The Trap of Self-Criticism
Learn to use self-compassion to stop your self-criticism spiral.
Posted May 3, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Our self-critical thoughts make us feel bad, which make us do unhealthy things to soothe ourselves. Then we feel worse and the cycle repeats.
- To escape the trap of self-criticism, use self-compassion.
- Practicing self-compassion requires consciously refocusing one's thoughts.
Many of us get caught in the trap of self-criticism. We tell ourselves we are not good enough, or that what we did was not good enough, and we get angry at ourselves for once again not meeting our goals. Maybe we wanted to exercise and slept in; maybe we wanted to start a project and procrastinated; maybe we wanted to stop yelling at our kids and once again screamed at them in the supermarket.
Our self-criticism leads to our feeling really terrible, which often leads to our doing something stupid to make ourselves feel better and, at the same time, avoiding anything to do with our initial goals. So how can we get out of this trap? By using the three strategies I’m going to describe.
Notice what went well
I want you to meet Adrian, a client of mine. Adrian is in her mid-30s. She has a wicked sense of humor and long curly hair that she is always pinning up in different styles. Adrian lives alone and has found COVID really hard to deal with. She has stopped exercising, sees few friends, has gained about 15 to 20 pounds, and generally feels pretty terrible. She decided she wanted to try and change some things in her life. She wanted to start walking with friends at least twice a week and cooking dinner for herself at least three nights a week instead of ordering fast food every night.
Adrian came to therapy the next week and started by saying, “I really blew it. COVID is really getting to me; I did nothing that I said I would do, and I think I gained even more weight.” Adrian looked really down; even her hair was just pulled back instead of in one of her usual amazing hairdos. Adrian told me that she had gone walking with two friends but that “the food thing was really terrible this week.” She had fast-food takeout every day except for one.
So, what did you notice? Adrian completely ignored what went well and only noticed what did not go well. She glossed over the fact that she walked with two friends—not mentioning that she had a great time—and only noticed that she did not meet her goal of changing her eating. She had wanted to cook three nights a week and cooked one night, or one-third of the time.
This leads us to Strategy #1. Goals are not all or nothing, so notice what went well along with what did not go well. Give yourself credit for making a good start. Adrian met her goals 100% with friends and 33% with eating—I think that’s a good start.
See the consequences of your self-critical thoughts
Next, Adrian and I mapped out the effects of her self-criticism and how she gets herself into a spiral of negativity. Here is Adrian’s spiral: She makes some progress on a goal but not 100% (for example, she cooked once but had planned to cook three times). She only notices what she did not do. This leads to harsh self-critical thoughts (I’m a failure; I will never lose weight. I completely lack willpower). Harsh self-critical thoughts lead to feeling terrible (she eats a chocolate bar to make herself feel better, and it only makes her feel worse). She has even more self-critical thoughts, decides it’s hopeless to even try to eat more healthily, and orders fast food the next day.
By bringing this spiral to light, Adrian discovered that it wasn’t her lack of willpower that was interfering with her healthy eating but her inability to recognize her good starts and her self-critical thoughts. When she was self-critical, she just gave up on trying to meet her goals.
This leads us to Strategy #2. Notice the consequences of your own self-critical thoughts. Try to map out your self-critical spiral. What do you do as a consequence of your self-criticism? Does it help? Do you give up?
Be kind to yourself
Next, Adrian and I spent some time examining how she could have responded in a self-compassionate way instead of a self-critical way. This was hard for her, so I asked her to think about how she would respond to a friend in a compassionate way. She then applied what she would say to a friend to herself. Some phrases that Adrian came up with were (1) “It takes time to change, and it’s hard”; (2) “Appreciate and note any progress—any progress is real”; (3) No one has to be perfect—it’s okay to be human”; and (4) “I’m allowed to be nice and kind to myself.” Adrian wrote down the phrases that particularly resonated with her. To her surprise, she agreed that a kinder attitude toward herself would actually make her more resilient, more willing to try harder, and less likely to want to give up.
This leads us to Strategy #3. Consciously be kind to yourself. Expect to not be perfect, expect to mess up, and see starting again as strength. Start the day with reviewing how to be kind to yourself. Focus on your good starts, on your effort, and on what went well. Choose two self-compassion phrases that resonate with you and practice saying them to yourself.
Adrian wasn’t sure she could change from being self-critical to being self-compassionate. However, she decided to practice, remembering that all she was aiming for was a “good start.”
Here is how Adrian summarized what she learned:
Self-criticism ► Feeling Bad + Giving Up
Self-compassion ► Feeling good + Resilience + Trying Harder
Getting out of the self-criticism trap involves three strategies: noticing what went well along with what didn’t, noticing the consequences of your self-critical thoughts, and consciously being kind to yourself.
Developing self-compassion takes practice. Remember — only aim for a good start.