I used to believe that being hard on myself was a good thing and that criticising myself would make me better.
Yet we know how we feel when a friend criticises us, we contact, shut down or get defensive. Or we ruminate for days on end. Unless the criticism is constructive and said to highlight opportunities for improvement, it rarely results in improvement.
We have this kinky and misplaced belief that we will perform better if we’re really hard on ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, the people who are really hard on themselves waste a lot of mental energy, and they would perform better if they spent less time punishing themselves.
Yet, for some reason, we think that being critical of ourselves will lead to better outcomes?
Self-criticism rarely leads to positive and lasting change. Instead, it generates feelings of shame and worthlessness, which can be paralysing and have the opposite effect on our performance.
“You have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Louise Hay.
Self-criticism as motivation
Many of us use criticism as a form of motivation. We believe that if we’re really hard on ourselves, we will perform better. This is an old-school 1980s approach that belongs in a fax machine at a Blockbuster video store. Berating, criticising and judging ourselves saps our mental energy leaving little left in the tank to perform at our best.
Punishment is not a great form of motivation. Positive reinforcement and reward are far superior forms of motivation. And if that approach works for puppies, it may just work for us too.
Self-criticism is addictive
It’s easy to get addicted to self-criticism as it evokes such a strong visceral reaction in us. Anything that makes us feel (positive and negative) has a charge associated with it. And self-criticism is highly charged, almost electric. So if we’re used to being numb and disconnected, an electric shock of criticism feels better than nothing.
Self-criticism is also familiar. If we’ve been criticising ourselves our whole lives, it will feel strange without it.
In yoga philosophy, repetitive thought patterns create a groove or neural pathway known as samskaras. Over time, our minds will follow these grooves rather than creating new pathways, and this is how we can get stuck and become addicted to negative mental patterns.
The tendency to criticise ourselves can go right back to childhood. Notice whether your inner critic’s voice sounds like a parent, older relative, teacher or some other person in authority.
Rather than motivating us, chronic self-criticism can be paralysing. It can keep us stuck, prevent us from moving forward and pursuing our goals, and lead to anxiety and depression.
Why do we punish ourselves?
In short, we secretly enjoy it.
It may sound odd or kinky, but some of us like to punish ourselves. Self-criticism and beating ourselves up are a way of punishing ourselves for our perceived flaws or being unworthy. If that’s your thing, and you’re doing it consciously, then go for it. But most of us are doing it unconsciously and causing ourselves suffering in the meantime.
Rather than acting as motivation, self-criticism makes us feel bad. When we feel bad, we’re more likely to engage in destructive patterns and behaviours to reinforce feeling bad. Feeling bad drives negative thought spirals and rumination, causes our body to contract with tension and lowers our mood. Then, to make matters worse, we feel bad for feeling bad!
Behind the mask of the critic is often a wounded child. As kids, our notions of right and wrong evolved through trial and error. We were rewarded for good behaviour (allowed to have ice cream, stay up late or watch TV) and punished for bad behaviour (being sent to our room, no TV, no dessert etc.)
We learned quickly that when we do something wrong, we get punished.
Now, if we’re human, we do the wrong thing often. Maybe not deliberately (or perhaps you do), but we expect a negative consequence each time we err. We tend to keep a mental tally, albeit unconscious. And while we’re no longer sent to our room or banned from watching TV, we seek to punish ourselves to release the tension of our mistakes.
And a popular way of relieving the tension of our mistakes is through self-criticism and self-punishment.
Bizarrely, this is why feeling bad feels good – because it’s levelling out the scoreboard and keeping us in check.
It may sound taboo, but sometimes we enjoy feeling bad.
Compassion is the antidote to self-criticism.
Self-criticism makes us feel bad and diminishes our performance, so if you’ve had enough of the inner critic, you probably want to know how to silence the inner critic.
The simple (but not easy) answer is through self-compassion.
A core component of self-compassion is acceptance. When we can accept that we’re human, we will make mistakes and usually do the best that we can, then we can disarm the inner critic. Another core element of self-compassion is kindness. We know how terrible it feels to be criticised, and we know that criticism doesn’t work, so what if we were kind to ourselves instead?
We can also become critical of our own inner critic. There is no need to judge ourselves for being overly critical, as that will only perpetuate the shame/criticism/punishment cycle. A better approach to ditching self-criticism is to recognise that deep down, our inner critic is just trying to help us to avoid failure, hurt or embarrassment.
How to ditch the self-criticism
- Recognise when and how you criticise yourself. Often we’re unaware of our negative self-talk, so awareness is the first step in making any change. Meditation is a great way of becoming aware of our inner narrative.
- Notice who your inner-critic reminds you of (parent, teacher or authority figure). This may take you back to childhood and help you see old patterns of not feeling good enough.
- Accept that no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Practice compassion and kindness towards yourself. Remember, dogs respond better to positive reinforcement than they do to punishment; we are the same.
- Recognise that self-criticism is addictive and that there is a part of us that might feel like we deserve it.
- Learn from mistakes. When we stuff up or do the wrong thing, we can take the lesson without punishing ourselves for it. This is called a growth mindset and will help us move forward rather than stay paralysed in self-criticism and loathing.
There is so much more to Yoga than fitness and flexibility. Before psychology, there was yoga. Before self-development, there was yoga.