• Why self-criticism doesn’t work (and what does)

    June 30, 2016 | curtrosengren
  • self-criticism

    My inner critic is a nasty piece of work. He looks like a midieval executioner, and his name is Brutal Bart. He carries a cat-o-nine-tails with barbed wire tips – definitely not the kind of guy you’d want to run into in a dark alley.

    Fortunately, he’s infinitely less active than he used to be (I’ve done a lot of work on that over the years), but I still have to be watchful.

    Sadly, I’m far from alone in my challenges with an inner critic. For most of us, it’s all too common to treat ourselves far worse than we would ever think of treating anyone else.

    Your inner critic means well

    Believe it or not, our inner critics (yes, even Brutal Bart) are actually grounded in positive intention. An article on the inner critic from Hal & Sidra Stone (authors of Embracing Your Inner Critic, a book I recommend frequently) describes it this way:

    In order to protect themselves from the pain and the shame of always being found “less than” they should be, a voice develops within these children that echoes the concerns of their parents, their church, or of other people who are important to them. This Inner Critic is a “self ”, a separate subpersonality, that criticizes them before their parents – or anyone else, for that matter – can!

    This Inner Critic is extremely anxious, almost desperate, for them to succeed in the world and to be accepted and liked by others.

    As we leave childhood, this Inner Critic continues its attempts to make us acceptable to others. Unfortunately, it often does not know when to stop. The Inner Critic does not know when enough is enough. It has a tendency to grow until it is out of control and begins to undermine us and to do real damage. At this point, its original intent gets lost.

    So the inner critic evolved to protect you. It just happens to be really ineffective in the way it goes about it.

    Why self-criticism doesn’t work

    An article from self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, for example, shines a light on why self-criticism is actually counter-productive. This paragraph sums it up well:

    Research shows that self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed — not exactly get-up-and-go mindsets. They also have lower self-efficacy beliefs (i.e., self-confidence in their abilities), which undermines their potential for success. The habit of self-criticism engenders fear of failure, meaning that self-critics often don’t even try achieving their goals because the possibility of failure is unacceptable. Even more problematic, self-critics have a hard time seeing themselves clearly and identifying needed areas of improvement because they know the self-punishment that will ensue if they admit the truth. Much better to deny there’s a problem or, even better, blame it on someone else.

    The benefits of self-compassion

    And while self-criticism has a bucketload of detrimental effects, research has shown that self-compassion has a bucketload of positive ones. The article goes on to describe those:

    Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals. Instead, research shows that they’re more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration and disappointment. Self-compassionate people have more intrinsic motivation in life — trying hard because they want to learn and grow, not because they need to impress themselves or others. Self-compassionate people are more likely to take responsibility for their past mistakes, while acknowledging them with greater emotional equanimity. Research also shows that self-compassion helps people engage in healthier behaviors like sticking to their weight-loss goals, exercising, quitting smoking and seeking medical care when needed.

    So if you want to create a life you love, if you want to show up fully and make the impact you have the potential to make in the world, work on letting go of your belief in the words of that inner critic and start cultivating self-compassion.

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