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Self-Criticism, and How to Overcome It

Artwork by Alexis Hickox

Dear Doctor Life Advice,

I cannot live up to the high expectations I set up for myself and then berate myself when I cannot achieve them. It is to the point where I cannot take any criticism from others or myself and I am completely conflict averse. In addition I constantly compare myself to others, and I obsess over how others think of me.  At this point, my esteem and my confidence are shaken. What can I do?

Signed: Self Critic

Dear Self Critic,

Let’s start by reassuring you that you are not alone. The majority of the people will tell you they are their own worst critics.  In order to address this issue, you need to understand why you became this way, look at where you are now, and make a conscious decision on how you’d like to move forward.

How did you become so self-critical?

Most people of the modern societies were raised with a lot of demands on them. Think about your childhood, and what demands were set on you. We are in a culture that wants us to continuously “improve” and “be the best.” People are starting to teach children how to write and read earlier, and school curricula are becoming increasingly difficult. Parents all want their kids to be successful, starting their education in their infancy with products such as Little Einstein and signing them up for so many after school activities that the children rarely have time to just be.

What the child in these cases experiences is an endless array of expectations put on him or her. In response, the child is constantly struggling to keep up. It is not just the parents with expectations; it is the extended family, the academic and religious teacher, coaches, and all the other grownups who are trying to mold the child to their taste. My least favorite expression that parents use on their children is “I’m disappointed in you.” This gives the child the message that the goal of one’s life is to please one’s parents. Even when an adult says “do your best” to a child, the child may hear “anything less than your best will be unacceptable.” Parents are also spending a lot of time comparing their kids with their cousins, friends, neighbors, classmates, etc. The child begins to think that no matter what he or she does, it is never good enough, and that there is no way for him or her to live up to all the expectations. The child is too young to understand that the world is simply too demanding and that there is nothing wrong with him or her. Instead, the child begins to accept the idea that he or she is somehow defective. Unfortunately, as time goes by, the idea turns into a firm belief.

As the children grow, they develop their own unreasonable expectations of themselves and begin comparing themselves to others. They no longer need the adults to place demands on them. As a result, people are plagued by the word “should;” always talking about what they should be doing, rather than being happy with what they are doing at any moment in time. I hear people say “I should have been smarter,” or “I shouldn’t have made that mistake,” and even worse “I should be more successful by now,” or “I should be married with children at this age.”  I also hear them say things such as “all my friends are married and I’m still single,” or “everyone my age is successful except for me.” These are all adults that have internalized the belief that they are defective, and of course, within this belief system, nothing they ever do is good enough.

Where are you now?

All the ways in which you criticize yourself are rejections of your true self. I don’t know what your specific modes of self-criticism are, or if any of the above examples I used ring true with you. You said you “berate” yourself which means you have mastered the art of self-criticism. Regardless of how you are putting yourself down, you need to be aware of the fact that you are in essence rejecting who you really are. It is important to know this because awareness of what you are doing is the first step in changing it.

This self-rejection is based on that firm belief you formed somewhere along the way that you are somehow defective. You suffer from expectations of yourself that you would never place on anyone else. This way, you create your own self-fulfilling prophecy that you are never going to be good enough!

Think about the one person you love most in your life. Ask yourself: “Would I ever expect this much from my most beloved?” and “Would I continuously tell my beloved that he or she is not good enough?” Your answer to both of these questions will most likely be a resounding “NO!” Then ask yourself why you are doing this to yourself. I tell you what the answer is: you don’t love yourself enough. You subject yourself to such berating that you would never subject a loved one to! This is because you don’t love yourself the same way. I’ve had patients who tell me they are not “worthy of love,” or that they are a “burden” to their loved ones. The lack of self-love is one of the most tragic phenomena that I see in my practice, and the core of many mental health and substance abuse issues.

Where are you going to go from here?

This is where you must make a conscious decision to change. You must make an agreement with yourself to love yourself. You are going to continue to berate yourself unless you decide to stop doing so. Please be aware that it took your whole lifetime to get where you are, and that you are not going to change overnight.  Don’t let yourself get discouraged or give up no matter how hard it is to change.

Here is a list of some practical things you can do to improve your self esteem and love for yourself:

  • Become more consciously aware of the times that you are criticizing yourself . It may help you to make a log of all the times you berate yourself in one day. This would help you realize how often you criticize yourself. Also log the number of times you compliment yourself and compare the two lists.
  • Don’t berate yourself for berating yourself!! Every time I tell one of my patients to be aware of how much they criticize themselves, they just end up getting angry that they do this. This is an exercise in awareness, not another excuse for self-rejection.
  • Make a list of all the compliments you receive. Document how you responded to the compliment. Did you dismiss it, or did you graciously accept it? Pay attention both to your social response, and well as your emotional response within you.
  • When you catch yourself in the act of rejecting, hating, or criticizing yourself, calmly pause. Tell yourself that you are making a conscious choice to stop, and instead tell yourself something more affirming. For example, let’s say you do something that you think is embarrassing.  You could say “Wow, that was embarrassing. It’s a good thing I kept my sense of humor!”  Contrast the above with “I’m so stupid and now I can never show my face here again.” Notice how in both cases you validate your embarrassment, but in the first case you move on, while in the second case you berate yourself.  Over time you will automatically think of yourself in a more positive light.
  • Keep a journal in which you write everyday. In the morning, write down this question: “What am I going to do today to nurture and love myself?” Spend some time to contemplate on what you are going to do. In the evening, write down this question: “What have I done today to nurture and love myself?” Write down your answer. Don’t look at this as homework. Instead, enjoy the process of learning to love and nurture yourself.
  • When others criticize you, don’t take it personally. People LOVE to offer criticism  usually because they’re feeling crappy about themselves and just want to dish it out to others as well. Be aware of this and remind yourself that they are processing their own issues, and the criticism most likely has nothing to do with you.
  • Occasionally, people may offer you constructive feedback that’s actually valuable. Instead of berating yourself for not having been perfect, look at it as an opportunity to change something in your habits that will help you live easier. Be grateful for the feedback.
  • Read the books “Never Good Enough” by Monica Ramirez Basco, and “Overcoming Perfectionism, The Key to A Balanced Recovery” by Ann W. Smith.
  • In terms of obsessing over what others think of you, read the book “What You Think of Me is None of My Business,” by T. Cole Whittaker.

I hope this helps. Never forget to love yourself!

Words to live by:“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”  – Hafiz

Doctor Life Advice

Sayeh Beheshti, M.D.