Three simple ways to stop being so self-critical

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How self-critical are you? If you are like most people, you won’t necessarily even notice how many times, or just how severely, you judge yourself on a daily basis. But if you stop and take a moment to notice what you are thinking and how your thoughts are being framed, you might feel a combination of surprise, shock and sadness at just how harsh you are on yourself.

With the festive season upon us, it is a common tendency for a lot of us to fall into a place of excessive self-criticism. We feel as if we haven’t done enough or like it is not good enough – even if we have done our best. The danger with this position is that we never, ever enjoy ourselves in the moment; we can never relax and we never feel truly safe, loved or content. We are always looking to ourselves to be better and to do more. But where does this end? There is no end to self-criticism, unless we choose and learn to end the tendency to do it.

Where does self-criticism come from? Well, it can come from many different places: other’s judgements and comments, a personality trait leaning towards perfectionism, low self-esteem, or from a tendency to take on too much responsibility for others and blaming yourself for anything and everything that can or will go wrong.

Although this list seems varied in the cause of our self-criticism, ultimately all these reasons stem from a place of fear – fear of being abandoned by others because they are judging us, fear of failure or imperfection, fear of not being good enough, fear of being wrong or failing, or not being able to fix everything for everyone.

Fear that doing our best is just not good enough can drive anxiety, sadness, burnout and a rigid, unrelenting tendency to control things that happen in life. Ultimately, we cannot control things, and when we do, they actually, ironically, tend to go wrong. We need to move from that fear to being driven by reality instead.

So how can we relax a bit more in the coming weeks, avoid the self-criticism and actually learn to be content with ourselves?

See the truth

Surely the answer lies in the words themselves – if you are doing your “best”, how can you do any more? The definition of your best is to the highest degree. So if you have worked as hard as you can to get something done, or put all your efforts possible at that time and in that context, then surely the entire concept of “doing better” is impossible. All we can do at any one time, in any one moment, is our best. To expect any more of ourselves is unkind, unrealistic and an impossibility. It is intention that is key and if your intentions were wholehearted and true in nature, then that is what matters.

Mid adult man in sunbeam in dark. Depression concept.
There are ways to stop judging yourself so harshly (Photo: Tatiana Maksimova/Moment RF/Getty Images)

Don’t see self-criticism as an ‘enemy’

When we make something our opponent, we make it something we must defeat, or we lose or fail. When we make self-criticism something to “beat”, then when we have those difficult moments, as we all will, we will only criticise ourselves even more. It is better to frame it as a habit to notice and be aware of, rather than never to do. Practise noticing your thoughts and words that are critical or harsh, and take a moment to breathe, step back and just see that tendency. Don’t judge yourself even further for it. Just try to change the language you are using from “I should” to “I could”.

Change it gently

Changing the habit of self-criticism is a bit like working up the notes on a piano. It is hard to go from the bottom note straight to the top. It is similarly hard to go from harsh words and thoughts about yourself straight into praising, and this strategy is unlikely to be sustained. Rather, try to notice your thoughts and change them to being slightly less unkind and less harsh, or even just more neutral. Gradually, that can move to being positive and praise – but that might take some time. Ask others whom you trust for their opinions – you will probably find that their comments are much more based in reality.

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