Self-Criticism vs Self-Correction, How we talk to ourselves, about ourselves…

Self-Criticism vs Self-Correction, How we talk to ourselves, about ourselves…

How do you motivate yourself to do things? To be a better version of yourself and achieve? I ask, because many people use self-criticism as an attempt to do better. For example – “That was awful I deserve to be fired, I must do better.”

Now, this may feel helpful when you are saying it to yourself in the moment – but when you see it written down, it doesn’t sound so helpful!

We humans also have this tendency to overanalyze a situation – have you ever found yourself doing a complete post-mortem of a conversation you just had with someone? This involves going over every single thing you said, how you said it, questioning what they must have thought of you, and typically leads on to negative judgements of how we came across. How does this make you feel? I imagine (and know from personal experience) it just makes us feel worse, and if anything want to avoid that situation in future rather than keep going. That’s the irony of it – self-criticism is often intended to make us do better, but in reality, often pulls us in the other direction or keeps us stuck, and leads to threat based emotions like anxiety, guilt and shame.

What is the difference between self-criticism and self-correction?

The Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) model gives a good example of the difference between self-critical thinking and compassionate self-corrective thinking:

Think about a young child trying to learn the violin and they have two teachers. One is critical, focuses on their deficits and gets annoyed when they make mistakes. What might they be saying to the child? Probably things like “No! Not like that, like this…You really need to practice more…you just aren’t getting the hang of it.” Now the other teacher is more compassionate in his manner, focuses on what the child does well and encourages them to improve and learn. What might they be saying? Maybe things like “you’re getting there, I really liked how you did XYZ…with a little more practice you could improve even more…what about holding the violin like this, that might help…” Which teacher do you think will most likely help the child learn?

With compassionate self-correction as an alternative to self-criticism, we are still open to acknowledging our limitations, and we are still committed to improving this, but in a manner that is less fear based and hostile.

Shame based self-criticism focuses on:

  • Punishing ourselves for our mistakes
  • Often backward looking – what did we do wrong?
  • Expressing anger, frustration, disappointment
  • Focuses on deficits / everything that went wrong
  • Generalizes the self into global descriptors like “I am always…”
  • Focusing on fear of failure
  • Increases chances of avoidance

Compassionate Self-Correction focuses on…

  • Growth
  • Forward looking – what can we do?
  • Giving encouragement and support
  • Building on positives (seeing what one did well then considering learning points)
  • Focusing on attributes and specific qualities we have
  • Focusing on hope for success
  • Increasing the chances of change

So, let’s go back to that earlier example of a self-critical thought – “That was awful I deserve to be fired, I must do better.” What might the compassionate self-corrective version be? Maybe something like “This bit went well, and that bit didn’t go as well as I would have liked. That might have been because … Next time I could…”

We can use the above guidelines to understand a bit more about how we talk to ourselves about ourselves and catch the tone and manner in which we do this.

When might I want to get some extra help?

If you notice that you are often quite hard on yourself, you frequently compare yourself in a negative way to others, or maybe you struggle a lot with feeling guilty or embarrassed, then you might find it helpful to speak to a therapist. An assessment can help identify areas of need and develop a treatment plan together.

Written by: Dr Gurveen Ranger
Clinical Psychologist at Sage Clinics

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