- If you are a chronic self-critic, you may have a set of "rules" that are responsible for your depression.
- Giving up rules such as "If I fail, then I'm worthless" or "I should get the approval of everyone" can help lift depression.
- Ask questions such as "What are the costs and benefits of this rule?" and "If I no longer believed this, how would my life change?"
In my last post, "How Low Self-Esteem Can Make Depression Worse," I described how your self-criticism makes you vulnerable to a number of other factors that add to your depression. This includes avoiding others, ruminating, procrastination, indecisiveness, regret, and passivity.
What underlies self-criticism? It may start with the demanding and critical rules that you apply to yourself.
All of us make mistakes and we often do not live up to our expectations for ourselves. That’s because we are human. But if you are a chronic self-critic, you may have a set of rules that make you even more prone to seeing yourself in the worst light.
Let’s take a look at some common rules that may add to your depression. Keep in mind that these are your rules, which means that you do have the option to change the way you think.
Do any of these rules apply to the way you think when you feel down?
Your Maladaptive Rulebook
- I should be successful at everything I try.
- If I am not successful, I am a failure.
- If I fail, then I’m worthless (I’m unlovable; life isn't worth living).
- Failure is intolerable and unacceptable.
- I should get the approval of everyone.
- If I am not approved of, I am unlovable (ugly, worthless, hopeless, alone).
- If I am not certain, the outcome will be negative.
- I should never be anxious (depressed, selfish, confused, uncertain, unhappy with my partner).
- I should always keep my eye out for any anxiety.
- If I let my guard down, something bad will happen.
- If I make a mistake, I should criticize myself.
- I should hold myself to the highest standards all the time.
- I shouldn’t praise myself unless I am perfect.
- I should go over my mistakes so I can avoid repeating them.
- If people see that I'm anxious, they will think less of me (reject me, humiliate me).
- My sex life (feelings, behaviors, relationships, etc.) should be wonderful and easy at all times.
The problem with these demanding, almost perfectionistic, rules is that no one can get through life without breaking them. No one is perfect and everyone fails at something.
Let’s consider how you might change these rules, defeat them, let them go, and give yourself a break.
Questions to ask yourself about your self-critical rules
1. What are the costs and benefits of having this rule?
Every thought or behavior has a cost and benefit. What are the costs to you of having these demanding rules? Does it make you more self-critical, depressed, anxious, hopeless, and avoidant?
Are there any benefits? For example, you might think that these rules motivate you. But could you motivate yourself by emphasizing trying harder rather than criticizing yourself? There’s a difference between putting in effort and putting yourself down.
2. If you believed this rule less, how would your life change?
Many people find that when they modify these rules to be less demanding and critical that they enjoy life more. Maybe you might feel less like a failure and more like a human being. Maybe you might be able to accept reality and role with the difficulties rather than feel defeated and demoralized.
3. Would you apply these rules to your best friend? Why not?
Most people who are prone to depression are quite fair-minded about other people. You probably wouldn’t label your best friend as a loser if they had a setback. Why would you apply a more critical voice to yourself than you apply to other people?
4. What if you normalized being imperfect?
If you look around you will notice that you don’t know any perfect people. You know human beings who make mistakes. What if you included yourself in this group — human beings who sometimes are imperfect? We know that people who can universalize their problems are less likely to be depressed. Rather than say, “I must be a loser," you could say, “I am another human being. And I can always learn from my experiences."
5. Can you try to replace perfectionism with healthy high standards?
Giving up perfectionism and demands does not mean that you have to give up having goals and standards. You can aim for improvement, growth, and challenge rather than criticize yourself and discount any of your good qualities. There’s a difference between learning from experience and defeating yourself after something is less than perfect.
6. Rather than criticize yourself, what if you accepted yourself?
Accepting yourself means doing a realistic evaluation of your strengths and areas for improvement. It’s like saying, “I know I am pretty good at this, but I can stand to improve in this other area." Accepting is doing a realistic assessment of your behavior and performance. It means seeing what you have done, noticing it, and letting go of evaluating your entire being based on a behavior.
For example, the person who accepts themselves might say, “Yes, I know I don’t always get it right, but I can live with that, I can accept that, and I can put that in perspective." Acceptance can be followed by committing to valued action, such as saying to yourself, “Yes, I accept that I said something that was impolite and I am going to commit to improving that in the future." Acceptance is not making an excuse. It is making yourself honest while committing to your values.
7. How can you reward or praise yourself when you do something positive?
People improve often because they reward themselves for behavior that moves them in the right direction. For example, let’s say that you want to lose weight. You haven’t exercised in a year, but now you want to try to get a good program going. But your first workout is only 15 minutes of mild exercise.
You could criticize yourself for being out of shape—or you could give yourself credit for moving in the right direction. Every time you reward yourself for moving in the right direction you may find yourself moving forward. Every time you criticize yourself you will find yourself moving backward.
8. What if you looked at mistakes as a learning opportunity rather than as proof that you are a failure?
The self-critical person responds to their mistakes by making another mistake--- criticizing themselves. So now they are depressed and then they may criticize themselves for being depressed. This endless vicious cycle feeds into your rumination, avoidance, regret, and indecision.
But what if you thought about a mistake as information that you can use to make things better? For example, let’s say you are playing tennis and you hit the ball into the net. You could tell yourself what a lousy player you are and hit yourself in the head with the racquet. Or you could change your swing and see if that improves things. People who are effective are practical about their mistakes — they learn from them.
We will look at other ways of handling depression — especially self-criticism in future posts. But for this week, take a look at the maladaptive rules above and ask yourself how things could be better if you changed these rules. It’s up to you. To learn more about how to handle depression you can check out my book, Beat the Blues.