In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by idealized images on social media and advertisements, it is easy to feel inadequate. We are often our own worst critics, ruthlessly judging our perceived flaws or berating ourselves for the slightest mistake. If you are wondering, "Why am I so hard on myself," it may comfort you to know that many people struggle with self-criticism. People often have the misconception that they can bully themselves into doing better. But just as a bullied child is unlikely to thrive, being hard on yourself leads to less motivation and greater anxiety and depression. If you are looking to silence your inner-critic, here are some things to consider.
If some self-criticism is normal, how do you know if and when your inner critic is a problem? Psychologists think that the degree to which you ruminate over your imperfections is an important piece of the why am I so hard on myself puzzle. London psychologist Daniel Kolubinski and his colleagues developed a self-rating scale called the MSCRQ, (meta-cognitions about self-criticism rumination questionnaire). Among the items on the questionnaire are:
You can access the full questionnaire and rating scale here.
In addition to rumination, there are certain characteristics that people with a harsh inner-critic tend to share. Highly self-critical people:
These self-critical habits can interfere with relationships, success at work, and personal happiness.
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Humans are born with a negativity bias, meaning that we tend to pay more attention to the bad and overlook the good. This helps us learn from our mistakes and avoid danger. But when the negativity bias gets applied to our own strengths and weaknesses, our thoughts can get distorted. Here are some other potential answers to the question, “Why am I so hard on myself?”
Humans are social beings. We are wired to care about what other people think of us. Thus, some self-criticism is adaptive. Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen notes:
It is necessary that we each have this inner critic because a healthy dose of self-doubt helps us monitor ourselves and our behavior. I like to say: “We doubt ourselves in order to check ourselves.” And ultimately, that means we get along better with our fellow humans.Ellen Hendriksen, author of the book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety
Children who grow up in hyper-critical environments often internalize the disapproving voices of parents, caregivers, teachers, and/or peers. This can serve as a subconscious coping skill; it is harder for others to criticize you if you beat them to it! However, a recent study conducted at Binghamton University indicates that children with highly critical parents are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and attentional issues.
We all have an internal alarm system that notifies us of potential dangers. For people with anxiety, this alarm system is on overdrive. It’s like a faulty smoke detector that goes off at the slightest provocation, or for no reason at all! Because people with anxiety are constantly on alert, they are more likely to pick out their own flaws and mistakes. They are also more likely to ruminate on them as their brains get stuck in “emergency mode.”
Attributional or explanatory style refers to how you explain the events in your life. Researchers have found that people often interpret events using three dimensions: internal versus external (personalization), stable versus unstable (permanence), and global versus specific (pervasiveness). Not surprisingly, people who see events as having an internal cause tend to be more self-critical. In addition, interpreting negative events as part of a long-standing pattern with global significance is associated with a pessimistic or depressive explanatory style. If you are wondering, “Why am I so hard on myself,” it might be helpful to examine your explanatory style.
You may think that your self-criticism is holding you to a higher standard, and that if you let go of it, you won’t make any progress towards your goals. But research indicates that the opposite is true. Among other things, self-criticism can contribute to:
If your self-criticism is associated with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or trauma, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. A good therapist will help you identify the specific nature of your self-criticism and the treatment that will be most helpful to you. Often, treatment for self-criticism involves some form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. In CBT, you examine your thoughts and behaviors and identify and correct problematic patterns. Here are 7 CBT techniques you can try if you want to get a head start on challenging your self-critic:
1. Name your inner critic
Psychologists call this “externalizing the problem.” It can be helpful to think of your self-critic as something separate from yourself. Maybe you name your inner critic after a critical family member, or bring some levity to the situation by giving it a name like “Should-y Sharon.”
2. Identify distorted thoughts
Highly self-critical people tend to make a lot of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are errors in judgment. One example of a distortion is all-or-nothing thinking, for example, “If I don’t meet every one of my goals, I am a complete failure.” A related distortion is disqualifying the positive, thinking your accomplishments don’t count because you weren’t “perfect.” You can see a complete list of the most common distortions here.
3. Examine negative thoughts for accuracy
Once you’ve identified a distorted thought, the next step is to challenge it by examining its accuracy. This is especially helpful with “should” thoughts. The next time you notice one of these thoughts, try asking, “Why? Who says? What is the consequence of doing or not doing this?” You may start to realize that a lot of the expectations you have for yourself are arbitrary!
4. Write it out
Keeping a journal of negative thoughts can be a good way to identify patterns in thinking. It also helps you to get some perspective on your inner critic. Writing it down takes the thought out of your emotional mind and into your rational mind. You are then better able to challenge or reframe the thought in a more accurate and positive way.
5. Incorporate self-compassion
Psychologist Kristin Neff has conducted a number of studies on self-compassion. Among her findings is that increasing self-compassion results in less depression and anxiety, increased resilience, and increased compassion towards others. Dr. Neff offers a variety of free self-compassion meditations and exercises on her website.
6. Record “wins”
One way to overcome our inherent negativity bias is to make a point of identifying and focusing on the positive. Try writing down 3 things that you did well at the end of each day. Don't forget to give yourself credit for successfully managing life’s stressors. Not exploding at a coworker who made you angry counts as a win!
7. Practice good self-care
People who are stuck in abusive relationships often end up feeling worthless. The same is true if you mistreat yourself. If you don’t prioritize things like eating well, time for hobbies and relaxation, and setting limits with others, you are sending the message that you are not worth caring about!
To some extent, being hard on yourself is human nature. But taken to an extreme, self-criticism can have adverse effects like anxiety, depression, and interpersonal conflict. If you are tired of listening to your inner critic, try challenging your negative thoughts and introducing some self-compassion. Research shows that this approach is more likely to help you achieve your goals, whether at work, in relationships, or life in general!
Being hard on yourself means you are very critical and demanding of yourself, and expect a higher standard than you would expect from others. It can mean setting high standards and expectations for yourself and feeling disappointed or frustrated when you fail to meet them.
1. Change your thinking - Take a moment to reflect on the thoughts that are making you hard on yourself. Ask yourself if those thoughts are helpful or necessary. If not, challenge them and replace them with more positive and constructive thoughts.
2. Be kind to yourself - Take time to appreciate your strengths, successes, and positive qualities. Remind yourself of all the things you have achieved and all the hardships you have overcome.
3. Take care of yourself - Make sure you are taking care of your physical and mental health by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and engaging in activities that make you happy and relaxed.
4. Set realistic goals - Make sure your goals are achievable, and you don’t set yourself up for failure. Set realistic expectations and take it one step at a time.
5. Talk to others - Seek support from friends, family, or a professional to help you work through your thoughts and feelings.
No, being hard on yourself is not a disorder. It may, however, be a symptom of an underlying issue, such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. If you are finding it difficult to cope with being hard on yourself, it is important to talk to a mental health professional to identify any underlying issues.
This is known as "self-criticism" or "self-flagellation."