Why Are We So Self-Critical?
Identifying the roots of negative thinking and overcoming self-attacks.
Posted May 13, 2010
"I just feel so embarrassed. Why on earth did I take this job in the first place? What a failure." As she uttered these words, my friend's typically upbeat tone sounded pained and dejected. Her typically animated eyes were fixed dazedly on the floor. Getting laid off by a boss is tough, but what she was doing to herself seemed to me much tougher.
After all, my friend hadn't done a bad job. She had only been working for the company for a couple of months, and she hadn't planned to stay much longer. It wasn't her fault the firm had to downsize, or that the most recently hired employees were the first to be let go. She even had another opportunity waiting for her. So why the barrage of self-attacks?
During the recent economic downturn what struck me most about clients and friends who'd lost their jobs wasn't that they were angry or concerned about their financial futures. Instead, as I sat down to ask them how they were, every one of them expressed similar feelings of humiliation, inadequacy and failure. When asked more specifically what they were telling themselves about being laid off, most of them launched into a diatribe of self-attacks: I'm worthless. This is so humiliating. Everyone will think less of me. I knew that I could never be successful. I'll never find another job. Who'd want to hire me?
While losing one's job may seem like an isolated event that would induce self-criticism in even the most confident of people, it hardly takes a life-altering occurrence to bring on a person's self-attacks. Every one of us is familiar with that nagging inner critic that kicks us when we're down and doubts us when we're up.
We've witnessed this critic in friends who've just experienced a break-up and are saying things like: What's wrong with me? I'm unlovable. I'm destined to be alone. I'll never find someone who really cares about me.
We've seen it in ourselves just before a job interview: Don't mess this up. I'm going to be too nervous. I sound like an idiot. What are they thinking about me? They hated me.
And we've heard it during routine daily events from getting dressed in the morning: (Ugh, I'm so fat. I look tired. I'm never going to get everything done today.) to the moment we get into bed (I messed up my diet again - what a loser. I can't get anything right.)
No matter what we are attempting to accomplish, these negative attitudes are always there to hold us back or keep us from pursuing our goals. For example, it is much harder to get ourselves to a job interview when we are still attacking ourselves for losing our last job. In the same manner, it is much more difficult to lose weight when we are experiencing negative thoughts or "critical inner voices" enticing us to indulge, then beating us up for indulging. This pattern leads to even more distress and a desire to mute that pain with food. It is only at the times when we are best able to answer back to our "critical inner voices" that we truly allow ourselves to go after what we want. However, much of the time we remain unaware of these voices, and therefore we are not fully able to act against them.
For example, these self-critical thoughts may not always have a harsh nature to them. They may even seem soothing. Like an overindulgent parent, these voices may tell us to have that second piece of cake, to just relax and forget about the job interview or that we're just fine on our own. These thoughts, however, are just an enemy in disguise, luring us to take self-destructive actions, then punishing us for our mistakes.
Because of the voice's subtle and deceptive nature, learning to identify these negative thoughts is key in overcoming imagined limitations. In order to recognize self-attacks and understand how they play a role in our lives, it is helpful to think about where these attitudes may have originated. The ways we were treated and the labels we received as children can stay with us late into adulthood and impact us in every area of our lives. Unfortunately, the events that have the most lasting impact are often those that felt stressful or traumatic. Parents or caretakers who lost their tempers, teachers who ridiculed us or bullies who tormented us in school can all contribute to our negative attitudes toward ourselves and our critical inner voice as adults.
Even isolated moments of stress have a strong impact on children. Not only are human beings designed to react more to danger, but they also possess an instinct to remember the things that scared them so as to avoid them in the future. Thus, it is often at the moments when their parents or caretakers "lose it" that children are most deeply affected. Even parents who are typically nurturing and attuned to their children can hurt them with an angry outburst or a moment of frustration.
One of the most impactful influences on our internalized negative thoughts is our parents' attitudes toward themselves. The parent who calls him or herself stupid when he or she makes a mistake will often have a child who identifies with that attack and later thinks of him or herself as stupid. Just as parents' good traits positively influence their children's self-esteem, their negative traits and negative thoughts about themselves will contribute to a child's self-attacks.
As adults, it is not what happened to us as children that most affects us but how we made sense of what happened to us. Something as simple as a parent yelling at us to hurry up can contribute to a feeling that we are slow or a burden. Because children depend on their parents for survival, they may identify with their parents' points of view and internalize some of the negative thoughts directed toward them. Whether the child takes on these characteristics or rebels against them, they are still acting on an external point of view or critical inner voice.
Making sense out of our self-perceptions can mean having to face the things that hurt us as children. Yet, once we recognize this enemy inside, we can learn to separate from it and take on a more compassionate and realistic point of view. We can fully feel the pain of our childhood and make sense out of our stories. It is much easier to uncover who we really are and accomplish what we really want when we are aware of and combating this critical inner voice. On May 25, I will host the free Webinar "Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice" in which I will discuss the sources of self-destructive thinking and how we can identify and counter this inner critic.
To learn more about the critical inner voice visit www.psychalive.org.
Read Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice by Robert Firestone, Ph.D. and Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.