A lot of people take an approach of being tough on themselves in order to facilitate growth, which when framed positively can be called accountability or taking responsibility. I certainly have often done so myself. However this approach comes with clear downsides – not only has self criticism a direct negative effect on our mood, up to potentially the point of depression, it can also inhibit growth and performance by draining our energy, or driving us towards avoidance behaviours. Luckily, I believe that a better, much more pleasant way is often possible, involving the following four steps:
- Recognize the self criticism
- Appreciate the upsides of dropping the self criticism
- Understand the purpose and benefits of the self criticism
- Find alternative ways to achieve the same purpose and benefits. Often these alternative ways can involve self compassion as a key part
Recognize the self criticism
A critical voice might be operating subconsciously and still make us miserable. To work on it and find an alternative path, we first need to recognize it is happening. The following can help us recognize critical voices
- Stream of consciousness journaling, i.e. simply writing down all the thoughts that come to our mind. I find this especially helpful when done immediately during a period of bad mood
- Meditation, which trains us to notice when we are lost in thought. Regular practice can help us notice thoughts more readily when they appear day to day. This one is great to practise also when currently in a good mood, in preparation for when we are not. I have found both meditation focused on the breath but actively noting thoughts as well as open awareness practices helpful
- Simply going for a walk and letting our thoughts wander while maintaining a decent amount of awareness of them. It is perfectly fine to to have some attention also on the beauty of the surroundings or the occasional dog to pet
Appreciate the upsides of dropping the self criticism
There are obvious direct benefits to happiness from replacing self criticism with self compassion. But there are also benefits beyond that, that can improve productivity as well as happiness. We free up energy previously used for beating ourselves up for more productive purposes. We can let go of harmful avoidant / addictive behaviours that we use to bring comfort or distraction from the self criticism. By accepting ourselves as imperfect, we can stop denying weaknesses we currently have – facing reality is the first step to actually working on those weaknesses, hence a sort of at least temporary acceptance is the precondition for growth. The resultant increase of self esteem from increased self compassion can even improve our relationships, by preventing “I don’t want to be part of a club that would accept me as a member” patterns or us pushing others to give us external validation to the point of exhausting them.
Understand the purpose and benefits of the self criticism
Recognizing the harms of self criticism can be helpful but is often not sufficient, and can even lead to a meta self criticism like “Why can I not be less self critical, what’s wrong with me?”. To make progress, we often also need to appreciate the purpose of the self criticism. Sometimes that purpose only exists in the past (e.g. needing to be self critical to be accepted by our parents) and simply realising that, and convincing the critical part of it, is a major step towards letting go. Having experiences that contradict the unhelpful core belief and bringing conscious awareness to that contratiction can be helpful for letting go of such outdated beliefs. Sometimes the purpose is still meaningful in the present, e.g. getting us to work, go to the gym or avoid harmful behaviours like eating junk, and it is worthwhile appreciating that. This “embracing of the inner critic”, i.e. understanding and appreciating how it is trying to help us, can often by itself create a significant improvement in well-being.
Find alternative ways to achieve the same purpose and benefits
If the harsh method of helping us function still has a benefit, it can be much easier to let go of if we find a new method to get the same benefit. Sometimes these methods can be quite practical as detailed in my Productivity without Anxiety post, e.g. working in a dedicated space instead of the bedroom to have more energy. Most interestingly, self-compassion can often actually bring the same benefit as self-criticism:
- Instead of beating ourselves up for procrastinating, we can forgive ourselves for potentially failing / imperfectly completing the task we are procrastinating
- Instead of punishing ourselves for being indecisive, we can forgive ourselves for bad decisions in the past, and, crucially in advance for the future
- Instead of berating ourselves for not approaching a potential romantic partner, we can relax the need to achieve a certain outcome (the potential partner’s approval) to feel good about ourselves
- Instead of criticising ourselves for making a mistake, we can celebrate that we noticed it
I believe it is important not to be perfectionist in this endeavour – if we cannot find a good replacement for a less compassionate method that helps us function in the world, the right choice might be to keep the harsh method for the time being – sometimes we just need to give ourselves a kick to do something uncomfortable but important. But over time we can discover more and more self-compassionate ways that help us ensure well-being in the current moment while still working to have a good future.