The Misguided Purpose of Self-Criticism

Posted on 2020-04-19 By Joanna


The False Promise of the Inner Critic

Many of us adopted self-criticism as a method of improving ourselves, correcting mistakes and striving towards some ideal. The problem with the inner critic, however, is that no matter what we do – nothing is ever good enough. I believe self-criticism is often a manifestation of our strong inclination towards perfectionism; a false promise that if we only got “better”, all problems would go away. That's rarely the case.

Self-criticism is a learnt behaviour we adopt as a result of our past experiences. If we were devalued by our parents or peers in childhood, we needed to explain why such rejection happened – self-criticism and blaming ourselves became a natural conclusion. And so, we developed an ideal: “If I only were better, smarter, more disciplined...” - a false promise that is keeping us trapped in an unrealistic perception of what we really need to grow and be the best version of ourselves. It focuses on “If”, rather than what “Is” - it's removed from reality and keeps us in the land of fantasy and delusion – because nothing we ever do is enough; we never reach any conclusion, any acknowledgement that we did well or moved towards the right direction. That would invalidate the inner critic!

We can see here how self-criticism links to a strong drive to punish ourselves. It goes beyond a mere evaluation of our actions or performance and turns into a Judge that always watches for even the smallest deviations from our ideal self. Unfortunately, the promised reward never comes and we become entrapped and terrorised by the voice that doesn't care about our well-being and needs.

The inner critic prevents us from knowing ourselves – if we are focused on what could be, what we are not, what we are doing wrong – how could we know what we are doing right, what our strengths and values are, and what we truly need or want? Self-criticism is the ultimate form of self-rejection.

How to Replace Self-Criticism

You might be asking, what's the alternative? How else could I know if I made a mistake or did something wrong? How else could I improve?

The major thing suggesting that self-criticism is not a very valid method of learning about mistakes or figuring strategies to correct our behaviour is that it generalises one mistake within a specific context to the totality of our being. Inner critic rarely says “I've made a wrong decision”. Rather, it prefers to say “I'm stupid or I'm incapable of making right decisions”. It prevents us from seeing the bigger picture and narrows our vision down whilst magnifying what doesn't agree with our ideal.

A more constructive way of learning about our mistakes or what could be improved is paying attention to several forms of feedback we receive from our behaviours:

  1. The results and outcomes of our actions. When we are not getting the outcome we desired, instead of focusing on your self and making it personal, what could be improved in the future? What could you do differently that would bring you the outcome you desire?
  2. Focus on what you need. The inner critic clouds our self-awareness and self-understanding with a bunch of generalised self-evaluations and biased conclusions. It prevents us from knowing ourselves. Instead of focusing on what you've done wrong or what sort of “negative” personality traits you might be having, ask yourself – what is this situation asking of you? What does it tell you about your needs? For example, when my last livestream didn't go too well, I acknowledged my feeling of disappointment and asked myself “what is it that I need to do next time”, instead of punishing myself for being too disorganised at that time. Similarly, when you are unhappy with the outcomes of working on your project, instead of focusing on “I'm too lazy or incapable”, try “What is it that I really need?”. Maybe that project wasn't the right path for you to begin with? Maybe there is an alternative path or an alternative way of working?
  3. Both perspectives above demonstrate a solution-focused mindset, rather than a problem-focused one. By focusing on solutions, you are paving your way forward. Each failure is an opportunity to learn something about yourself and will support you in developing new strategies you wouldn't have thought about if you didn't make a mistake. It tells you nothing concrete about yourself or your personality – only the inner critic tries to make it all personal.

True Self and Authentic Living

It's not wrong to have an ideal – a template of what the best version of ourselves would be. However, that ideal needs to be realistic and congruent with our true self and our whole organism in general. If my ideal is to be the greatest runner, even though I hate running, and I push myself to be a runner despite it being completely misaligned with my nature and preferences, and then punish myself for not being able to perform well – I'm creating resistance and conflict. It will not flow and I will continue wasting my energy.

We stand on our own ways like that in a myriad of situations – when we hang out with people we don't really like or who are not treating us with respect, when we strive towards some career for the reasons that allow us to gain status or reputation and satisfy others' need rather than our own; or when we simply try to be someone else.

When I'm not aligned with my true self and the purpose of my life, which I simply define as the goals and activities that bring me fulfilment, meaning, will to live and deep feelings - I experience problems, such as, dissociation, lack of motivation and depression. It's like my whole being rebels against me taking wrong turns or making decisions that are against my nature and drives to actualise myself.

This life path has been chosen by me, by the universe or by the true self – the totality of my being that came to solid conclusions on what would be the right direction for me so I can grow and expand. And I'm grateful, as I allow this process to unfold and guide me. That's the ideal – to be who I am and actualise all the potentialities I have. Not to be someone else and struggle against my own nature.

How did I get to this point? I allowed things to happen. I went along with my drives and impulses. I learned to listen to all subtle signs like my feelings, intuitions – and meaningful coincidences outside of me. What feels right doesn't necessarily feel right to others. But it feels right to me and I must follow it if I am to fulfil my purpose and life mission.

I've been distinguishing and discarding all beliefs and values I internalised from others for years – in favour of living by the beliefs and values I have chosen for myself. Living our own purpose is about making autonomous choices that have our highest well-being as a priority. And before you say that's self-centred and narcissistic – actually, by individuating and differentiating yourself like this, your ability to see people for who they are rather than through the lenses of projection will support you in improving your relationships. Compassion and a desire to care for others is a natural consequence of this process – because only then you can really understand others.

In conclusion, self-criticism prevents us from becoming harmonious and growing individuals, because it makes us reject parts of ourselves. By developing self-acceptance, congruence between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours – we learn how to listen to our needs and what to do in order to meet them. This path leads us towards greater fulfilment and making the best of our lives.

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