- Frequent criticism early in life can make it hard to trust yourself.
- Parental treatment can affect not only how you feel about yourself as an adult but also the quality of your relationships.
- With consistent practice you can break out of these automatic reactions and develop new habits.
I had a dear friend in college who always seemed to be down on himself. He was a great guy who was easy to love, so I found his self-criticism puzzling.
But when I met his dad, it all made sense. Even a few hours with his father was hard to take, as he was constantly critical and condescending.
Growing up with a highly critical parent can have long-lasting effects. The following 16 signs are based on research studies as well as my observations as a psychotherapist.
1. You have a hard time trusting yourself.
Constant criticism early in life can leave the impression that what you think, feel, or do is somehow wrong. As a result, you’re often plagued by self-doubt.
2. You’re hesitant to take on new challenges.
Self-doubt and low confidence make it hard to trust your ability to rise to the occasion for a new endeavor. You often wind up playing it safe and choosing not to try rather than risk failing (Madjar et al., 2015).
3. It’s hard to bounce back from mistakes.
To err is human, but when the error is yours it feels like confirmation of your shortcomings. Even a simple mistake can remind you of all your past failings as your sense of self-worth plummets.
4. You tend to be a perfectionist.
5. It takes you a long time to complete a task.
Crafting an email, choosing a birthday card, writing a paper, or anything else can take a long time as you try to avoid making a mistake. You might even miss deadlines as your attempts to get it “just right” interfere with getting things done.
6. You constantly apologize.
Your mom or dad was quick to make you feel that you were in the wrong, so it’s easy to assume that others will see you in the same light. When your friends tell you that you don’t have to say “sorry” all the time, you might even apologize for apologizing.
7. You often feel defensive.
Of course you feel defensive: You learned as a kid to be highly attuned to possible attacks so you can guard against them. Your defensive reactions may lead your friends or partner to get upset with you for “always taking things the wrong way”—which doesn’t make you feel any less defensive.
8. You have a hard time believing people like you.
Even when friends and family express their love for you, deep down you suspect they’re kind of fed up with you (Pepping et al., 2015). This tendency may be especially strong if your parent gave you confusing mixed messages, treating you kindly one moment and then blindsiding you with harsh words the next.
9. You rarely take compliments to heart.
When someone says something nice to you, you find a way to deflect it—often with (surprise) self-criticism. If they say they like your new shirt, for example, you say that it’s not the best color for you. In one way or another, you neutralize any positivity directed at you.
10. You experience a lot of social anxiety.
As a result of not trusting others’ positive regard, you often fear their judgment or criticism (Schimmenti & Bifulco, 2015). You might worry about embarrassing yourself at work, doing something humiliating in public, or coming across as awkward in conversations.
11. You have a harsh inner critic.
The voice of your critical parent gets internalized, and now their criticism comes from within. If you listen closely, you might hear echoes of your parent’s voice in your own self-talk.
12. You’re prone to depression.
All that negative self-talk and sense of inadequacy take a toll, and your mood suffers as a consequence (McLeod et al., 2007). Sadly, you may end up criticizing yourself even for being depressed, setting up a downward spiral of low mood and self-loathing.
13. You tend to be critical of others.
As much as you don’t like being criticized, it’s hard not to do it to others. You find it easy and automatic to see faults in other people, and your own self-criticism is mirrored in your attitudes toward others—perhaps as a defense against your low self-worth.
14. Your relationships with your siblings are strained.
It’s unfortunate that poor treatment from parents often gets relayed into difficult sibling relationships (Portner & Riggs, 2016). While you may enjoy periods of closeness and connection, a fundamental sense of trust is missing.
15. You often overthink things.
Self-doubt and mistrust lead you to spend a lot of time in your head: analyzing, reviewing, second-guessing. You might spend so much time in your head that you even feel cut off from your own body.
16. You feel the need to prove yourself.
On a basic level you don’t feel like you’re “enough"—not smart enough, good-looking enough, successful enough, rich enough. You try to make up for these feelings by working really hard and going the extra mile.
Not everyone who was raised with a lot of self-criticism will develop these patterns, and having a few doesn’t necessarily mean you had a critical parent. But if you recognize yourself in many of these descriptions, take a moment to acknowledge your history and how it may have contributed to ongoing struggles.
And take heart: These tendencies are not etched in stone. You may not reverse them completely, but with consistent awareness and practice, you can learn new ways of being.
This simple exercise offers one way to practice (adapted from Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy):
- First: Connect with your body and breath in this moment. Take a breath in and out with gentle awareness. Feel the goodness in each breath, and recognize all that is right in the here and now.
- Next: Consider the possibility that you’re not defective in the ways you imagine. Maybe the negative view you have of yourself is just a lie that someone told you.
- Finally: Ask yourself if there’s one small thing you can do today to show yourself some kindness, as if you’re someone who deserves care and not criticism. For example, spend time with a friend who builds you up or take care of an item on your to-do list.
Make a vow not to abandon yourself to your automatic conditioning, and instead guard your mind and heart. Stay close enough to your experience that you know who you are, and no self-critical thoughts can disrupt that bedrock understanding.
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Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy. HarperOne.
Madjar, N., Voltsis, M., & Weinstock, M. P. (2015). The roles of perceived parental expectation and criticism in adolescents’ multidimensional perfectionism and achievement goals. Educational Psychology, 35, 765-778.
McLeod, B. D., Weisz, J. R., & Wood, J. J. (2007). Examining the association between parenting and childhood depression: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 986-1003.
Pepping, C. A., Davis, P. J., O'Donovan, A., & Pal, J. (2015). Individual differences in self-compassion: The role of attachment and experiences of parenting in childhood. Self and Identity, 14, 104-117.
Portner, L. C., & Riggs, S. A. (2016). Sibling relationships in emerging adulthood: Associations with parent–child relationship. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25, 1755-1764.
Schimmenti, A., & Bifulco, A. (2015). Linking lack of care in childhood to anxiety disorders in emerging adulthood: The role of attachment styles. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 20, 41-48.