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Ten Steps to Defeating That Self-Critic

Challenge your inner critic by cultivating self-compassion and acceptance.

Key points

  • Self-criticism contributes to anxiety, depression, and feelings of shame.
  • Swap out perfectionistic ideals for "healthy high standards" and reconsider your self-expectations.
  • Releasing comparisons to others can foster self-acceptance.
  • Engaging in self-acceptance and compassion alleviates stress and anxiety.

Self-criticism can haunt you daily. You notice that you are not living up to your expectations—or the expectations of others—and then you are hijacked by a negative voice that says, “I screwed up”, “I could have done better”, “What was wrong with me?”, “Others will think less of me", and “This is always happening.” You become anxious, depressed, ashamed, or guilty and then you either want to try harder to become the perfect person you will never be—or you withdraw and isolate yourself to escape from the reminders of your disappointment and regret.

How can you break the cycle of self-criticism and depression?

  1. What Labels Are You Using? We often label ourselves with pervasive personal traits like “stupid”, “careless”, “lazy”, or “awkward”. These labels cancel out all that is positive about us. Are you labeling yourself? Consider avoiding such negative labels.
  2. Build Your Motivation to Change. What are the costs of criticizing yourself? The costs might be low self-esteem, loss of confidence, anxiety, and depression. What are the benefits? You might think that being self-critical will motivate you or that you won’t let yourself off the hook. Consider more positive ways to motivate change.
  3. Does Self-Criticism Really Motivate You? Some people have a mixed-mind about self-criticism. They think they will be more motivated to try harder if they criticize themselves. There may be a grain of truth in this—but you don’t have to criticize yourself to tell yourself, “I can try harder”. You can simply try harder, brainstorm alternatives, and examine what you can learn from mistakes.
  4. Look for Variation. If you label yourself as lazy or stupid, ask yourself if there are situations where you exert effort or show competence. You can change the all-or-nothing labels to “Sometimes my performance varies—which means that I can also improve”.
  5. Examine Your Standards. Are you measuring yourself by demanding standards of perfection? For example, do you think that if you don’t do extremely well, then you are a failure? If you are not always witty and brilliant, then you are boring? You can replace perfectionistic standards with “healthy high standards”. Consider changing your expectations for yourself.
  6. Avoid the Double Standard. Are you applying standards for yourself that you would not apply to other people? Would you criticize your best friend the way that you criticize yourself? Are you being unfair to yourself? Try treating yourself like a friend—rather than as a target for criticism.
  7. Give Yourself Credit. Self-criticism is like having a bank account with only withdrawals and no deposits. No wonder your self-esteem is eroding. Give yourself credit every day for five things that you did that day that were positive.
  8. Build Self-Acceptance. What if you could wave a magic wand and accept your imperfection? Would you have more contentment, less anxiety, and less stress? You are the one who can decide to accept your imperfection and make room for being a human being—rather than finding fault in the smallest things.
  9. Why Compare With Others? A lot of our self-criticism is a consequence of comparing ourselves with others—usually a fantasy of what we think others are doing or what their lives are like. What if you didn’t compare yourself with others? Is there a rule or law that requires that we must do better than the best out there? Letting go of comparisons can help nourish self-acceptance.
  10. Show Compassion Toward Yourself. We are often more accepting and compassionate toward others—including strangers. What would be the loving kindness that you can show toward yourself? Imagine the most compassionate and loving person in your life saying to you, “I love you and accept you as someone I care about—always”. Direct this compassion toward yourself and let the self-critic protest in the background as you get on to live a life as a human being that you care about.
More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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