Stop the self-harm
It won’t hurt as much when you say something mean about me if I say it about myself first. For decades, this had been my mantra, a type of self-defence mechanism I developed as a kid against those who would criticise, bully or belittle me. On one hand, it made me humble, aware of my flaws and open to improving myself. On the other, self-criticising stunted my ability to be confident and trust my gut.
The self-criticism quickly took on a life of its own – to the point where I was constantly trying to anticipate what people might not like about me and then beat them to the punchline. “I know I can be too much, and you’re probably sick of me,” I’d tell friends, which was a statement born less out of self-awareness and more out of fear. That sort of self-deprecating remark made it impossible to love myself, put others in an awkward position and backfired on quite a few occasions. A new friend once quipped, “If that were true, why would I be friends with you? Are you saying I have bad taste in friends?”
That hit hard. For people who didn’t have good intentions, well, I’d just handed them a laundry list of all my insecurities. What I was really saying was I’m afraid you’ll hurt me, so I’ll hurt myself first. That’s a pretty harsh way to live life. Luckily, there’s a path out of the self-criticising trap. I talked to the experts to find out why we’re so good at putting ourselves down – and how to stop.
Why do we criticise ourselves so much?
I’m not the only one who made self-criticising a personality trait. In fact, a lot of women are conditioned to be this way, says psychologist Dr Traci Stein, who is also an author and creator of a series of programs to fight critical self-talk and build self-compassion.
“Having negative thoughts about ourselves is human nature. We all want to fit in, be accepted and not be ostracised,” she explains. “We are all under a lot of pressure to measure ourselves according to other people’s evaluations and expectations. So we subconsciously fixate on something to ‘fix’ so we will feel loved and accepted.”
The irony of these thoughts is that while they’re based on a desire to fit in and feel accepted in our community, they often have the opposite result, says Latasha Blackmond, author of Be You, No Filter: How to Love Yourself and Stay #SocialMediaStrong. “Over time, self-criticism does the very thing you’re afraid of: It isolates you by making you very self-centred and, yes, selfish. You’re too busy worrying about yourself to love and help others,” she says.
What is self-criticism and how do you spot it?
Self-criticism is any thought that highlights a flaw or problem you have – or think you have (as Stein points out, critical thoughts are often untrue). These negative thoughts can become ingrained so deeply in your inner voice that they become hard to recognise in the moment.
You can identify these thoughts, she says, because they are often self-defeating and repetitive, leading to feelings of insecurity, confusion, self-doubt, sadness and anger. The connection between self-criticising thoughts and negative emotions is so strong that many people with chronic depression find that a habit of severe self-criticism is at the core of their mental illness.
Often tell yourself you’re a massive failure? That’s self-criticism. Other examples of self-critical thoughts include:
- I’ll never be good enough. I’ve always failed at everything I try.
- I don’t deserve to be loved.
- I hate myself.
- If only I were richer, thinner, prettier or smarter. Then people would like me.
- I don’t deserve good things, but I deserve all the bad things.
- I’m so annoying. Everyone must hate me.
These are just the tip of the garbage iceberg. Self-criticism can cover any area of your life, including your body, relationships, sexual encounters, career, finances, goals, hobbies, family and education – even your life in general, Stein says.