Self criticism can be seen as a defence mechanism, that over time we have developed a strategy to criticise (and therefore, hurt) ourselves first, believing that if anyone else should then criticise (hurt) us, it wouldn’t hurt as much, because it is something we already know.
It works by removing the shock of hurt and to some extent that does work. If we routinely pick fault with ourselves (our actions, qualities, appearance, even thoughts) throughout the day then when someone else also sees this unpleasant ‘truth’ about us, it doesn’t surprise us. It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? They’re not telling us anything we didn’t already know.
Self criticism operates on the (I would say, false) belief that the hurt we cause ourselves is justified, as it protects us from hurt by others.
But if we look at the frequency, volume and ferocity of attacks we launch on ourselves, we can begin to wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease – that our self criticism causes more damage to us than anyone else could.
So, in steps perfectionism, the false ally of self-criticism. We know that it hurts when we are so hard on ourselves, but we feel we have to continue, as it is our line of defence against hurt by others. So if we can be perfect, do everything perfectly, we can avoid our own criticism and that of others. Perfect world, right? Well no, it isn’t that simple, for many many reasons.
What is ‘perfection’? We cannot predict what other people might think, value, prefer. As we are unique, the range of preferences, values and opinions is so diverse that we cant possibly make everyone happy. It is not a singular thing that we can aim for.
And even if we could define, agree, on what might be perfect in a certain situation, perfect may not be within our reach. We may not be able to control all the factors required to produce a perfect outcome. So aiming for this is a path that can continue to cause is the hurt of self criticism.
An alternative to this strategy is self compassion. Giving ourselves a break.
To be able to step away from anxiety and self criticism, we need to be able to see the negative impact they have on us. We need to be at a point where we’re so fed up of feeling this way, that we believe there has to be another answer. Its OK if you are not at this point, its not the right time. Its OK if it feels too scary to lose your defence strategy, its not the right time. If we don’t feel that we might possibly deserve to live life without bracing for attack (while managing our constant self attack), then I hope I can convince you that you do deserve something different. But low self worth is also a defence strategy, something that has kept us safe at some point in our life, and therefore it can be hard to surrender it.
How to show self compassion.
Self compassion is a thing we feel, not a thing we think. But as what we think and feel can sometimes be co-influenced, we can build an approach of giving ourselves more compassionate thoughts.
Encouraging compassionate thinking:
How do I feel?
What did I do well?
What impacted the situation that was outside of my control?
What would I say to a friend, if they were struggling with the same situation?
What can I do or say to myself right now to support myself?
If I loved myself fully today, how would I treat myself right now?
What is one negative story I tell myself, that I can reinterpret?
How can I externalise a persistent problem in my life, instead of believing I’m the problem?
How can I support myself to make decisions free of anxious bias?
Of course, be kind to yourself on the journey to building self-compassion. It can feel very alien if it is new to you, but keep going.