Think It's Important To Be Critical To Yourself? Think Again.
We all talk about wanting to overcome our inner critic. We all talk about wanting to feel less undermined by that never ending voice in the back of our heads that constantly picks at us and laughs at us; the personal bully that is never out of reach. However, it is common that when we get down to trying to overcome the inner critic there is a sneaky belief that gets in the way. One that we don't often examine.
What am I talking about? I am talking about a belief around the importance of self-criticism. If we don't examine it, we will never be able to make change in terms of the way that we talk to ourselves. Furthermore, we will always undermine our ability to create the change we want to see in our lives, or to take the steps we want to take.
What are your beliefs around criticism?
Take a minute to think about the following, try to answer each question separately before moving onto the next:
What do you think about criticism? Do you think it's a good thing or something else? What do you think about criticising others? What do you think about your friends and family criticising themselves? When they do it, do you think it is useful? What do you think about criticising yourself?
I am almost only really interested in your answer to the last question. I am interested in whether there is any part of you that thinks that, while criticism isn't ideal and you hate your inner critic, you need self-criticism to ensure you evolve? That you need to be critical of yourself to ensure that you do your best? Or that if you aren't critical of yourself then others will see the real you, the one that isn't good enough or worthy of their attention?
Do you feel like that? Do you feel like the criticism you give yourself is what stops you from behaving in a way that would allow others to see how flawed you really are? Do you feel that without criticism you will, at best, stagnate and, at worst, truly fail?
If this is the case, don't worry you are not alone. I think we all have these beliefs on some level. However, you must challenge and replace this belief if you ever want to overcome your inner critic. Seriously, I could teach you all the best ways to separate from and overcome the inner critic right now. However, it wouldn't make a jot of difference as deep down you believe you need to keep the inner critic around.
Putting the beliefs around self-criticism on trial
Does self-criticism work? Let's have a look.
Imagine a child learning to ride a bike. At first they don't have a clue how to do it. They get on the bike and start trying.
Now, imagine that every time they make a mistake you shout at them, "no you idiot", "not like that", "of course you are getting it wrong, typical", "stupid, stupid, stupid", "what made you think you could do it in the first place?".
What will happen do you think? Do you think all this shouting and undermining is going to help this child learn how to ride said bike?
No it won't. Firstly, all you are doing is pointing out what is wrong, without explaining what they actually need to do. Secondly, the ongoing criticism will create a growing anxiety in the child that will show up every time they think or do anything associated with riding a bike.
If you have been following my posts, you know that anxiety causes our brain to switch off the parts required for decision making and learning new skills (the prefrontal cortex), and causes us to actively turn away from or fight against the situation causing the distress. Meaning that anxiety is the exact opposite of what you want to cause in someone who is learning a new task! See this post and this post for more information.
Now imagine the situation again, instead of shouting out all the stupid things they are doing, you notice that the child is going to need to learn a lot of steps before they can ride safely. You notice the areas that are going to need improvement first. You offer a smiling face and praise for the bits that are going well, then offer advice and reassurance for the bits that need to change. How do you think this will be different from the scenario above?
Why am I giving you these scenarios? When you criticise yourself, you are like the adult in the first example. You aren't constructively looking for the areas that need improvement and then constructively offering ways to move forward. No, you are shouting at yourself in a way that creates significant anxiety (causing you to shut down and want to run away) and offers no constructive path forward.
Need more convincing? Don't worry, I was ready for it. No-one shifts their lifelong held beliefs following a single example.
Imagine you are at work. You make a significant mistake. One that causes problems for others in the business. You are extremely concerned about what you did and what will happen. Something needs to be done to fix the problem. Now, imagine you have 2 bosses. They are both very good at their jobs. One of them however gets easily angry and critical. The other is very boundaried and takes no-nonsense, however this one is more constructive.
You know that if you go to Boss 1, they will shout at you. They will shout aloud all the things you have already said to yourself. "You idiot, how did you let this happen", "this is a disgrace", "you have brought shame on the company", "of course it was you who messed it up, typical", "fix it", "fix it now" etc. You know that you will leave this interaction feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, sadness and shame, and you will have no idea how to progress. Even if you wanted to be productive after the meeting you know there is no way you will be able to focus.
You also know that you have the option of going to Boss 2. You know that if you choose to go to Boss 2 they will also be pretty damn cross. You did mess up after all. However, you know that they will say something like "wow, that was quite the f*ck up", "this is really bad, however we need to get it sorted", "we have 20 minutes to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it", "let's figure this out so it won't happen again", "we all mess up sometimes, this will soon be a thing of the past".
Having read those two examples, 1) which do you think you would choose to go to, to overcome the problem? 2) Which would lead to the fastest and most productive outcome?
I am really hoping you have chosen Boss 2. Boss 2, has been able to notice flaws, have emotion about that, and still be constructive. You could still feel anxious, sad, and ashamed but to a lesser extent. You would leave with a plan and someone to support that.
Choosing a new position towards self-criticism
I hope I have shown you that believing you need to be self-critical is problematic, and may actively be getting in the way of you obtaining your personal goals. So, what are your alternatives? Generally, people think that if they aren't critical then they will be weak or a walkover.
This is a really good example of all or nothing thinking, the idea that there are only two positions that you can take in a situation. In this situation those positions are 1) critical as f*ck versus 2) mollycoddling (being overly protective or indulgent to yourself). However, there are so many more positions available. For example, I purposefully made Boss 2 sit outside of those two positions. Boss 2 was able to be firm, honest about the mistake and yet see it for what it is, a mistake, something all humans are capable of. Then Boss 2 managed to accept that the mistake had happened and found a way forward in a calm manner.
What could you now choose for your new belief about self-criticism? Take some time to think about this. It is never as simple as deciding on a new belief and the brain just agreeing with it. It will take time and it will take practice.
Here is a possible new belief you could trial, and one I end up with frequently with my clients (and have used many times myself):
Although it feels like being critical to myself at all times will be helpful, it may actually be causing me to become anxious and unable to engage in the tasks I want/need to complete. Therefore, maybe self-criticism isn't as important as I think. Maybe it is more important to catch myself while being critical and decide to take a moment, say something calming to myself, and then make a plan on how to move forward.
Have a go, write this down somewhere that you can access over and over. Read it as often as you can. Test it out. See what happens when you say this to yourself. See what happens when you take the steps outlined in the new belief. Do you feel different?
I hope this article has managed to shed some light on one of the beliefs you may have that will affect the way you talk to yourself on a daily basis. I hope it has shown you that any belief such as "I must be critical of myself in order to find my areas of weakness and learn to do better" is pervasive but inherently flawed. I hope it has given you a chance to consider changing this belief for something more useful.
I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get psychology out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my Blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online over video link.
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Disclaimer: Please note, the information in these posts is not intended to be therapy and does not constitute a therapist/client relationship. If you are in need of support, please contact your doctor or mental health provider.