Last month, following the defeat on England in the football wold cup I got to thinking how hard it is to manage feelings like disappointment and frustration or in actual fact any intense emotion and this became the focus of my July blog. Whilst I was writing that blog however I also got to wondering how as a team the English football squad would deal with the defeat and whether they could grow stronger as a result of what they learnt during Russia 2018. Being able to stand back and observe our behaviour and performance, consider what we did well in order to harness this but also consider areas of development are all important for growth. But many people struggle to do the latter in a constructive or helpful way and instead get pulled into self criticism and shame when things don’t turn out the way they hoped.
Self criticism is often born from unrelenting standards, perhaps more commonly referred to as perfectionism. We may overestimate what we should be able to achieve and come down hard on ourselves when we don’t live up to our expectations. For many people this can actually lead into a path of avoidance and procrastination as it feels safer to avoid the task at hand than risk the triggering of a demanding and punitive inner voice. These demanding and critical inner voices are often not our fault but born out of early experiences perhaps due to modelling within the family or a misguided attempt to self improve. Sadly self criticism rarely achieves self improvement or growth, instead it leaves us very vulnerable to feelings of shame and defectiveness (feeling inadequate/not good enough) which we know are predisposing factors for mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
However, the answer to self criticism is not to look at ourselves through rose tinted glasses all the time. If we want to grow we need to critique ourselves, just like the English football team or any team or person wanting to reach their potential. Critiquing involves wise, thoughtful reflection and evaluation where we consider both the good and bad parts of something and perhaps consider pointers for improvement. The tone of critiquing is kind, fair and supportive so when we are on the receiving end of this (be it from another person or ourselves) we feel safe and valued and this is important for change/growth. Criticism on the other hand typically rests attention on what is ‘lacking’ and is much more akin to faultfinding, disapproval and unbalanced unfavourable judgement. The tone is often harsh at best and contemptuous at worse which often leaves us feeling shamed and worthless. Consequently we may then want to withdraw and hide away from ever putting ourselves out there or we overcompensate and get caught in trying to prove that we aren’t as bad as the external or internal critical voice says we are. Both of these way of coping are understandable in the sense that they are very natural but both can have negative unintended consequences for us.
If you recognise you have a tendency towards self criticism you may wish to pause for a moment and consider what the intention of your critical voice is? Often (but not always) underneath a critical voice is fear, fear that we (or our partner, child, friend) might not live up to our/their potential, fear of being lazy, fear that others might not like or love us as much, fear of being looked down upon us in some way. This fear needs to be listened to and heard but not believed-we can thank our critical voice for watching out for potential threats for us but we can learn to be more compassionate in the way in which we relate to ourselves and others. This still means we hold ourselves accountable where appropriate, it still means looking at ourselves honestly including the parts of ourselves we may not like quite so much, it still means critiquing ourselves, it still means changing the things that cause us or others harm or hold us back however we do all this with warmth, care, non judgement, empathy and sensitivity. When we criticise ourselves we cause ourselves to suffer but when we learn to be compassionate to ourselves we can meet our (and others) failures, disappointments and struggles in a new way, a way that is healing rather than harming.
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.