5 Strategies for Overcoming Self-Criticism
This article is part of a series on how to cope with common feelings that can be tough to experience. Here, experts provide simple strategies for acknowledging and managing self-criticism.
The voices inside our heads can be cruel sometimes: “I’m not good enough. People don’t like me.” Sound familiar? That’s self-criticism, or negative self-talk.
More specifically, self-criticism is when we point out what we judge to be our own undesirable actions, physical attributes, or personality characteristics, says Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California. “While many of us are our own worst critic, some people have an internal critic that is relentless, pointing out even minor flaws or missteps and rehashing negative statements about them without end,” he says.
Some degree of self-critical statements is to be expected, and may help prevent failures or encourage growth. “But [in excess] they certainly can be a hindrance to the pursuit of joy, a healthy work and relational life, and self-esteem,” Howes notes.
The tendency toward being self-critical doesn't come naturally; it's learned behavior that we internalize over time. “Babies aren’t born hating themselves—we pick that up along the way,” says Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, author, and speaker who practices in Los Angeles. “We learn how to be critical and how to compare ourselves and see ourselves as less than others.”
And that means we can unlearn it. But because you may have many years reacting to your own perceived shortcomings with a harsh, knee-jerk reaction, it can take time to quiet critical self-talk, Howes says. With practice, you can show yourself some grace.
Follow these tips to help in overcoming self-criticism, all while building that self-kindness muscle.
1. Give Yourself Grace
Self-critical thinking is often an engrained, automatic, and unintentional process, which can make it difficult to control, says Maury Joseph, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who practices telehealth services in Pennsylvania. “If you put a lot of pressure to be fully in control of your self-talk, that can backfire. In the worst-case scenario, we wind up criticizing ourselves for criticizing ourselves.” And that can multiply any negative thoughts or feelings you’re having.
Instead, try to practice gentleness with yourself when you notice self-critical thoughts running through your head. “Your inner critic developed to protect you from failure, humiliation, or the loss of love or other relationships. It was a drill sergeant trying to keep you in line to avoid further pain,” Howes says. “As you got older, that voice grew in intensity. Thank that critical voice for trying to protect you and tell it that its services are no longer needed.”
2. Talk Back
When your inner critic starts yapping, make it a conversation. Tell it to disappear, Vilhauer says. Say that you know it’s a liar and that you won’t listen to it.
You can even give the critic a name, Vilhauer suggests. “You’re doing something to diminish its presence of being part of who you are. Give it a separate identity so you can talk back to it and tell it you have no time to listen to it.”
3. Find Positivity Outside Yourself
If self-criticism has you down or feeling drained, the antidote may be a dose of external positivity. Vilhauer suggests being deliberate in what and whom you surround yourself with. “Avoid things that don’t make you feel good or drag you down emotionally,” Vilhauer says.
Instead, seek out positive and uplifting activities and people. Swap your crime shows for comedies, for example. And find people who encourage you and make you feel good, she says. You may start to shift your inner voice to match what’s in your environment.
4. Step Away from Social Media
Research suggests that using social media can lead people to compare their lives to others’ and to feel less satisfied with what they have. Delete or restrict your apps if they tend to make you feel less than great. Or put some boundaries on your social media consumption by unfollowing or muting anyone whose content seems to trigger negative self-talk.
5. Focus on Kindness to Others
Some research suggests a strong connection between acts of kindness and improvement in self-esteem. “Whether it’s joining a volunteer group or showing a random act of kindness, the benefits to our self-concept are significant and lasting,” Howes says. This may be because it’s difficult to view ourselves in a critical and judgmental way while observing the good we bring to others, he explains.
When to Seek Help
We all criticize ourselves to some degree at times. When self-criticism negatively affects your work life, relationships, or ability to enjoy your own company, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional.
“The goal of therapy is to have a more aware, reflective relationship with that part of your mind, so that it has a less powerful impact on you,” Joseph says.
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