Effective Therapy from Psychologists

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Is self-criticism helpful?

Posted: 22/06/2014

Competition and striving can be healthy ingredients for self-improvement and moving forwards but its how we achieve this that can be problematic. Over many years of working with people struggling with depression or anxiety I’ve  seen that more often than not at the heart of these difficulties lies an internal self-critic which undermines them, puts them down, and goads them, all in the name of so-called self-improvement. Repeatedly I hear how important self-criticism is to people and that without it they fear they will become lazy, demotivated, average or fail. Not only that, but when people are highly skilled in criticising themselves they can become equally critical and demanding of others around them – again often in the guise of improving things.

Self-criticism can be subtle, an internal message that ‘you’re not quite there yet’, or that ‘you should do better or do a bit more’. Our brains feed on this – in fact neurologically speaking that’s how they function – being Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative experiences. So our brains are already primed to notice and remember when we get things wrong and when we fail. Unchecked, the long-term effects of self-criticism can be corrosive to our self-belief and faith in our ability to change. And it can be a major obstacle for change in therapy. Indeed, it often starts with people feeling to blame for having problems in the first place, which can translate into feeling that they don’t deserve to get better.

We know from research that when we are feeling bad self-criticism, and a coupled lack of self reassurance or self-warmth can make us vulnerable to depression and other emotional difficulties such as shame.  As an alternative, treating ourselves with self-compassion and kindness yield positive results for feeling better, feeling more motivated and unsurprisingly then for achieving things. Eastern ideologies such as Buddhism have drawn on these ideas for centuries and psychological research has now proven that self-compassion and loving kindness are not only important anti-dotes to emotional distress but also effective for overcoming anxiety, depression and other psychological issues – see www.compassionatemind.co.uk. One easy way to think of this is the ‘double-standards’ concept: think of a close friend who you care about deeply, who tells you they were feeling really down – what would you do and say? Would you criticise them in to action? The majority of people I ask say they would listen, understand, and actively encourage them with kindness, and wisdom. With practice we can learn to be our own supportive friends and treat ourselves with compassion. In turn, we are actively challenging the ‘Teflon for positive memories’ function in our brains and training ourselves to think, store and recall information differently. This can require a leap of faith on your part if you fear failure in the absence of self-criticism – but there is now robust evidence that self-criticism can sabotage change, wellbeing and happiness.

Samantha Leaity, Clinical Psychologist, Become Psychology

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