If you had to describe how you relate to yourself, would you be a cheerleader or a critic? Do you have higher expectations of yourself than you do of others? Is it easier to forgive yourself, or to forgive others?
If you’re your own worst critic, hold yourself to higher standards, or struggle to forgive yourself when you make a mistake, you’re probably being too hard on yourself. Before you start to criticize yourself for being too self-critical, let’s take a look at where your self-criticism comes from and what you can do to overcome it.
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Lots of people who are highly self-critical don’t realize that other people don’t think the same way. Being highly self-critical just feels normal. So, where does being hard on yourself come from and why do you think that way?
One of the most common causes of being too hard on yourself is having parents or caregivers with excessively high expectations of you1. Obviously, having people who love you believe in you and want you to do well is a wonderful thing. But consistently high expectations can start to take a toll on your self-esteem.
If you only receive approval when you succeed, you start to see your self-worth as dependent on your success. If you make a mistake, it isn’t just something you did. It becomes something you are. Rather than thinking “Oops. I should have done that differently,” you think “I’m a failure. I’m rubbish. I’m worthless.”
Having parents with excessively high expectations can be harmful, whether you actually meet those expectations or not. If you consistently fail to meet their expectations, you might feel rejected and inadequate.
If you do meet their expectations, you can still struggle. Your need to succeed at everything makes it really hard to take risks. For example, if your parents expect straight As from you at school, you’re only going to take classes where you know you can achieve that. You’re probably not going to take a class in something completely new where you might not succeed.
Lots of people who are too hard on themselves actually hear their parents in their critical inner voice. They’ve internalized their parents’ expectations so deeply that they hear their voices when they are criticizing themselves.
Another way that your upbringing might have made you so hard on yourself is if you saw the people around you being very critical of themselves2. As children, we assume that our experiences are just “how the world is.” If the people we see around us are highly self-critical, we think that we need to be hard on ourselves too.
If you had this kind of upbringing, you probably wouldn’t call it “being hard on yourself” or “being overly self-critical.” You will probably see it as “taking responsibility” or “being self-aware.”
Some degree of self-criticism is needed when you’re working on self-awareness, but not as much as you’d think. Usually, self-compassion is far more important. You can tell the difference between self-awareness and being too hard on yourself by how many positive things you include when you think about yourself.
We’re all a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. If you can easily list your weaknesses but struggle to name your strengths, you’re not being self-aware. You’re just being cruel to yourself.
If your parents were highly self-critical, you might also not have a mental model for how someone can forgive themselves, learn, and move on in a healthy way. If you’ve never seen anyone accept their mistakes and move on, it’s hard to even know how to start.
In fact, this can happen when you’re surrounded by people at either extreme of the self-criticism spectrum. If someone takes no personal responsibility and forgives themselves too easily, you might become self-critical as a way to avoid becoming like them.
Comparing ourselves to others really is one of the fastest ways to make ourselves unhappy. When you compare yourself to other people, especially if you already have a small inclination toward self-criticism, you’re probably comparing your worst moments with their best ones3.
Remember that we don’t see every aspect of someone else’s life. Just like we curate what we show on social media, we also curate what we show others about ourselves. We don’t say everything that goes through our minds. We don’t always show our weakest moments. We don’t draw attention to our mistakes.
When we look at our own life, however, the opposite is true. We do see all of our weakest moments. We know all of the things we think, even the ones that we wish we hadn’t. We dwell on all of our mistakes.
Comparing our worst moments with other people’s best ones is almost guaranteed to make us feel bad about ourselves and lead us to be highly self-critical.
If you’ve been the victim of abuse, it’s completely natural for you to become highly self-critical. Abusers are almost always highly critical of the people they abuse, and it’s normal to internalize this criticism4.
Often, internalizing the criticism was a way of keeping you safe. In many cases, an abuser will use failure to meet their expectations as an excuse for further abuse, physical or mental. When you internalize their expectations, you’re more likely to meet their standards and potentially avoid or delay some abuse.
(This doesn’t mean that you were responsible for abuse if you didn’t meet those standards. This was a coping mechanism that you used to keep yourself safe in an extreme and awful situation. Nothing justifies abuse. Ever.)
The defense mechanism that helped to keep you safe during abuse can become harmful afterward. Being too self-critical is understandable and normal, but battling it is going to be a part of how you rebuild yourself after your experiences.
You shouldn’t have to do it and it’s not fair that you’re left with emotional work to do to recover but you can learn how to be less hard on yourself.
Although we absorb a lot about how the world works and our place in it from our parents, we go on learning for our whole lives. Once we’re out of childhood, we mostly learn how we should be treated from our friends and loved ones. If you have toxic friends, you might learn to be more self-critical and start being hard on yourself.
One of the first steps to stop being so hard on yourself is to try to deal with your critical inner voice. If you’re prone to self-criticism, you probably have an inner voice that tells you all of the things that you are doing wrong and why you need to be better.
Getting that inner critic to be nicer to you is essential to helping you relax and improve your self-esteem. But how can you go about that?
Quieting your inner critic doesn’t just mean pushing it down and trying to pretend that you don’t think those things. Trying to push thoughts or feelings away is rarely actually effective. It normally leads to something called the rebound effect5. This is where it comes back even stronger than before.
Instead of trying to push those thoughts away or suppressing them, try to stop, address what your inner voice says, and then try to create an alternative, more supportive, comment to replace it.
For example, if your inner critic says “I messed that up, just like I always do. I’m so stupid” take a moment and try thinking “Ok. That wasn’t kind and it wasn’t accurate. It was just my inner critic. I did make a mistake, but I’ve fixed it and I’ve learned something. I handled it well.”
You might also find that your inner critic has a very specific voice. For lots of people, it sounds like one of their parents, or even an especially strict teacher. You can try to use this association.
If you have kind, loving, supportive memories of that person, you can try to remember them saying supportive things. This can help you realize that they probably wouldn’t be so cruel to you.
In some cases, that's not actually accurate. Even loving parents might not give us as much support and validation as we need. In this case, it might be more helpful to try to change the ‘sound’ of your inner voice to something that doesn’t affect you so much. You could make it sound like a cartoon character or a really memorable evil villain from a TV show.
The aim is to take the ‘sting’ out of the words by making them sound silly or having you associate them with someone you see as evil. This can make it easier for you to see when your inner critic is being unreasonable or hurtful for no reason.
Another trick lots of people use to help them deal with their inner critic is to create a name and a mini-personality to associate with it6. If you name your inner critic Fred, you can then respond to self-criticism by thinking “Oh, Fred’s joining in again” or “Hush Fred. No one invited you.”
This might sound silly, but there are solid reasons why it works. Your inner critic is a part of you. It reflects some of your deepest beliefs, many of which are subconscious. They’ll include lots of limiting beliefs about yourself, such as “I’m stupid” or “no one will love me if I’m not perfect.”
You’ll probably have learned these beliefs when you were very young and, because they’re subconscious, you feel that they’re true, even if intellectually you know that they’re not. Importantly, you probably don’t even realize that you have those beliefs.
You do accept them, though. You accept what your inner critic says because you believe it deep down. You don’t stop to think about whether it’s true. It’s your inner voice, so you believe it instinctively.
When you start to think of your inner critic as Fred (or whatever name you choose), you start to evaluate whether Fred is actually a reliable person. You start to question what ‘Fred’ says, which gives you the opportunity to understand and evaluate beliefs that you might not have realized that you hold.
Lots of us focus on quieting our critical inner voice, but then allow free rein to our self-criticism when we’re speaking out loud. We might think of it as being polite, or not being arrogant, but we’re actually belittling ourselves out loud. Even worse, we’re making others complicit.
When you criticize yourself out loud, other people will often become uncomfortable. They don’t really know how to contradict you but they don’t actually agree. They’re not sure what they should do, so they stay quiet and try to pretend that they didn’t hear you.
From the perspective of your self-critical brain, this counts as them agreeing with your self-critical thoughts. You said them aloud and no one disagreed, therefore you can convince yourself that everyone thinks as badly of you as you do.
You can see how this can easily become a vicious circle. Break that circle by trying to stop diminishing yourself out loud. Try to catch yourself before you say things like “this is probably wrong” or “I’m just too lazy/weak/stupid to do that.”
Sometimes, our self-criticism is so reflexive that it’s hard to notice when we do it. It just feels normal. In this case, try to recruit a trusted friend to help you spot times when you put yourself down. They can provide awareness, accountability, and affectionate support.
One of the problems with trying to be less of a perfectionist is that most perfectionists don’t really believe that it’s a problem. They might know that it’s exhausting and giving them anxiety or damaging their self-esteem, but deep down they think that it shouldn’t.
It’s surprisingly normal for a perfectionist to believe that the problem isn’t that they’re a perfectionist. It’s that they’re not a good enough perfectionist. They’re not a “perfect perfectionist.”
Wanting to do a good job and caring about what you do are great qualities, but perfectionism isn’t. It’s harmful7. It damages your self-esteem8. The bar for being “good enough” is always just out of reach.
It’s also often frustrating for your friends, family, and coworkers. They don’t always need perfection. Sometimes, they’d rather just tick something off of the list and move on to something more fun, important, or rewarding.
If you’re going to stop being so hard on yourself, you need to honestly recognize that trying to be perfect at everything isn’t healthy for you or for the people around you. The problem isn’t that you’re not good enough. It’s that your expectations and requirements of yourself are simply unachievable.
Giving up on perfectionism isn’t a small task. It’s a huge undertaking. Start with small steps, such as trying to find things where it’s ok to be “good enough,” rather than “perfect.” Praise yourself for your progress. And try not to become perfectionist about giving up your perfectionism.
Another skill you need to develop as you learn how to stop being so hard on yourself is to identify and celebrate things that you’re proud of. Finding things that you’re proud of can give you something to bolster your self-esteem when your inner critic comes out swinging.
There’s a surprisingly easy way to get started at finding things you’re proud of: start looking for things you’re proud of.
That sounds overly simplistic, but it isn’t. We see what we actively look for9. If you start looking for yellow cars, you’ll see far more yellow cars on the road than you expect. You see them because you’re looking for them.
The same thing is true when we look for things in ourselves. If you look for your flaws, you’re going to find them. If you look for things to be proud of, you’ll see them instead. You choose where you place your attention, so try looking for your achievements and skills. You’ll feel better for it.
Building your sense of self-love, self-work, and self-esteem isn’t easy. Those are big, difficult things to achieve. If they feel overwhelming, try aiming for a smaller step such as self-compassion first.
You’re probably able to treat lots of people in your life with compassion. You understand them, you trust that they are doing their best, and you accept them for who they are even when they make mistakes. You grant them grace and you treat them with kindness. You offer support when they struggle and you celebrate when they succeed.
How does this compare with how you treat yourself? If you’re constantly being hard on yourself, the chances are that you don’t give yourself the same kind of compassion that you give others. That’s ok, but try being slightly more compassionate toward yourself.
If you’re tempted to punish yourself, for example by not having a cookie that you really want because you skipped a workout, try saying “I made the best decision for me at the time and that’s ok. I can make a different decision next time and that’s ok too.” Then eat the cookie!
One of the things we beat ourselves up about most is usually mistakes. If you’re generally self-critical, you might be left dwelling on a mistake for days, weeks, or even months. This is known as rumination and it’s linked to low self-esteem and depression10.
Learning from mistakes is really important, but we need to have a clear difference between learning and punishing ourselves. If you’re coming back to the same set of thoughts over and over again, you’ve probably learned everything you need to and it’s time to move on11.
One way to try to get those repetitive thoughts out of your head is to put them on paper. Physically write down the list of things that you would do differently next time to avoid the mistake or to fix it. Try to keep them as short, actionable steps without focusing on self-blame.
For example, if you missed an important meeting because you overslept, you might write that you’ll set a second alarm clock before important meetings and that you’ll try to schedule meetings for later in the day if you can.
When you start to dwell on your mistake, take out the paper with your action plan and read it to yourself. Remind yourself that these are the things you’ve learned from the situation and you’re now better prepared for a similar situation.
It might sound kooky, but some people find it helpful to thank their brains for making sure that they’ve learned from what happened and that they’re all set to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If that sounds like it might help, try it out for yourself.
If one of the things that leads to your self-criticism is comparing yourself with others, putting limits on your social media use can be a really effective strategy to help you treat yourself with more kindness.
Social media often brings out the worst of our normal human desire for comparison. We know that comparing ourselves to others isn’t great, but it’s so hard not to. Social media makes that so much worse.
As anyone who’s ever read the comments underneath a YouTube video or witnessed a Twitter pile-on will know, social media can also be apretty toxic place sometimes. If you know that you internalize negative comments about yourself, consider limiting your social media interactions to a tightly controlled group in a supportive medium.
Social media isn’t inherently bad. It’s all down to how we use it and how other people treat us. But if you are trying to learn how to not be so hard on yourself, social media probably isn’t the best place to work on that12.
Being highly self-critical is exhausting. Putting effort into being less self-critical and being kinder to yourself will reduce the emotional load eventually, but in the short term it’s going to make things even tougher for a while. Get yourself the support you need to help you.
If you’re always really hard on yourself, even just asking for help overcoming it can be a challenge. Whenever you think of asking for support, your inner critic probably says something like “You don’t need help. You should just be able to do this. If you can’t, it’s because you’re being weak.”
Obviously, your inner critic isn’t being honest with you here. Asking for support takes strength and courage. You’re trying to do a genuinely hard thing, and it’s completely ok to look for help achieving it.
You can ask friends and family for support, but you can also turn to a therapist or a great relationship coach to talk things through with you. If you’re really self-critical, it’s easy to dismiss what your loved ones say as them just being kind. Talking to a trained professional can sometimes give you that bit more confidence in what they tell you.
Being hard on yourself is unhelpful and often a form of self-sabotage, but it isn’t a specific disorder. It can contribute to serious mental health problems, such as depression or eating disorders. Although it isn’t a disorder, you can still go to a therapist for help overcoming your self-criticism.
Many people who are too hard on themselves are perfectionists. They have a high degree of personal responsibility and often want to help others. They are often high achievers, whether at work or in anything else they devote their energy to. Not everyone will fit this pattern, though.
There are some ways that women are taught to be harder on themselves than men. For example, they might feel more selfish about taking time for themselves. Overall, men and women are probably equally hard on themselves, just in different ways.
Understanding why we are so hard on ourselves and where our self-criticism comes from is the first step to treating ourselves with kindness and compassion.
What are your experiences? How have you managed to overcome your inner critic and learn to stop being so hard on yourself? Let us know in the comments and share this article with someone who could do with being a little bit kinder to themselves.