Self-criticism is something we all do from time to time. If we’ve made a serious mistake or error, reflecting critically on it can be a helpful way to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
But for some people, self-criticism is more than a strategic tool—it’s a way of life that leads us to live in a near-constant state of self-criticism:
- They routinely put themselves down for all types of mistakes, no matter how small or inconsequential.
- They use self-criticism as a primitive form of motivation—hoping that if they’re tough enough on themselves, they’ll be motivated to perform.
- They constantly question and second-guess their own intuitions and decisions, unable to trust themselves.
In this guide, I’m going to walk you through 10 different ways to begin undoing the habit of self-criticism. If you struggle with self-criticism and would like to free yourself from it, one or more of these habits may be helpful to you.
I recommend that you briefly read through all of them, then pick one or two that seem most applicable to your life and give them a try for a week or two.
And remember: these aren’t one-off magic pills. Their power comes from being implemented consistently as a regular routine and habit in your life.
1. Only criticize yourself through text
Most self-criticism happens in our heads. It takes the form of self-talk—usually negative self-talk—and cycles endlessly through our mind.
The problem is, thoughts are fast… really fast. You can have hundreds of self-critical thoughts in just a few minutes because we’re all capable of thinking so quickly. Unfortunately, each of those thoughts generates a dose of painful emotion like anxiety or sadness, which means being self-critical in your head can very quickly lead to a lot of painful emotion.
As an antidote, try confining your self-criticism to text.
For example, whenever you notice yourself starting to get down on yourself and self-criticize, pull out a notebook or sheet of paper and write them down. This has two big benefits:
- It will slow you down. You can’t write nearly as fast as you can think. If you only have 5 self-critical thoughts instead of 50, you’re going to feel a whole lot better.
- It gives you perspective. Even the most irrational thoughts can seem surprisingly convincing and real in our heads. But when you literally see those thoughts spelled out on paper, their irrationality or extreme nature becomes more apparent.
Finally, you could also text yourself your self-criticism. That is, when you find yourself beginning to get overly critical with yourself, pull out your phone and send yourself texts with the contents of the self-criticism.
This has the same effects as the above method, but it’s easier to do because our phones are always on us.
2. Cultivate your inner B.S. detector
For people who struggle with chronic self-criticism, the content of that self-criticism often isn’t all that accurate or realistic.
In fact, in a juicy bit of irony, while we tend to use self-criticism after a perceived mistake or error, our self-criticisms themselves are typically full of logical errors!
For example, suppose you walk out of a meeting with your boss having struggled to articulate an idea for a new project. Typical self-criticism after such an indecent often looks something like this:
- God, I sounded like an idiot in there!
- She’ll probably never listen to another idea I have.
- Why am I always so bad at explaining things?
Obviously, these statements are pretty extreme: You sounded like an idiot? She’ll never listen to another of your ideas? You’re always bad at explaining things?
You’re being irrationally hard on yourself. And this takes the form of what psychologists call cognitive distortions. Like funhouse mirrors that make you seem extremely skinny or fat, distorted self-criticism can make you seem (and feel) extremely incompetent or worthless.
The key is to catch yourself in those inaccurately extreme statements and not let yourself get away with them.
Check out this list of cognitive distortions, identify the one or two you tend to use most often, then commit to cultivating your inner B.S. detector and stop letting yourself get away with these overly negative interpretations of yourself.
3. Play Devil’s Advocate with your self-criticism
Historically, the concept of the Devil’s Advocate is instructive…
Back in the day, the Catholic Church realized that a lot of people were trying to “game the system” of sainthood. In other words, people would lie about how saintly or amazing a person was in order to get them canonized and officially recognized by the church as a saint.
To address this issue, the church created a position called the Devil’s Advocate. And this person’s sole job was to try and make the case against someone becoming a saint by looking for counterarguments and evidence suggesting they weren’t actually so saintly.
For those of us who are stuck in cycles of chronic self-criticism, the image of yourself as totally incompetent and never good enough can start to feel like your personal gospel and the obvious truth of things.
To counteract this, learn to play Devil’s Advocate with yourself. Once you notice that you’re beginning to criticize yourself, ask your inner Devil’s Advocate to stand up and look for counter-arguments and evidence to the contrary:
- I obviously didn’t sound like a complete idiot since she did say she really liked the idea about restructuring the sales department…
- If I were a manager, one poorly expressed idea probably would be enough for me to completely ignore all future ideas from somebody…
- Just yesterday, Tom from operations told me how much he appreciated how clear my emails were explaining the new protocol for the Johnson account.
Just like you would stand up to a bully who was being overly critical of a good friend, learn to stand up for yourself by providing counterarguments and evidence to the contrary when your overly negative and critical self-talk pipes up.
4. Anticipate self-criticism triggers
Often we get especially self-critical when we feel ambushed or surprised by a situation.
For example, if out of the blue your manager comments that maybe you should hold off on that new idea you had for restructuring the weekly sales meeting, you might be tempted to fall into a cycle of self-criticism about how you knew it wasn’t a good idea or the right time, how you should just leave stop bringing up suggestions like this, etc.
But if you step back a bit, you might acknowledge to yourself:
You know what, my manager often changes her mind multiple times about projects. So I should expect that she’ll probably bring up some reason not to do this new idea. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea or that she won’t get on board with it eventually. That’s just her way of thinking through things.
Now, when your manager inevitably does bring up the criticism of your idea, you’ve anticipated it and are ready, less likely to be taken off guard and therefore less likely that your self-criticism habit will kick in.
In other words, by anticipating self-criticism triggers, you remove the element of surprise, which in turn can prevent bigger spirals of self-criticism.
5. Stop using self-criticism to motivate yourself
One of the biggest causes of chronic self-criticism is that we use it as motivation.
Many people grow up learning that in order to properly motivate yourself and be successful, you have to be hard on yourself—like, really hard.
I call this the Drill Sergeant Theory of Motivation. The only trouble is, it’s not actually true. In fact, the opposite tends to be the case.
People who are overly hard on themselves usually end up performing even worse, because so much of their energy and attention is spent in self-criticism. On the other hand, when you learn to be more self-compassionate and gentle with yourself—especially after mistakes or setbacks—you’re more likely to succeed in the future.
Unfortunately, if you’ve relied on self-criticism as your dominant form of motivation for a long time, it can often feel too scary simply letting that go. So, it can help to try and build in a new source of motivation for important tasks.
For example, if you typically rely on “getting tough with yourself” in order to write your monthly reports at work, you might instead shift to rewarding yourself with a fancy coffee and muffin at the coffee shop at lunch on days when you finish the report.
When it comes to motivation, fear is actually a surprisingly weak motivator. In fact, most successful people are successful despite their self-criticism, not because of it.
If you want to let go of your habit of self-criticism, look for alternative reward-based strategies for motivating yourself and you’ll find that you need the self-criticism a lot less.
6. Remember The Other Golden Rule
The Golden Rule famously commands us to treat your neighbor as yourself. In other words, treat other people the same way you would like to be treated.
But there’s a little-known but equally important sister rule that I call The Other Golden Rule:
Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
It’s ironic that most people who struggle with habitual self-criticism are quite empathetic and compassionate with other people and their mistakes. If a friend misspoke somehow during a conversation, you probably wouldn’t even give it a second thought; and yet, when you make a small mistake, you ruminate on it for the rest of the evening!
The Other Golden Rule just means applying the same standard you have with other people for yourself.
So the next time you make a mistake, catch an error, or otherwise do something you regret, ask yourself this question:
If a good friend did the same thing, how would I respond to them?
Then treat yourself accordingly.
7. Brainstorm your top 10 personal qualities
Self-criticism is a bully. It’s time to start standing up to your inner bully.
And the best way to do that is to show yourself that you are not as incompetent as your self-criticism likes to point out. And that in fact, you are quite the opposite.
A great practical exercise I’ve found to do just that is to take 20 minutes, sit down someplace quiet with a pen and sheet of paper, and then brainstorm all your favorite personal qualities.
- What are the things you like best about yourself?
- What parts of your personality or the way you act are you proud of?
- What would your best friend say their favorite parts about you are?
We all have short-coming and failings, of course, but it’s easy to feel like they define us when we don’t make it a point to reflect on and remind ourselves of all the good stuff.
Once you’ve done your initial brainstorm, rank your top 10 favorite qualities in yourself, list them out, and keep that list handy. Make a point to review it once a week or so.
That way, whenever self-criticism rears its ugly head, you have some ammunition with which to fight back.
8. Try some self-compassion visualization
Self-compassion visualization is a simple technique to help you cultivate more realistic and supportive self-talk.
In elite sports, it’s common for athletes to practice positive visualization techniques. They imagine their ideal 100-meter dash or running the perfect route to the end zone. Like a dress rehearsal, visualizing the optimal path, prime’s your mind so that when the moment actually arrives, you’re better able to achieve it.
Self-compassion visualization works on the same principle. The basic idea is to imagine a good friend or supportive person in your life. Really set the stage: Imagine you’re sitting on your favorite park bench in your favorite park, for example, and your grandfather—who’s always been your biggest fan—is sitting on the bench next to you.
Then imagine describing your mistake to your supportive friend and how they would respond. How would they talk to you about what you’re struggling with?
Make time to do this once a day for 3-5 minutes and you’ll be creating a powerful model for yourself that will help counteract your self-judgment with more realistic and compassionate self-talk.
9. Practice ordinary mindfulness
You’re probably sick of hearing about the benefits of mindfulness meditation and all the wonderful things it will do for you and your life. And I get it. Mindfulness has been massively oversold and over-hyped in the media.
On the other hand, the key ingredient in mindfulness is quite beneficial: the ability to be aware of your own thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental way and keep your focus on the task at hand rather than intrusive thoughts and emotions.
But you don’t have to sit in the lotus position on your yoga mat every morning for 30 minutes paying attention to your breath to get the benefits of mindfulness.
You can practice being mindful literally anywhere and anytime.
For example, when you’re in line at the grocery store, instead of immediately pulling out your phone to browse Facebook, you could simply be aware of the present moment—the sights, sounds, and feelings of being in the grocery store.
That sounds fine, I guess, but how’s that supposed to help me with being too self-critical with myself?
Good question! The problem with self-criticism is that we get lost in it. A single self-critical thought that pops into your mind is not problematic. It won’t lead to that much anxiety, stress, guilt, or any other painful emotion. Self-criticism gets intense when it cycles over and over again.
In other words…
Self-criticism isn’t the problem. It’s getting stuck in self-criticism that hurts us.
Mindfulness—the ability to be aware of a thought, disengage from it, and keep your attention on something else in the world around you—is an essential skill when it comes to avoiding getting stuck in cycles of self-criticism.
Ordinary mindfulness is a way to practice controlling your attention so that when self-criticism strikes, your ability to disengage from it and keep your focus on something helpful is strong.
You can learn more about this technique—including lots of examples of what it could look like—in this article on ordinary mindfulness.
10. Keep a self-gratitude journal
You’ve probably heard of the concept of a gratitude journal. The basic idea is to take a few minutes each day and write down a few things you’re grateful for.
I think this is a great practice in general. But I think it can be especially helpful for people who struggle with self-criticism… with one small modification: Change it from a gratitude journal to a self-gratitude journal.
In other words, make a little time each day to list one, two, or three things about yourself that you’re grateful for.
- I felt really good after I took the extra few minutes to help my son with his art project even though I was feeling impatient and just wanted to get in the car and go.
- Even though the meeting with my manager didn’t go well this afternoon, I was extremely focused and productive with my work on the big project during the morning.
- I’ve stuck with my exercise regime for two weeks now!
Here’s the deal: Taking a little time each day to congratulate yourself on things you’ve done well doesn’t mean you’re self-centered or narcissistic or anything like that. It’s just a nice thing to do.
Chances are you make time to compliment other people in your life for things they do well, so why not make a little time to do the same for yourself?
If you do, you’ll be forging a powerful competing force to the tendency to self-criticize and put yourself down.
All You Need to Know
While you have learned to be overly self-critical at some, that doesn’t mean you have to stay that way.
If you can identify the areas in your life when you tend to be overly self-critical and begin to apply a couple of these strategies consistently, you’ll see that—at its core—self-criticism is a habit. And like all habits, it can be undone.