As a counselor, I meet a lot of people who criticize themselves constantly.
If anything bad happens, it’s because the person is stupid, incompetent, thoughtless, a terrible parent, a terrible spouse, etc. The constant negative mental chatter ratchets up to a full-blown rant whenever something goes wrong. It’s beyond just critical thinking and self-regulation. It’s bullying.
Still, people with this kind of chronic negative self-talk are not necessarily irrational. Often, they acknowledge when questioned that something is not their fault.
But even though they “know better,” they continue to experience feelings of shame and worthlessness when bad things happen to them, as if everything were their fault. They might drive to an event, discover it was cancelled at the last minute, and immediately blame themselves — rather than the event organizers — for the wasted trip.
Why should this be? If they understand that it’s not their fault, why do they continue to feel as if it is?
In Psychology 101 I was taught that behavior will eventually stop if it’s not rewarded. (I’d already learned this the hard way with trick-or-treating.) If there’s no reinforcement, there’s no motivation to continue with the behavior. If there were absolutely no upside to beating themselves up, people wouldn’t do it.
“But it’s a habit. It’s ingrained,” you might say. Even if it’s become a habit, there must be reinforcement for that habit to remain in place. See Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, for more on this interesting subject.
It seems that chronic self-criticism may have an unacknowledged upside.
Here are three powerful motivators for continued self-criticism:
Hope – “If I can just do better, things will get better.”
Avoidance – “If I stay mad at myself, I can avoid noticing how others let me down, and becoming mad at them.”
Control – “If I’m responsible for everything that happens to me, I feel in control of everything that happens to me.”
What an uplifting and empowering message that self-criticism carries! In essence, “As long as the focus is on myself and my mistakes, I feel like there’s hope for me to avoid painful conflict and maintain control.”
If you suffer with chronic self-criticism, and you’re ready to let go of it, H.A.C.k into it by asking yourself about those three benefits: Hope, Avoidance and Control. How well are they serving you?
You can shake loose from the grip of chronic self-criticism. The temporary loss of hope, control and avoidance may be scary, but on the other side you’ll be free.