Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Allison Kelly Ph.D., C.Psych

Are You Self-Critical?

Exploring the nature, origins, consequences, and antidotes of self-criticism.

My presentation went terribly. I'm not cut out for this job.

What I said was so stupid. People must think I’m an idiot.

I'm a bad parent.

I look so fat in these pants.

These are just a few examples of the ways we may criticize ourselves day-to-day.

What is self-criticism?

  1. Self-criticism is the tendency to evaluate oneself harshly. Self-critical individuals are always scrutinizing themselves and their performance in most areas of their life.
  2. Self-criticism is a personality trait, which means that some people tend to be very hard on themselves whereas others are less so. But, we all fall somewhere along the continuum.
  3. Self-critical individuals are deeply afraid of failure and rejection, feel a lot of guilt, and prioritize achievement over social connection; they have a hard time forming close relationships.

Where does self-criticism come from?

Self-criticism likely originates from our early relationships with caregivers and peers. For example, children whose parents are more controlling and less affectionate grow up to be more self-critical adults. Also, people who have been abused tend to be much more self-critical than those who have not.

What are the consequences of being self-critical?

Self-criticism leads to many negative consequences; for example, self-critical individuals:

  • experience fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions day-to-day;
  • are more likely to become depressed and to develop various other forms of mental illness such as eating disorders and anxiety disorders; and
  • cope with problems in their life in an avoidant, less productive way, for example by isolating from others when they’re upset rather than seeking out support.

Why do we criticize ourselves if it makes us feel bad?

As children, we likely internalize the ways our caregivers and peers treat us so that we can learn to behave in a way that brings about less criticism. For example, if my parents criticize me when I don't do well at school, it would be helpful for me learn to criticize myself when I fail academically so that: 1) I work harder at school resulting in my parents criticizing me less; 2) my parents can see I’m already criticizing myself and therefore hold back from criticizing me more; and/or 3) any criticism I get from my parents hurts less because I’ve already been making myself feel bad.

Self-criticism may have other positive functions. Plato promoted self-criticism as a way to examine the limitations and biases in one’s thinking. Aristotle suggested that self-criticism can clarify the path to eudaimonia by helping people choose the right proportion of pleasures. In today’s society, there are some healthy forms of self-criticism in which people recognize specific things about themselves they would like to change or improve upon, and take concrete steps to pursue these goals.

Overall, the research suggests that we criticize ourselves because…

  • At one stage, self-criticism was a helpful strategy;
  • We may think self-criticizing will help to undo whatever bad thing(s) we have done, even though in reality, we can’t change the past;
  • We may worry that if we don’t criticize ourselves, we will become someone we don’t want to be and/or will fail to live up to our and other people’s standards; and/or
  • We want to change our behaviors to be more in line with what we, and/or others around us, would like.

Although self-criticism may serve certain functions, the research overwhelmingly shows that self-criticism is more harmful than helpful. In addition, although it may feel as though self-criticizing will help us to change our behaviors, recent research shows that being self-compassionate is more effective in this regard.

What can we do if we want to become less self-critical?

  1. Acknowledge that our self-criticism came about for a reason and has likely had some purpose in our life. So, we should refrain from criticizing ourselves for being self-critical.
  2. We can try to be curious about the feelings behind our self-criticism. Is there a part of us that is feeling scared, angry, ashamed, and/or sad? We can try to have compassion for those feelings.
  3. We can do our best to pay attention to our inner dialogue and notice when it becomes harsh and critical. Sometimes, when we’re feeling angry and anxious, it’s partly because the voice in our head has become attacking, so it helps to be mindful.
  4. We can challenge our critical self-talk. For example, “It’s not true that my presentation was terrible. I could tell that some people were enjoying it.”
  5. We can try to be more compassionate with ourselves and talk to ourselves as we might a friend. For example, “It’s really hard to feel that I worked so hard on something and it still didn’t go as well as I’d have liked. It’s understandable to be feeling upset about this.”

References

Amitay, O.A., Mongrain, M., & Fazaa, N. (2008). Love and control: Self-criticism in parents and daughters and perceptions of relationship partners. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 75–85.

Blatt, S.J., d’Afflitti, J.P., & Quinlan, D.M. (1976). Experiences of depression in normal young adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 85, 383-389.

Chang, E.C. (2008). Introduction to self-criticism and self-enhancement: Views from Ancient Greece to the modern world. In E.C. Chang (Ed.), Self-Criticism and Self-Enhancement: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, pp. 3-16, American Psychological Association.

Gilbert, P., Clarke, M., Hempel, S., Miles, J. N .V., & Irons, C. (2004). Criticizing and reassuring oneself: An exploration of forms, styles and reasons in female students. British Journal of Psychology, 43, 31-50.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Matos, M., & Rivis, A. (2011). Fears of compassion: Development of three self‐report measures. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, research and practice, 84(3), 239-255.

Kelly, A.C., Zuroff, D.C., & Shapira, L B. (2009). Soothing oneself and resisting self-attacks: The treatment of two intrapersonal deficits in depression vulnerability. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33 (3), 301-313.

Mongrain, M. (1998). Parental representations and support-seeking behaviour related to dependency and self-criticism. Journal of Personality, 66, 151-73.

Mongrain, M., & Zuroff, D. C. (1995). Motivational and affective correlates of dependency and self-criticism. Personality & Individual Differences, 18, 347-354.

Norem, J.K. (2008). Defensive pessimism as a positive self-critical tool. In E.C. Chang (Ed.), Self-Criticism and Self-Enhancement: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, pp. 89-104, American Psychological Association.

Saragovi, C., Aubé, J., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D.C. (2002). Traits, motives, and depression styles as reflections of agency and communion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 563-577.

advertisement

About the Author

Allison Kelly, Ph.D., C.Psych., is a psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on self-compassion, self-criticism, shame, body image and eating disorders.