Everything you need to know about self-criticism in 5 minutes or less

🎯 What Is Self-Criticism?

Self-criticism is a form of negative self-talk characterized by frequent and extreme negative judgments of oneself. Often self-criticism is overgeneralized, taking the form of a negative evaluation of one’s character, personality, or entire being rather than specific behaviors or actions.

👀 Examples of Self-Criticism

  • God, how could I be so stupid?!
  • Why do I have to always be so awkward on first dates?
  • I’m an idiot.
  • I’ll never succeed at this.
  • I’m too boring for anyone to want to be with long-term.

😬 Why Is Self-Criticism a Problem?

Self-criticism can lead to a variety of negative outcomes, including:

  • Low self-esteem. If you’re constantly criticizing yourself, your beliefs in yourself are understandably going to suffer. Often this is especially true in the case of romantic relationships and work or creative projects.
  • Bad moods. When you’re in the habit of criticizing yourself for feeling bad emotionally, you strengthen and prolong emotions like anxiety, shame, irritability, and regret to the point that they go from a short-lived emotion into a long-lasting mood.
  • Procrastination, lack of focus, and poor productivity. For many people, the struggle to focus and work productively originates in a habit of criticizing themselves anytime they make a mistake, get stuck, or feel lazy.
  • Depression. When self-criticism becomes chronic and intense, it can become one of the core drivers of depression.
  • Social anxiety. Most forms of social anxiety are maintained by a habit of criticizing oneself for being “awkward” or anxious in social situations, which quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

🌀 Where Does Self-Criticism Come From?

  • Early modeling. When parents or caregivers are in the habit of verbalizing their own self-criticism, children tend to imitate it and internalize it (like almost everything else).
  • Coping mechanism for trauma. Often a habit of self-criticism develops as a way to cope with a traumatic experience because it provides the illusion of control.
  • Experiential avoidance. Often people get stuck in a habit of self-criticism because it functions as a way to avoid or distract from painful emotion. Rather than sit with and feel their emotion, they go into their head and start criticizing themselves because it gives them something to do.
  • Illusion of motivation. Many people grow up believing that they need to be tough or hard on themselves in order to stay motivated and achieve things. And for many of those people, self-criticism is the primary way that belief manifests itself. In other words, people criticize themselves because they think it’s motivating.

💡 Key Insights About Self-Criticism

  • Self-criticism is a lousy form of motivation. Many people grow up believing that they need to be overly-critical of themselves in order to succeed and stay motivated (“I have to be tough on myself!”). But most highly motivated and successful people are that way despite their self-criticism, not because of it. In the long-run, the habit of self-criticism actually destroys motivation.
  • Healthy vs unhealthy self-criticism. Unhealthy self-criticism tends to be impulsive, exaggerated, mean-spirited in tone, and overgeneralized. It feels like a punishment. On the other hand, healthy or constructive self-criticism tends to be thoughtful, balanced, compassionate in tone, and narrowly focused on a specific action or behavior. It feels tough but supportive.
  • Self-criticism is a mental habit. It’s something you do, not something that happens to you. Fortunately, like any habit, it can be broken. The key is to get in the habit of acknowledging it non-judgmentally as something you have control over rather than attributing it to things you can’t control like events from your past or triggers in your environment.

🛠️ How to Deal with Self-Criticism

  • Self-compassion. Instead of trying to dispute or disprove self-critical thoughts, it’s often more helpful to focus on adding more compassionate explanations or interpretations.
  • Mindfulness training. Mindfulness training is a daily exercise that builds your ability to be aware of self-critical thoughts nonjudgmentally and shift your focus away from them and toward an alternative object of focus.
  • Self-gratitude. Making time on a regular basis to reflect on and remind yourself of qualities, behaviors, or parts of yourself that you admire or are grateful for.
  • Social Adjustments. Taking steps to spend less time around overly negative or critical people and more time around people who are supportive and affirming.
  • Cognitive restructuring. Looking at a piece of self-criticism objectively, identifying any logical errors or exaggerations, then revising the self-talk to be more accurate and/or realistic.

GO DEEPER: 5 Ways to Be Less Self-Critical →

💬 Notable Quotes About Self-Criticism

  • You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. — Louise Hay
  • The only whole heart is the broken one because it lets the light in. — David Wolfe
  • The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. — Carl Jung

🔬 Selected Research About Self-Criticism