of curiosity and, if possible, non-judgemental acceptance.
The simple act of pausing, consciously taking a breath and watching as a curious observer will begin to change the way you relate to the mind.
2. Be Mindful of the Present Moment
Instead of getting caught up in the toxic blame, guilt or shame movie that’s playing in your head, bring your attention to what’s happening right here, right now in this very moment— your breath, the sensations in your body or the sounds in the room.
A simple and powerful practice is to count your breaths. Notice where in the body you can feel the physical sensation of the breath moving in and out and start counting.
As you breath in, count 1. On the out breath count 2.
When you reach 10, start again at 1.
Your mind will of course want to get back to playing the movie… and that’s fine. That’s part of the exercise. Simply notice how you can choose to get involved in thinking OR to focus your attention on the breathing and the counting.
Your attention can only be in one place at a time, and you get to choose.
With practice, you’ll soon realise that what you choose to give your attention to is entirely up to you, which can be a liberating discovery!
A complete step-by step guide to help you break free from the trap of overthinking for good. Includes 9 powerful guided meditations.
3. Question Your Thoughts and Beliefs
Following on from the first tip, being mindful of your thoughts and reactions, start questioning every thought and belief that enters your head.
If the thought, “Everything I do ends in failure” appears in your head, ask, “Do I know for 100% certain that this is true?”
You’ll discover that the answer is almost always “No, I don’t know.”
Like a detective, look for evidence to support the opposite. Write a list of all the areas in your life where you’ve been successful, all the things that have gone well.
You may well be surprised at how easy it is to disprove most of these long-held beliefs. And what you don’t believe will no longer trouble you.
4. Focus on Your Successes
The critical inner voice will always look for what’s wrong. It will always seek to point out your flaws and mistakes. It will find fault with everything you do, even when things go well.
This is a habit that can be broken.
To counteract this tendency, focus on your successes. Sit down with pen and paper and make a list of everything you’ve accomplished, no matter how small or unimportant it may seem.
Three exercises I do daily that really help to maintain a positive focus are to write down:
- 10 things I’m grateful for in my life
- 10 things I’m good at
- and 3 wins from the last 24 hours.
When the self-criticism habit is strong, the mind will default to negative thoughts, feelings and impressions. You can start to rewrite this pattern through consciously focusing on the positive.
5. What Advice Would You Give To a Friend
Most of us are far harder on ourselves than we are on others. It’s human nature.
Imagine if a close friend was relentlessly beating themselves up over something they had said or done or were judging themselves harshly for a mistake or a bad decision they had made.
What would you say to them? What advice would you give?
You’d probably say something like, “Stop being so hard on yourself. You’re only human. Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. Your actions don’t say anything about the kind of person you are”, or something similar.
You certainly wouldn’t see them as a bad person because they’d made a bad decision. You wouldn’t think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way they are.
When a self-critical thought pops up in your head, ask yourself whether you would say something like that to a close friend, to someone you care deeply about. If not, then don’t say it to yourself either!
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6. It’s OK to Be Imperfect and Make Mistakes
Being a perfectionist and setting impossibly high standards for ourselves is another common trigger for self-criticism.
Remember; everybody, without exception, has a crazy, messed up mind. If they try to tell you otherwise, they are fooling themselves. Everybody screws up. Everybody is a work in progress.
As Pema Chodron says:
Maybe the most important teaching is to lighten up and relax. It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy, mixed up minds to remember that what we’re doing is unlocking a softness that’s in us and letting it spread. We’re letting it blur the sharp edges of self-criticism”.
Give yourself permission to be a beautiful, imperfect mess. You are one anyway, so you may as well accept it!
7. Practice Self-Compassion and Kindness
There’s a 3-step exercise called the Self-Compassion Break that many of my coaching clients find really powerful.
It can be used whenever you’re experiencing moments of difficulty—for example, if you’re beating yourself up or giving yourself a hard time.
Begin by placing your hands gently on your heart. This act of self-love alone can be very healing and comforting.
With your hands on your heart, acknowledge to yourself, “This is a moment of difficulty”. Say to yourself matter-of-factly (and without judgement if possible) “I’m doing it again. I’m beating myself up. I’m giving myself a hard time.”
Next, say to yourself “This is an old, unconscious pattern that has been with me forever, part of my conditioning. Everybody experiences difficulties. It’s part of the human condition.”
And in the third and final step, say “I choose to be kind, compassionate and loving towards myself right now.”
Practicing self-compassion and being gentle with ourselves for all our shortcomings, all our flaws, is an important attitude to nurture.
Go through these simple steps, even if you still feel self-critical. You may be surprised at the difference it makes.
Meeting self-criticism (or any other challenging pattern) with an attitude of openness, kindness and compassion is the quickest way to peace.
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