How to Deal with Self Criticism

Dr. John Townsend

September 14, 2018

Most of us are a bit hard on ourselves. We have an internal judge who is pretty harsh with us when we fail or screw up. S/he says such supportive things, such as:

“There you go again…”

“You’ll never get it right!”

“You’ve let yourself and everyone down.”

“You are such a loser!”

“You haven’t changed at all.”

This sort of negative self-talk doesn’t drive you to jump out of bed and take on the world, does it? It’s more likely to keep you in bed watching Netflix all day!

We do, however, need a monitor, or judge, in our heads to help us make good choices. This monitor is called a conscience. Just like Pinocchio’s friend Jiminy Cricket warned him from going the wrong way, we need that help as well. People without a developed conscience often end up in prison, where they belong.

So what can you do about your self judge who beats you up a bit too much? Here are some tips to help.

First, know what a healthy judge is supposed to sound like. You need a model of what healthy is so that you can improve what you have. A healthy judge has two aspects: it is (1) warm and (2) accurate.

Warmth relates to a kind tone instead of a harsh or condemning tone. Notice how the two next statements are very different in their tone: the first tone is discouraging, and the second is motivating. Which sounds more like your judge right now?

Discouraging Judge: “Unbelievable! You lost the account because you didn’t understand the client the right way. You are just not meant for this job.”

Motivating Judge: “You lost the account. It’s a significant setback and you are discouraged. But you have resources, smarts, and good people to help you learn from this and recalibrate.”

Accurate has to do with the truthfulness of the judge’s perspective. A healthy judge should cheer you when you succeed and prompt you to change when you fail.

Unhealthy judges will tend to prompt us when we’ve done nothing wrong (a false positive-like making you feel you broke the speed limit when you didn’t). They will also not prompt us when they need to (false negative-like saying nothing when you cheat on your income tax return).

These inaccurate conscience judges don’t do you any good! Only an accurate one does the job right.

Now, let’s talk about how to start improving that judge if it’s not accurate or warm. On a daily basis for one week, record on your smartphone how many times you heard your judge’s self-talk, and what it said. Is it positive and supportive or negative and demotivational? Once you start paying attention, you should begin to see improvement in this area because what we take an active interest in improves!

I have another recommendation for you as well. Twice a week for a month, have a conversation with a safe person in your life and tell them about the times you beat yourself up.

Don’t let him/her dismiss what you did if you really screwed up – that is denial (and not helpful). Instead, allow your safe person say, “Yes, you were pretty inappropriate in that conversation. I’m OK with you, and I’ll help you brainstorm what to do next.” You can watch my video on safe people here for more information.

Over time, these practices will help you have a useful and helpful tool in your mind to move away from negative self-criticism.  A healthy judge will keep us out of trouble and help us learn from our mistakes.


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