Overcoming Self-Criticism

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Now that we’re past the halfway mark of fall term, many of the recent conversations I’ve had with people have focused upon some variation of the theme, “There’s just not enough time in the day!” Like many of you, I have been working on accepting that no matter how enthusiastically I may try, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to check off every item on each day’s to-do list. Sometimes, I’m able to embrace this cold, hard fact and have some compassion for myself as I recount everything that didn’t get done that day. At other times, it’s very difficult to maintain that self-compassion.

If you too sometimes struggle with self-criticism, you are far from being alone. Many of us do it in some form or another, which can include doubting ourselves (“I’m so bad at making decisions”), blaming ourselves (“This is all my fault”), labeling ourselves (“I’m such a loser”), and writing off positives (“I did well that time, but anyone could have”). However, this mental habit is a particularly important one to break, as its detrimental impact can range from keeping us from being present to contributing to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In his book, Beat the Blues Before They Beat You, Dr. Robert Leahy provides several suggestions for overcoming one’s inner critic:

  • Recognize how your self-criticism impacts your mood and behavior by keeping track of any self-critical thoughts you have. You can jot these down in your phone or on a piece of paper or just note them by saying to each self-critical thought, “There I go again.”
  • Define what you’re really saying about yourself. Instead of calling yourself a “loser” or a “failure,” ask yourself what these terms actually mean to you (e.g., “A failure is someone who never succeeds at anything”).
  • Examine the evidence that your thoughts are true (e.g., have you truly never succeeded at anything in your life, or are there success experiences you are discounting?). Look at all the facts, not just those that support the self-critical thought.
  • Ask yourself what you may believe your self-criticism does for you. It may sound odd, but many people feel their self-criticism serves to motivate them – Dr. Leahy makes the excellent point that there are no self-help books titled Ten Things to Hate About Yourself to Become Successful or How Thinking I Was a Loser Helped Me Win, and for good reason!
  • Set achievable goals, so that you have opportunities for success every day.
  • Be honest with yourself about your mistakes, but don’t get stuck in feeling shameful and ruminating about being a failure. Instead of self-criticism, engage in self-correction by asking yourself what you can learn from or do about past mistakes right now.
  • Instead of getting into a battle with your self-critical thoughts or trying to block them out, picture them as clouds floating past you acrossthe sky or bubbles rising to the surface of a pool.
  • When noticing a self-critical thought, ask yourself whether you would say something like that to someone about whom you care deeply. If not, then don’t say it to yourself either!
  • Make it a point to say something positive to yourself or reward yourself with an activity you enjoy (e.g., going for a walk) each time you achieve your goals for the day.

Hopefully, these suggestions are as helpful to you as they have been to me. If you try them and still find yourself struggling with self-criticism, consider asking for help from a friend or from the folks here at the Counseling Center. As always, take good care of yourselves.

Susie Musch, Ph.D.