Go to Top

Overcome the Self-Criticism Habit

unhappy girl looking in mirrorAs 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.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
, , ,

0 Responses to "Overcome the Self-Criticism Habit"

  • Rosie
    April 21, 2012 - 10:58 am Reply

    Hmmmmm…………..seems like you have H.A.C.ked into my brain! This makes so much sense, but making the changes is so overwhelming. After doing this for all of my life, it is painful just to think about trying to change. But I get that it is not serving me to criticize myself all the time. It is just so hard to see myself the way others see me. Thanks Tina for writing this.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 21, 2012 - 4:16 pm Reply

      You’re so right, Rosie. Change IS hard. That’s why it’s common for people to lead smaller, less fulfilling lives than they’re capable of.

      The easiest way to make changes is with baby steps.

      An example of a baby step is finding one thing you can let yourself off the hook about. Or one person you can open up to just a little bit wider. Or a 5-minute period during one day when you speak only kind, compassionate words to yourself.

      Don’t wait till you feel ready; you might wait all your life. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply