If you struggle with being too self-critical, here are 5 ways to start turning things around…
1. Don’t criticize your self-criticism
Ironically, most people who struggle with self-criticism are in the habit of being critical with their self-criticisms…
- “Don’t be such an idiot!” is quickly followed by “God, why do I always have to be so self-critical!”
- “Ugh… I’m so awkward!” is immediately followed by some passive-aggressive self-talk like “Gee, you know you’d probably be a lot less awkward if you stop beating yourself up for being awkward all the time!”
Here’s the problem…
Criticism of your self-criticism of self-criticism is still self-criticism! And it’s more than likely to lead to even more self-criticism and all the consequences that flow from it:
- Increasingly painful emotions like anxiety or shame
- A strengthened habit of self-criticism
- A harder time being present and focus with other people or your work
Criticizing your self-criticism comes from the misguided belief that you have to do something in response to self-criticism. But you don’t. The real skill is to be aware of your self-criticism then leave it alone and get on with your life instead of getting sucked into unproductive spirals of trying to eliminate it.
2. Redirect self-criticism from you as a person to specific behaviors
Often self-criticism contains more than a little truth to it:
- You start criticizing yourself for screwing up the presentation because it actually did not go very well (probably not as bad as you’re telling yourself, but not great).
- You start criticizing yourself for being a procrastinator and undisciplined because you did in fact just procrastinate on writing your novel (of course, just because you procrastinate doesn’t mean labeling yourself as a “procrastinator” globally is either true or helpful…)
The point is your self-criticism might actually be trying to help. Yes, it’s not very kind. Yes, it exaggerates. But it could be pointing to a real problem that’s worth addressing.
So rather than dismissing your self-criticism wholesale, try transforming it into something more helpful.
Specifically, try channeling exaggerated criticisms of your whole self (“I’m such an idiot!”) into realistic criticism of specific behaviors (“I did poorly on that presentation because I procrastinated on preparing for it.”)
Excessively broad criticisms of your worth as a person are neither true nor helpful. But you likely have specific behaviors that are not good and actually worth criticizing in a thoughtful and constructive way.
3. Do your self-criticism on paper, not in your head
Here’s the thing about thoughts…
They’re really fast.
You can think dozens of thoughts in the span of 20-30 seconds. And if those thoughts happen to be self-critical in nature, each of which is generating some painful emotion like anxiety or shame, you can very quickly work yourself into feeling very bad.
If you tend to get stuck or overwhelmed by spirals of self-criticism, you know what I’m talking about here.
Luckily, there’s a relatively simple trick for short-circuiting this process…
Do your self-criticism on paper.
You can’t write nearly as fast as you think. So if you confine your self-criticism to the speed of writing (rather than thought) you’ll end up having far fewer of them. And as a result, far less painful emotion on board. Which means….
You’ll be much more successful at pulling out of self-criticism spirals quickly before they get too intense and overwhelming.
4. Practice affirming yourself
If you’re the kind of person who struggles with chronic self-criticism there’s a good chance you also suffer from a lack of self-affirmation. That is, you probably spend a lot of time tearing yourself down but relatively little time building yourself up.
So here’s a quick recommendation:
Make more time to affirm, support, and show appreciation for yourself.
To be clear, I don’t mean this as a strategy you use to deal with self-criticism: It’s not about replacing a specific self-critical thought with a more affirming one. Instead, I mean creating a little bit of time every day to practice affirming yourself.
Keeping a self-gratitude diary is one way to do this.
Eventually, if you get good at building up this skill of self-affirmation, it will start to crowd out some of the self-criticism throughout your day.
But like any skill, it’s not just gonna happen. You have to commit to practice on a regular basis.
5. Spend more time around supportive people
It’s a cliche but a true one…
Human beings are social creatures.
Specifically, we’re far more affected by other people than we like to admit to ourselves. And this is true of the way we think and talk to ourselves as much as anything…
- If you’re surrounded by negative, overly-critical people on a regular basis it’s going to rub off on you. And you’ll find yourself being more negative and critical (including of yourself) than you’d probably like.
- On the other hand, if you’re consistently surrounded by positive, helpful, and level-headed people, you’re going to find yourself thinking much more like that. Which means you’re going to be a lot less susceptible to self-criticism simply as a function of the people you’re around.
But here’s the problem…
It’s often very hard to make significant and lasting changes to your social environment…
- If you have an overly-critical manager at work, it’s tough to get a transfer, much less actually leave your job and hopefully find another one with a more supportive manager.
- If you have an overly-negative and pessimistic spouse, it’s very difficult to simply spend less time around them.
But just because it’s difficult doesn’t change the fact that it’s real…
Yes, it’s hard to make big changes to your major relationship. But don’t kid yourself… Sometimes other people are the main source of your suffering and unhappiness (including self-criticism) and you’d be much better off long-term if you made the decision to leave those relationships despite the cost and complexity in doing so.
That being said, even if you’re not willing or able to leave or put major boundaries on overly-critical or negative people in your life, you can still try to add more supportive and positive people. That is, you can identify a handful of people in your life who would be good models and commit to spending more time around or with them—even if it means weekly phone calls or short lunch breaks together.
It’s not all in your head. How we think—including how we think about ourselves—is much more socially determined than we think. Any serious attempt at dealing with self-criticism should take this fact very seriously.
If you want more in-depth suggestions for getting rid of self-criticism, these resources will help: