What Happens When You Criticize Yourself?
You botch up a job, big time. Even though your boss reassures you again and again that “it’s okay” and “these things happen,” you beat yourself up nonetheless. “If I was a more competent person,” you think, “I wouldn’t have to clean up this mess in the first place!”
Now, self-criticism isn’t always a bad thing. If you make a mistake, acknowledging the fact is often the responsible thing to do. It’s also an opportunity to evaluate what went wrong, and what could be done to avoid the same mistake next time.
Drawing the Line
However, when you let your mistakes define who you are as a person — “I screwed up, therefore I’m a worthless human being” — that’s where you draw the line. When you’re overly critical of yourself:
- You put your health at risk. Studies have shown a pessimistic outlook directly contributes to health issues and early mortality. If you feel pain or fatigue for no apparent reason, it could be a psychosomatic side effect of your self-criticism.
- You compromise your relationships. Researchers from the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal found self-criticism not only causes depression, but also negatively affects the relationships of people who aren’t depressed to begin with.
- You compromise your productivity. It’s harder to achieve goals when you let negative thoughts take over your brain. After all, if you don’t believe you can do something, how are you supposed to even lift a finger for it?
- You assume people think badly of you. In psychology lingo, you project your feelings of inferiority onto others. For example, if someone says “nice shirt,” you automatically assume they mean it in a sarcastic way, because you think your shirt sucks.
- You develop suicidal tendencies. In the worst-case scenario, extreme self-criticism can cause people to take their own lives. Obviously, that is very serious.
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Solving the Self-Criticism Conundrum
Knowing this, what do you do now? Do you act like that co-worker who blames everyone (except himself) when things go wrong? Do you pretend your flaws don’t exist and go about your life doing whatever you want, regardless of the cost to yourself or to others?
Of course not. That’s being narcissistic, which is different from having high self-esteem. You can’t be your own worst critic, but you can’t be “full of yourself” either. If you want to balance these two, you need to practice self-compassion.
Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion doesn’t hinge on what you’ve done or what you can do. Instead, it’s about being kind to yourself, regardless of how flawed you are. When you have self-compassion, you can beat even those with high self-esteem in terms of how satisfied and happy you are with your life.
So how do you develop self-compassion? Well, for starters, you can:
- Treat yourself the way you’d treat your best friend. Would you put down your best friend just because they made a teensy-weensy mistake? Would you never let them live down that mistake, even after they’ve made amends for it? If you can’t be that harsh to a friend, there’s no reason why you do the opposite for yourself.
- Make peace with who, and what, you are. Let’s face it: Not everyone can be “special.” But that doesn’t mean you’re any less deserving of kindness than so-called special people. In fact, if you get to know those people, you’ll realize they’re not that different from you deep down.
- Be mindful about your weaknesses and problems. When it comes to those two, it’s easy to either exaggerate them, or ignore them in the hope they’ll go away. Self-compassionate people, however, acknowledge weaknesses and problems as they are, and treat their pain with kindness and understanding.
Remember: No matter how imperfect you are, you owe yourself the same kindness you’re expected to give to other people. Always keep a little bit of self-compassion when things get tough, so no one — not even you — can take away your humanity.
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