Self-criticism can help you to push through problems and setbacks, driving you to succeed. But it can also set you up for failure, undermining your morale and leaving you feeling badly about yourself—even in the face of success. Knowing the difference between healthy and destructive self-criticism is the first step toward using self-criticism wisely.
With healthy self-criticism, people focus on fixing their mistakes in the task at hand—not on fixing themselves. Because they accept that mistakes and weaknesses are part of being human, they are kind to themselves even (or especially) as they struggle. They also react with curiosity: “I failed at this task. I wonder how I can do better next time?”
In the same circumstances, what drives people with a tendency toward unhealthy self-criticism is a fear of being inadequate. This fear becomes a taskmaster that tries to whip them into shape. They attack themselves by saying, “I’m such a failure,” along with cutting themselves down with razor-sharp criticisms about their very human struggles, inadequacies, and failures (or feared failures). Such self-flagellation may drive them to persist and even accomplish a goal, but the cost is high: They experience themselves as failures (or potential failures) no matter how much they accomplish.
To be successful and happy, it is essential that you separate the idea of failing from seeing yourself as a failure. To do this, consider the following truths:
1. You have value as a person that’s based on who you are. It’s a value that goes beyond your performance.
To help you appreciate your value as a person, think about the people in your life who have truly loved you or valued your friendship. Then think about a time when you did not perform as well as you would have wanted on some particular task. Did they (or would they) value you less? Probably not. Similarly, consider how you would feel toward them if they did poorly on a task. How would you feel toward them, for example, if they totally failed at trying to set up an audio system for their TV? While you might not go to them for help with a similar project, you would also probably not value them any less as a person.
In times when you are less upset, practice thinking about this; allow the truth of it to sink in. Something inside you will want to reject it. Acknowledge this, but then challenge yourself to feel the truth of it anyway.
2. The benefits of feeling emotionally supported and encouraged outweigh those of being criticized and bullied.
Self-encouragement and self-compassion can help you feel good about yourself while motivating you to persist. Self-bullying may drive you to succeed, but you will not be able to fully enjoy that success.
Researchers Barnard and Curry (2011) reviewed numerous empirical studies and found that highly self-compassionate people tend to have greater life satisfaction, a greater sense of well-being, and more optimism than those with low self-compassion. They have more of a sense of purpose and mastery, are more conscientious in performing tasks, show more personal growth initiative, and display more resilience after perceived failures. Self-compassion also showed to be unrelated to lowering one's personal standards.
All of this supports the idea that developing self-compassion can help you feel happier while also supporting your desire to succeed.
One of the best ways to fully understand and absorb this is to think about how you would respond to a child who was upset about failing at a task, like a test in school or a Little League game. If you approach the child with scolding and criticism, that child would likely withdraw—and possibly give up. However, if you were empathic and compassionate, they would be more likely to feel good about themselves. This would help energize their inner strength to persist toward their goal. Importantly, they would also be likely to incorporate corrective criticisms about their recent performance into improvements in their ongoing efforts.
You might feel an urge to jump over self-compassion and get right to criticizing yourself—to mercilessly berate yourself for mistakes and push harder for success. But rather than punishing yourself for being inadequate, nurturing self-compassion opens you to feeling happily motivated to pursue ever-greater success.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community. She is also the author of Insecure in Love.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness