Self-Criticism Can Be Lethal

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
December 02, 2016

It propels you to involve yourself in stressful events.

From an early age, we learn to take in negative perception and turn it into self-criticism. You probably do it to a degree. 

A new book warns that deep self-criticism is damaging and even dangerous to your health, leading to mental disorder, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and even suicide.

"Self-criticism is a personality trait characterized as the tendency to set unrealistically high standards for one's self and an expression of hostility and derogation when these high standards are, inevitably, not met," reports Golan Shahar, PhD, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "This type of behavior leaves people depressed, anxious, suffering from other symptoms, and potentially suicidal."


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Shahar, a clinical health psychologist who spent two decades writing “Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self Criticism.” Self-criticism, he writes, propels people to involve themselves in stressful events — such as rejection by others, relationship breakups, and professional failures — to avoid engaging in the positive life experiences they feel they do not deserve.

This form of dangerous self-criticism is psychologically different from the transient "fish for compliments" type, which he argues is not pathological, unlike its more harmful counterpart.

A healthy form of self-critique, says Divya Kannan, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, may involve a child, for example, evaluating his or her own behavior in order to make better future decisions based on stimulus from parents and teachers.

“Constructive self-critiquing can help with proper development, plus everything from preserving relationships to toeing the line professionally,” she told Yahoo! News

Shahar says self-criticism stems from early encounters with harsh, critical, and punitive family relationships, or very “vulnerable” genetics embedding the tendency to look inwardly and seek flaws.

"That’s usually is where it starts — having overly critical parents or parents who have unreasonable expectations of their children," according Beverly Engel, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Osos, Calif., and author of "It Wasn't Your Fault."

Shahar says he teaches adolescents and young adults about the detriments of self-criticism. "I then teach them to identify their inner critic and then to cultivate other voices inside them that are not critical." He teaches patients to base their behavior on those benign or benevolent voices, rather than self-critical ones. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy offers strategies for reducing damaging self-criticism, writes therapist Leslie Baker-Phelps , PhD, of Somerville, NJ,, but people often have trouble following them and then give up on the whole approach. 

Instead she suggests an easier approach to tamping down self-criticism — completing a daily chart with headings including “situation, self-critical thoughts, consequences and rational responses.” 

By repeating the exercise habitually, you can begin to change your thinking, seeing what leads to your self-criticism and understanding why it gets so far under your skin. 

Another way to break the cycle of thinking is through self-compassion, Shahar says. Treatment can be difficult because, if you’re self-critical, you probably blame yourself for your mental health problems and may punish yourself by not seeking treatment. 

But self-compassion can be your antidote because consciously applying it first stops the internal heckling and begins to open the door to letting up on yourself, advises Kristen Neff, PhD, a self-compassion researcher at the University of Texas. 

“Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war,” Neff says.

She adds that self-kindness is more than just stopping your self-judgment. To do it effectively you have to “actively comfort yourself,” responding as you would to a friend in need. 

“It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, ‘This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?’ With self-kindness, we sooth and calm our troubled minds. We make a peace offering of warmth, gentleness, and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, so that true healing can occur.”


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April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA