By Anna Harwood
Analyzing our thoughts and actions, picking up cues from the environment about how we are perceived and, in effect, nit-picking, is a crucial internal dialogue that helps us figure out what works for us (and what doesn’t). Spotting areas for self-improvement is a useful skill to perfect, but while a critical eye can have advantages, too much self-criticism can lead to devastating consequences.
Recent research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) reveals how self-criticism can be both mentally and physically harmful, and can lead to psychological disorders, chronic fatigue and chronic pain, and in extreme situations, even suicide.
Kicking yourself for a missed opportunity or rewriting a piece of work that doesn’t seem up to par are healthy forms of self-criticism, but for some this uncompromising demand for high standards and extreme derogation upon perceived failure is a way of life.
BGU’s Prof. Golan Shahar has spent the last two decades researching criticism, recently publishing his seminal work, Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism (Oxford University Press). He explains that self-criticism propels people to focus on stressful events such as rejection by others, relationship break-ups and professional failures. This negative outlook prohibits them from engaging in positive life experiences they feel they do not deserve.
“We are wired for self-knowledge and a search for authenticity,” explains Shahar. “Rather than ‘feeling real,’– which is so often bandied about by adolescents at the height of their self-development — developing authenticity is a lifelong process, in which the talents, interests and psychological predispositions unique to each individual evolve.”
This process is bolstered by an innate desire for self-knowledge: the tendency to look inward, analyze our self and actions and form a self-identity. Shahar posits that self-criticism is a distorted, rigid and addictive form of self-knowledge. It causes an experience of “pseudo self-knowledge” and diverts us from continued experimentation, or in other words, it stifles our ability to “play.”
Self-criticism “robs individuals of resources that inform them what they are good at (their talents), what matters to them (interests) and how they regulate themselves (their proclivities).”
Unfortunately, self-criticism may be something you are born with, and is definitely something you grow up with. While Shahar explains that genes contributing to self-criticism have been identified, growing up with critical, harsh or punitive parenting is a sure-fire way to nurture self-critical kids.
When parents have unreasonable expectations of children or fail to affirm their successes, children internalize these negative voices. Likewise, when kids undergo traumatic experiences, they often can’t separate cause and effect and often blame themselves rather than the perpetrator. This feeds into the development of a self-critical outlook.
While limiting the critical experiences that children are exposed to can go a long way in neutralizing this harmful characteristic, understanding its detrimental effects is the first step to defying self-criticism and developing a more benevolent and affirmative self.
So, is the self-critical individual doomed for failure? No, says Shahar. In addition to directing the Stress, Self and Health (STREALTH) Lab at BGU, Shahar is a practicing clinical psychologist and has found that by aiding patients to identify, characterize and delineate their self-critical states and in turn develop benevolent self-aspects, his patients develop more positive interactions and everyday experiences.
The aim, explains Shahar, is not to completely eliminate all self-criticism; rather, it is “to turn a dictatorship into a town hall,” allowing the more positive and self-affirming elements a stronger voice.
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