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How to Defeat Your Self-Criticism

Rebuild your self-esteem in 10 steps.

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One of the key elements of depression is the tendency to label yourself in the most negative way. Do you call yourself a “failure,” “loser,” “idiot,” or view yourself as unlovable, immoral, or hopeless? If you have used some of these labels on yourself, then they add to your sense of defeat, humiliation, and helplessness. This self-criticism leads you to think that there is no use in trying, since you are already condemned to your own failures. But are these labels accurate and are they useful?

Let’s take Kevin, who is 33 years old and just lost his job last month. He is depressed, feels hopeless, and thinks that he is a failure. How can we help Kevin see himself in a more realistic and adaptive way?

1. What labels are you criticizing yourself with? Kevin was calling himself a failure and a loser.

2. How would you define the label? I asked Kevin how he would define a failure and he replied, “Someone who can’t get anything done.” I then asked him to list all the things that he has gotten done in the past year that he could think about. He described a number of difficult tasks he did at work, he supported his friend Larry who was going through a breakup, and he took a course on real estate that he did well on. So he wasn’t a failure by his own definition since he got a number of things done.

3. What is the advantage of labeling yourself? Kevin told me that an advantage of criticizing himself is that this would motivate him to try harder. However, when we looked at how this was working he realized that his self-criticism was making him feel hopeless and making him ashamed to reach out to friends. In fact, he was becoming more passive and withdrawn.

4. What is the evidence for and against your self-criticism? Kevin told me that the evidence that he was a failure is that he lost his job and he was depressed. But the evidence that he was not a failure is that he did accomplish a lot of things over the past year and had been a good friend. He also realized that he had learned a lot. When he looked back he told me that he had graduated from college and had gotten good grades. I asked him if he thought that people who lost jobs are failures, and he realized that he had known a number of people who had been out of work at some point — including his mother — but that they were not failures.

5. What if you specified a behavior to change rather than labeled yourself? I suggested to Kevin that he could acknowledge that there is behavior that he can change but that this doesn’t mean that he should have a global negative label about himself. He might admit that a behavior had failed, but that this didn’t mean he was a failure. For example, he did recall that a report that he had done three months ago wasn’t as good as it could be and that if he had to do it over again he would have been more prepared. We agreed to the idea that a specific behavior might fail, but that doesn’t make someone a failure. And we also agreed that everyone has behaviors that fail at times.

6. Are there factors other than your "failure" that caused this to happen? Kevin acknowledged that the reason he got fired was that the company was downsizing its operations and that a number of people who had been hired in the past year were being let go. He also realized that the reason for the downsizing was not due to him, but rather to more competition from online services.

7. How would your best friend see you? Kevin thought that his best friend, Larry, would be compassionate and supportive and would tell him that he had a lot going for him and that he would feel optimistic that he would find another job since Kevin had a lot to offer. Kevin did agree that he did have talents and he was hard-working and that Larry’s support would mean a lot to him.

8. What advice would you give to your best friend if they thought this about themselves? Kevin told me that he would be supportive of Larry if he were going through this kind of thing. He would point out to Larry all the good qualities he had and all the things that he had done right. He would tell Larry that the job market is always changing, and that you had to persist and reach out to your network to find something.

9. Try using self-correction rather than self-criticism. We decided to try self-correction rather than self-criticism. I used the following analogy: Let’s say you were learning tennis and you hit the ball into the net. Would you want the coach to have you hit your head with the racket to add to your self-criticism? Or would you want your coach to show you how to hit the ball correctly? Self-criticism keeps you stuck — it defeats you. It doesn’t teach you anything. Self-correction is how you grow.

10. Reward yourself for every step forward. This last step was important for Kevin. We made a list of positive targets — exercising daily, contacting friends, reaching out to his network to find out about job possibilities, applying for jobs. I suggested that every positive step should be followed by self-reward — saying to himself that he was trying, moving forward, doing the hard things. If self-criticism exhausts your motivation, self-reward builds your energy and confidence.

Try to catch your self-critic this week and use these techniques for a month to defeat that negative voice. You can move forward if you are on your own side.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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