Like many people, you may have a lot on your plate on any given day. Whether you have to handle work responsibilities, take care of a household, raise children, manage finances; you are juggling many responsibilities on a daily basis. In these tasks, it is almost certain that things will not always go as planned. Maybe you weren’t able to pay a bill on time and now there is a late fee. Maybe you were unable to complete a task at work and it has affected performance. There are numerous factors in life that lead us to look back at our decisions in order to understand what could have been done better to avoid mishaps. In doing so, you may begin to subject yourself to toxic self-criticism.
When we hear the word ‘criticism’, we tend to link it to other words like judgement, assessment, opinion, or fault. These words usually have negative connotations. In theory, assessing yourself after making decisions could just be your inner dialogue gauging how well-made your choices were. However, your self-criticism could become negative depending on how you view your decision making.
In my previous blog, you may recall me talking about self-compassion. Self-compassion is about being kind to yourself even when you make mistakes. Rather than being harsh and unforgiving to yourself, you take note that you are human and (just like other humans) you make mistakes. When it comes to self-criticism, you are mentally taking note of your actions and assessing what went well and what could have been done better. The way you respond to yourself mentally after experiencing setbacks determines whether your self-criticism is healthy or toxic.
Healthy vs. Toxic Self-Criticism
I’m sure you have heard of constructive criticism before. This phrase, though it contains ‘criticism’, has a more positive association. Constructive criticism is feedback that is given in a positive manner. It allows the receiver to get feasible suggestions from a person or people in a safe space. This helps you to take action without feeling judged or torn down for needing feedback in the first place. Conducting constructive criticism on yourself would be a good way to describe healthy self-criticism. The goal of these criticisms should be to understand that you may not have all the right answers, but with some helpful tweaks, everything will be up to par. Below are a few examples of positive vs. negative self-criticism.
Negative: I gave the wrong answer in a meeting. Everyone must think I’m dumb.
Positive: It took courage to answer at all. Someone else may have also learned from my mistake.
Negative: I’m so weird, no one will like me.
Positive: I’m unique and that’s a wonderful thing to bring to the table.
Negative: I will never be good at this.
Positive: I’m still learning and improving. Giving my all is much better than not trying at all.
Negative: I have embarrassed myself and no one will ever forget about it.
Positive: We all make mistakes, and everyone recognizes and understands that.
Toxic self-criticism, on the other hand, tends to be poisonous and harmful. Rather than building you up, it is deconstructive. Overthinking is a battle that many people have a hard time overcoming. When overthinking and toxic self-criticism join forces, it may feel like the negativity is inescapable. The doubt from toxic self-criticism may even disable you before you’ve even had a chance to prove yourself wrong. Dwelling on your failures will only cause you to focus on your ability to fail. If your goal is to become a better you, as cliché as it may sound, you have to want better for yourself.
Causes of Self-Criticism
Self-criticism is known to be a learned behavior. If a child sees a parent constantly giving themself toxic self-criticism after making mistakes, of course, the child will believe that to be normal behavior. A child may also learn it first-hand. BetterUp mentions that this could be a result of “strict parents, peer pressure at school, demanding teachers or bosses, or competitive sports”.
There may also be a few other reasons that could be happening outside of childhood as an adult. Some use harsh self-criticisms as a means of motivation. Others may use it to ensure that they appear more humble to others. There is also a belief that showing self-compassion is too hedonistic and self-indulgent. In reality, self-criticism is not about putting yourself on a pedestal, nor tearing yourself down. Your goal in self-criticism is simply to learn and grow.
As Psychology Today puts it, there are ways to “tame your inner critic”. One way would be to be aware of the evidence so that you can base your thoughts on what is true rather than what has been negatively exaggerated. Another option could be to let go of perfectionism so that you may embrace your mistakes. Keeping a journal where you talk to yourself as if you were talking to a good friend, is a good idea. You could also write down the skills and qualities that you like best about yourself in this journal. Another approach would be to talk with a psychotherapist in order to unpack any underlying trauma you may have experienced. If you need help with any of this, feel free to contact me. I am always happy to assist you in your journey. I offer in-person appointments as well as HIPAA-compliant virtual options.