The Hazards of Self-Criticism
Psychological science sheds light on the detriments of self-derogation.
Posted August 9, 2017
Many of us admire self-criticism. We view this trait as a strong testimony for scrupulousness, honesty, responsibility, and integrity, four highly coveted moral virtues. We also deem self-criticism as a pre-condition for self-improvement and growth. “It is only when we courageously look inside and identify our flaw and own them, that we can begin the journey of correcting—or at least minimizing—them, thereby becoming better persons”, is what many of us tell ourselves. Well, research conducted by myself and others around the work strongly advise us to rethink these premises. Such research suggest that self-criticism is highly likely to involve a quality of self-bashing, and when it does, its adverse effects on our physical and mental health are formidable. Most of the research is summarized in my book “Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-criticism,” published by Oxford University Press, as well as in a subsequent article that goes beyond this book.
To appreciate the detrimental effect of self-criticism, let us consider how it is defined in psychological research. I suggest defining this trait as “an intense and persistent relationship with the self, characterized by (1) an uncompromising demand for high standards in performance, and (2) an expression of hostility and derogation toward the self when these high standards are – inevitably – not met” (Shahar, 2015, p. 5). Note that this definition: (1) assumes that our self-concept is not monolithic, rather that it is comprised by multiple, intensely interacting, aspects; (2) highlights that self-criticism goes beyond the quest for self-improvement: It consists of an uncompromising demand, the very demand that increases the likelihood of eventually not meeting (ever rising) standards; (3) links the uncompromising demand for high standards and its inevitable failure with a pernicious outcome of this failure: self-directed hostility, bashing, and derogation.
Research in the US, Canada, Israel, and Europe converges in showing that self-criticism, as measured by very simple self-report questionnaires, contributes to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, juvenile delinquency, physical health conditions, and even suicidality. I highlight the work being contributed by others because this research is quite high-quality, in that it provides a strong test for the possibility that self-criticism is one of the causes of the aforementioned disorders, as opposed to merely being these disorders’ outcome. The results of the test convincingly implicate self-criticism as both a cause and a consequence. For instance, self-criticism is one of the causes of depression, but depression also increases self-criticism, particularly among adolescent girls.
Moreover, research worldwide provides a compelling answer as to why self-criticism leads to mental and physical disorders. The answer: Self-criticism derails people’s social environments. It propels people to generate interpersonal stress (e.g., be involved in quarrels and beget rejections), and it interferes with people’s ability to experience positive, enjoyable life events (such as having fun with friends) and to mobilize social support in times of need. Such a negative environment serves as fertile ground for emotional distress, which in turn might increase self-criticism. I call this process “The Self-Critical Cascade”.
So, what to do? The answer to this question is twofold. When self-criticism has already been translated into a mental disorder, usually extensive psychotherapy is needed. In my book, I describe my preferred mode of therapy, which is integrative: It combines cognitive-behavioral and other active techniques that teach patients to cope with self-critical thoughts and interpersonal behaviors stemming from these thoughts with depth-psychology work, getting at the core of patients’ self-criticism. With respect to the latter, I posit that malignant self-criticism develops as a reaction to people’s—particularly young people’s—inner confusion about their true identity, namely, who they are. I therefore join my young patients in trying to solve this cumbersome, but not insurmountable, riddle.
If, however, self-criticism has not yet been translated into a mental disorder, or if symptoms of distress are relatively mild, then a keen awareness of self-criticism’s malignant nature might be very helpful. In particular, parents and school teachers should not be passive in the face of their children/pupils self-critical utterances (e.g., “I Suck”), but rather treat these utterances as manifestations of bullying—in this instance, self-bullying. The correct response would be to address self-critical utterances, firmly request that they discontinue, and encourage children and young people to adopt a curious and benevolent attitude towards themselves, rather than to bash themselves into submission. And the earlier this is executed, the healthier the outcome is going to be.
Shahar, G. (2015). Erosion: The psychopathology of self-criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shahar, G. (2016). Criticism in the self, brain, social relations and social structure: Implications to psychodynamic psychiatry. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 44(3):395-421. doi: 10.1521/pdps.2016.44.3.395.