How Self-Criticism Threatens You in Mind and Body
Bernard Golden, Ph.D.
Self-criticism may both derive from and promote self-directed anger.
“I’m so stupid!” “I’m a failure.” “I’m just so ugly.” “I’m so weak.” “I can’t do anything right!”
These are just a few examples of internal dialogue voiced by individuals plagued by the tendency to be self-critical. Such criticism is strongly associated with an overriding sense of not being “good enough”– feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, failure and guilt. They may be judgments of one’s abilities, intelligence, physical appearance and even one’s thoughts or feelings.
Self-criticism and feelings associated with it, may be triggered by a specific event and the global reaction to it that leads to a barrage of such reflections. For example, when faced with frustration about assembly furniture, an individual prone to self-criticism may be quick to conclude, “I’m so stupid” or “I’m not manly”. Similarly, a person may observe the facial expression of one person at a gathering and quickly become overwhelmed by feeling undesirable.
Origins of Self-Criticism
The predisposition toward self-criticism originates in our early relationships. Parents may have extremely high expectations. We may have a sibling who excels academically, in sports or in some other area-and always receiving attention and praise for his or her superior achievement. Rigidly demanding teachers or punitive coaches may also contribute to this predisposition. Our religion or culture may also instill high demands of ourselves that further our sense of not feeling good enough. Friendships can also fuel this type of inner critic. For example, we may have experiences in our adolescence, including relationships with friends or a boy or girl friend that further undermines our sense of self.
These earlier experiences may contribute to overly intense perfectionism driven to avoid shame–in the eyes of others and oneself. Additionally, they may contribute to feeling flawed, unlovable and undesirable when seeking connection with others. Like a catchy song that worms its way into our mind, these experiences may contribute to an internal voice that echoes the voices of those we heard and listened to in our formative years. Consequently, it may become the go-to voice adapted to explain to oneself why something has gone wrong.
Self-reflection, self-evaluation and self-criticism
The capacity for self-reflection is a key quality of being human. Such reflection can be helpful when it involves an objective evaluation of ourselves–our thinking, feeling and behavior. It can beneficially support our wisdom in a variety of ways. Self-reflection helps us to connect with ourselves and by doing so it can help us to notice negative patterns in our life, support our motivation to achieve a goal, look at the big picture in our lives, promote self-soothing of difficult emotions, identify values, and support decision-making.
Constructive self-evaluation offers us information about what went wrong and what we might do differently the next time. It focuses on the task with an objective attention to details of the task and our actions. For example, you might observe the sound you made on your guitar was not he chord you had hoped to play. Self-evaluation entails reviewing what went wrong, the proper finger placement and additional attempts to correctly play it.
By contrast, self-criticism involves a knee-jerk reflection that is demeaning, devaluing and destructive. Referring to the example above, you might instead respond to your mistake with an on-going editorial about your ability in general or about you as a person. Consequently, you may stop playing the guitar completely. And if you do, you would be avoiding not only the possibility of future mistakes, but the emotional and physical discomfort associated with your own criticism.
Self-criticism moves us away from constructive self-reflection and evaluation and can fuel rumination that fosters depression and anxiety. Self-criticism focuses our attention inward and inhibits our capacity to be fully present and assertively engaging in our lives. Again, referring to the example, you might become so preoccupied with your self-criticism that you invariably make more mistakes in forming that chord.
While self-evaluation moves us forward in life, self-criticism moves us to retreat or even isolate. It may diminish our attempts to push our envelope–whether engaging in new activities, forming new friendships or developing new skills. Further, the predisposition to be self-critical inhibits social interactions-simply spending time with others as well as more intimate sharing. When extreme, every encounter becomes one of having to hide from others one’s authentic self in order to not be perceived as being inadequate.
Self-criticism as an expression of anger
Self-criticism can generate a variety of feelings including shame, guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment and hopelessness. At the same time, self-criticism may stem from an ongoing sense of anger with oneself. It is then understandable that such criticism can foster a tendency to feel isolated.
While many of the individuals who seek my services for anger management direct their anger outward, those who experience depression or anxiety often direct it inward in the form of self-criticism. Such anger may blend with a sense of self-disgust, a revulsion regarding some aspect of ourselves–or ourselves as a whole.
Anger stems from some form of threat. It may be triggered by external events–the actions of others or forces that are beyond our control that threaten our resources, physical or emotional well being or those we love. Self-criticism–and some of its underlying causes–represents a threat that we impose on ourselves. It entails critical inner dialogue in reaction to something that is going wrong or that does not satisfy the expectations we have for ourselves. And, while anger directed outward is often grounded in unrealistic or rigid expectations of others, self-criticism is grounded in unrealistic and rigid expectations of ourselves. As expressed in a recent article in Mindful magazine, in the midst of self-criticism, “we are both the attacker and the attacked”(Neff & Germer, 2019).
The neuroscience of threat
While some sense of threat may contribute to self-criticism, self-criticism itself is a threat to our emotional and physical well-being. I’ve observed this to be the case in my clinical work and research in the neuroscience of threat has provided further support regarding this impact.
Extensive research using neuroimaging over the past two decades shows that trauma–physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, as well as neglect, can powerfully influence the structure and chemistry of a child’s developing brain. This influence can have lasting impact that contributes to behavioral and emotional difficulties that endure well into adulthood.
Specifically, the trauma of such events impacts three distinct areas of the brain–the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is that part of our brain that is responsible for processing emotions and is associated with fear responses. Trauma leads to heightened activity in the amygdala, thus making us more sensitive to experience a threat–even when no real threat exists.
The hippocampus is associated with processing
memories–retrieving them when relevant, and distinguishing between past and recent memories. When this brain region is impacted by trauma an individual may have greater difficulty differentiating between past and present stimuli. Recent research also suggests that cortisol destroys cells of the hippocampus. So with increased levels of cortisol flowing in the body, the hippocampus is less available to make this distinction.
For example, an individual raised by a rage-a-holic father may become hypersensitive to experience threat in his interactions with men–with men in general or with authority in general. He may be prone to “overgeneralize” in his response to such interactions as an adult. So he might easily feel threatened by a male supervisor, experiencing him “as if” his manager is his father and he is once again that helpless and powerless child of years past. During such encounters the emotional brain is challenged in distinguishing the present and the past.
I often refer to this dynamic in my clinical work with regard to understanding overly intense anger, a level of anger not really warranted by the triggering situation. Whether in a personal relationship, at work or on the road, moments that arouse overly intense anger are those that activate, with and without awareness, the subjective experience that “it’s happening again.” My clients have reported this reaction that often includes dialog such as, “Again, someone isn’t respecting me,” or “Once again, I’m feeling ignored or invisible.”
What further contributes to this collapsing of internal experience is that the physiological reactions that occurred earlier, stemming from a heightened sense of threat, occur with similar intensity as previously. Its no wonder that I often hear clients state that “the feeling is just so strong!” when they are feeling a level of threat that is not really justified by the current situation.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is that part of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotional responses triggered by the amygdala, especially those associated with fear and threat. When impaired, the volume of this area is diminished and so is its capacity for such regulation. As such, it might foster a heightened sensitivity to feel threatened. Moments of overly intense anger arise when the prefrontal cortex lacks the ability to regulate such reactions.
As with anger, self-criticism is a reaction to some triggering event that is experienced as threatening. These might include, for example, feeling ignored by others at a party, observing the achievement of others, or viewing a photo of friends having a good time displayed on social media. Self-criticism, stemming from the perceived threat, is itself a threat. And, it similarly arises from a revisiting of the past, in mind and body.
Consequently, a man may experience a surge of feelings of inadequacy, like those experienced in
childhood, when confronted with the slightest frustration when challenged by a task–whether
learning to play a guitar or starting a new job. Or, a highly self-critical woman might become the victim of her harsh inner critic upon hearing that her best friend is getting married, has had a child, or has had her book published.
The psychophysiology of self-criticism
Research in brain science has found that those same areas of the brain that respond to external threat are activated by self-criticism. And just as the brain developed in the context of a relationship with others, the relationship we have with ourselves also has the potential to put us in a state of threat. Self-criticism and the anger associated with it can very much lead us to experience the same “fight-flight-freeze” response we might experience in response to an external threat.
This involves a surge in cortisol, that hormone associated with the “fight-flight-freeze” response. It similarly increases the flow of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine that increases the heart rate, blood pressure and the flow of blood to skeletal muscles.
Years of research regarding anger–and stress in general–emphasize that both physical and emotional symptoms arise when these states are too frequently aroused. Such is the case with self-criticism that is especially associated with anger. It can foster depression and anxiety as well as exacerbate many of the physical symptoms that are sensitive to stress.
As I’ve emphasized in many of my posts, we can best overcome destructive anger when we learn new habits–develop the resilience to deal with life’s challenges and our knee-jerk reactions to them. This is just as relevant for overcoming the destructive tendency for self-criticism.
Most importantly, such resilience includes the development of skills in self-soothing, learning ways to calm our bodies and our emotions. It calls for self-reflection on how the criticisms we make inform our motivation and our sense of belonging–in ways that might only be self-fulfilling.
Resilience in overcoming negative self-criticism also rests on developing a more realistic relation with and acceptance of ourselves. It calls for remembering to savor our competencies as well as the connections we have with others. Additionally, it emphasizes comparing ourselves with ourselves rather than with others. And it entails attention to not beat ourselves with hindsight over insight we did not have in the past.
Research in brain science emphasizes the concept of neuroplasticity. Based on this concept, it’s important to remember that when we cultivate healthy self-evaluation to replace self-criticism, we enhance neuronal connections in our brain to engage in healthy self-evaluation. In effect, our neurons form new connections to other neurons, creating and strengthening new patterns in our brain–leading to new habits in our thinking, feeling and behavior.
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation and skills in the practice of self-compassion can powerfully impact our relationship with ourselves as it boosts our resilience to life’s challenges. Mindfulness practice helps us to view such criticism as thoughts, inner dialogue that derives from our accumulated history–a dialogue fueled by past experiences of threat and informed by what we told ourselves about those experiences.
Self-compassion exercise can similarly help build the resilience to sit with both emotional and physical discomfort. These are powerful approaches that are highly effective in helping us to create a sense of safety and security as well as. Self-compassion helps us to cultivate our wisdom, that part of ourselves that can supportively guide us–as it moves us to question what is in our best interest. And self-compassion provides us with increased acceptance of our humanity–acceptance of ourselves that includes acknowledging our weaknesses, flaws and mistakes.
There are many resources available in the form of books, videos, and websites devoted to supporting healthy versus destructive self-criticism. However, engaging in the work essential to overcome self-criticism may also call for counseling or
psychotherapy. In part, this is because letting go of our inner critic, may itself feel threatening. This is especially the case when we maintain the belief that the inner critic is essential for motivating our achievement. Additionally, as reported by some of my clients, giving up self-criticism may be experienced as a betrayal of those close relationships that may have contributed to such inner dialogue. Most important to remember is the fact that, with patience, practice and commitment, we can strengthen our capacity for constructive self-evaluation and reduce both the presence and influence of our harsh inner critic.