How to Stop Being Self-Critical

By Sean Grover

Have you even wanted to try something new and a voice inside you says, “Who do you think you are? You can’t do that.” So you give up without even trying?

Critical inner voices are a major driving force behind all types of depression and anxiety; those annoying inner detractors condemn and imprison you in your own perceived limitations. They create self-doubts, fuel fears, and relentlessly prevent you from living a more engaged and productive life. At their worst, they can even make the simplest tasks, like leaving your home or getting out of bed, unbearable.

Here’s the bottom line: Until your negative inner voices are tamed, there’s little hope for lasting happiness. Let’s begin by exploring where those aggravating little buggers come from.

The Roots of Self-Slander

From a developmental perspective, self-critical thoughts and feelings are not organic; they don’t come wired-in. Children may feel happy, sad, frightened, or angry… but self-blaming? No child is born that way. For example, as kids learn to walk, they get understandably frustrated. Yet they don’t stumble and fall and think, “God, I’m such failure.” They have a natural drive to get up again without the burden of a condemning inner voice.

Where does self-slander originate? It is the internalization of negative childhood experiences. These early negative experiences take root within us and form the foundation for self-attacking thoughts and feelings that harass us well into adulthood.

I’ve spent years helping folks liberate themselves from the clutches of chronic self-criticism. In that time, I’ve learned that there are three particular childhood experiences that are likely to produce disapproving inner voices: incompetent parenting, adult mistreatment (from adults other than your parents), and hurtful peer/sibling relationships.

Incompetent Parenting

Children internalize their parent’s attitudes toward them. In other words, if a parent is critical toward a child, the child becomes self-critical. If a parent is neglectful, the child becomes self-neglecting. And the cycle continues. Children may accept their parent’s views of them or spend a lifetime defying them. Either way, parental voices and opinions leave psychic imprints that shape a child’s internal life. Children who are the victims of incompetent parenting most often emerge with a poor sense of identity and continuous self-doubt.

Mistreatment by Adults  

I’m amazed at how many people report that they were mistreated by adults who were supposed to care for them. These adults can include: teachers who shame and demean, relatives who judge and criticize, and even counselors or coaches that condemn and censor. Years later, these young people discover how those humiliating experiences resulted in negative self-views. What’s more, these early betrayals set the stage for fears of closeness and social anxiety.

Hurtful Peer/Sibling Relationships

Too many children suffer at the hands of disparaging peers or siblings without adult intervention. Children are often cruel to one another, particularly during adolescence. Though kids may find fault with those who hurt them, too often they blame themselves for the mistreatment they experience. In other words, the voices of bullying peers become internalized, and rather than fight off these criticisms, they take them to heart and accept them as truth. They lose confidence in themselves and grow up fearing the opinions of others, as well as taking those opinions as facts.

Liberating Yourself from Self-criticism

Healing begins when you no longer accept those critical voices as your own.  Let me repeat that: Healing begins when you no longer accept those critical voices as our own. To activate the healing process, you must be determined to stop letting your inner critic define you.

This determination will trigger a mighty battle within yourself; a classic skirmish between the light and dark forces within all of us. As you engage in the fight, there are three main ways you can help yourself:

Confront Those Voices

As strange as it may sound, talking to yourself, or rather talking back to those negative voices, is an important first step in the healing process. For example, when your inner critic says, “You can’t do that” —fire back with, “Yes, I can!” or “Just watch me.” Begin to see those negatives as separate from your true voice. As you defeat them, self-criticism will no longer feel natural. You will begin to emerge with a more solid sense of self and purpose.

Say Goodbye to Negative Relationships

In general, our friendships reflect the way we feel about ourselves. For instance, if you’re self-neglecting, it’s likely you have friends who don’t appreciate you or exploit your good nature. If you’re self-critical, you’re friends are likely to be depriving and unsympathetic. Whatever the case, getting out of negative relationships is imperative to your growth. Chances are, as you start to feel better about yourself, your old nit-picking friends aren’t going to be thrilled with the new you. Consider their complaints as validation that you’re on the right path.

Start Taking Chances

Look for growth-inducing experiences such as classes, lectures, meetings, or new work or volunteer opportunities. Turn off your television and computer; stop texting and start relating. Remember, isolation breeds stagnation – the arch enemy of growth. Find time to be more active and creative. Challenge those inner negative voices by seeking out new positive relationships with people who enjoy you and are generous with praise or appreciation. Taking chances emotionally, despite your self-doubts, will open your life up to new relationships and fresh possibilities.

Group Therapy: An Important Tool for Defeating Inner Critics

More than any other therapeutic modality, group therapy helps you to break your pattern of negative thinking and expand your ability to develop and maintain positive relationships. I’ve met people who have languished in individual therapy for years and remained isolated and self-critical. With the help of a skilled group therapist, the group challenges your negative voices and brings them to the surface. You discover how those voices dominate every area of your life. For instance, a group member recently told another, “It’s hard to relate to you when you’re so relentlessly self-critical. It makes me feel like you’re rejecting me, like my opinion doesn’t matter.”  Another member recently admitted, “I used to think discarding praise was being modest. I was really being selfish; I was denying the giver the pleasure of giving. By rejecting compliments I was also isolating myself and denying myself the good feeling that comes with being appreciated. Group helped me to break that pattern.”

Gradually, over time, people report that the supportive and encouraging voices of their fellow group members unseat their inner critics and bring an end to their patterns of self-sabotage.

Finding Your True Voice

Let’s face it, everyone struggles with self-criticism; it’s impossible to go through life without doubting yourself now and then. But when your negative inner voices start running your life, you’re bound to become isolated and unhappy. Those voices have the power to ruin your life; tackling them and evicting them from your head is the only path to true growth. To reverse your pattern of self-criticism, you’ll need to shake things up. And it all begins with recognizing, confronting, and ditching your inner critic.  Good riddance to bad critics!