How to Combat Self-Criticism

Since self-esteem is not innate, children need their parents and other significant adults to help them establish their self-view. Young children may be heard praising or reprimanding themselves in response to their conduct. The positive or negative self-assessment persists throughout life as a modulator of behavior.

Self-criticism is a learned habit acquired in early life through emulating parents, teachers, coaches, and other impactful adults who socialize children into society through teaching them interpersonal and moral values. Thus, children imitate both the positive and negative forms of self-assessment.

Though all humans thrive on appreciation and seek the positive regard of others, they may silently doubt deserving it. In the “Moral Animal – Why We Are the Way We Are” Robert Wright states, “People in all cultures, whether they fully realize it or not, want to wow their neighbors, to rise in local esteem…The other side of this coin is the early and continuing aversion to disdain and ridicule.” The need for esteem and the fear of being unworthy plague all humans.

Many people dare to utter their negative self-evaluations within their trusted relationships with spouses or close friends. They may say, “I am so stupid, I didn’t initially figure it out”, “I am so lazy, I didn’t do much over the weekend”, “I am fat and ugly and hate myself.”  These statements may, at the moment, feel true to the utterer but are pleas for a rebuttal and reassurance that he/she is smart, hard working and attractive.

Since self-criticism interferes with people’s deep need to feel confidant, there must be a survival benefit to self-doubt. University of Texas Associate Professor Kristin Neff writes, “It is important to remember that when our inner critic attacks, it is trying to ward off danger.” About the value of positive self-regard she states, “Warmth and affection from an attachment figure deactivates the sympathetic nervous system and thus reduces Cortisol, which is the stress hormone.” To combat self-criticism she recommends that you “thank your inner critic for alerting you to the downside of your action/inaction and invite the affirming, compassionate internal dialogue to step in.”

Dr. Richard Schwartz created a psychotherapeutic treatment model called Internal Family Systems (IFS) in which therapists assist clients in identifying their various internal “Parts” and enables them to access their internal “Self” which contains “compassion, perspective, confidence and vision to lead both internal and external life harmoniously and sensitively.”

In crisis, most people resort to the supportive energy of loved ones to help them regain their strength, endurance and hope as they recapture their worthiness and lovability. In everyday life, we can initiate an internal dialogue that challenges our self-critical part and use our unconditionally loving and affirming “Self” to guide us toward thwarting danger and embracing confidence, comfort and peace.

To combat self-criticism,

  • Be clear that self-criticism is abusive and detracts from your wellbeing.
  • Access your positive, loving energy to reduce your Cortisol level and increase your health.
  • Replace your self-demeaning messages with self-empowering ones.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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