The 3 Myths About Self-Criticism

I was talking to a woman the other day and in the course of our conversation it was clear she had a lot of judgement about herself and her past decisions. Her adult son was seeing a counselor and felt she had damaged her son by staying in an unhappy and verbally abusive marriage. What’s interesting is that even after talking to her son, he did not blame her at all. Yet she was blaming herself. 

We all judge ourselves and our past to some degree. I should have gone to college when I had the chance… I should have taken that job… I should not have married this person… I should have left him long ago… I should have changed careers when I was younger… It’s easy when you have the advantage of hindsight to look back and see where you could have done something better. 

Many of us also judge ourselves in our present life as a spouse, a caregiver, or a parent. We tell ourselves things like… I should be strong for my partner. I should be able to handle this. I should be a better parent. I should know better. 

If you believe you can shame and guilt and criticize yourself to success, read on because that is just one of the three commonly held myths about the value of self-criticism. 

Myth #1 – Being Critical Of Yourself Will Make You Better

It is a common belief that by being critical of ourselves, we will somehow force ourselves to be better. If we see and critique all of our flaws, our bad judgements, our weak areas, then we be inspired to fix them. 

In reality, self scolding rarely leads to improvement. Why is this? Because actions are fueled by emotions. When you are criticizing yourself, you will usually feel awful, unworthy, disappointed, or frustrated. For sure you will not perform your best or show up in the world as the person you want to be when in the grips of those emotions. In contrast, when you are feeling motivated, loving, strong, or empowered, you will take actions in alignment with those emotions. That is when your best self has the opportunity to shine! 

In caregiving, I often hear my clients say things like, “I should be stronger” when they are feeling sad about their situation, or “I need to get over it” when they are feeling disappointment that they can’t go out because of their partner’s illness. This self criticism does two things:

First, it doesn’t allow them to acknowledge the feeling they are actually having. When they jump on the blame game, they don’t actually process the feeling of sadness, or disappointment, or resentment or anger or any of the negative emotions that they are judging themself for having. And as I’ve said many times before, when we don’t acknowledge our emotions, they stick around until we do. Secondly, self blame also keeps them stuck in judgement. When they are stuck in judgement they aren’t able to be open or curious about the real cause of the problem. They aren’t able to explore why they may be feeling sad or angry because they are stuck judging themself for it. So, self-criticism does not in fact make you better, it keeps you stuck.

Myth #2 – There Is A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Do Your Life

When we are harshly judging our past self and the choices we made, the underlying belief is that there were right choices and wrong choices and we made too many of the wrong choices… stupid us! 

Let’s examine this a little more closely. When you are judging your past, you are doing that from the place of knowing how things turned out. Of course it’s easy after you know how things turned out to look back and decide what you should have done. Essentially, you are using your knowledge of the future to criticize your past self. So unfair! 

When your partner has cancer you may find yourself wishing you had done things differently… perhaps insisted they get a yearly scan so the cancer could have been caught sooner, or making sure they took better care of themselves, or even wishing you had divorced them long ago when you first thought about it! 

There are two problems with criticizing your past self and the decisions you made. The first is this idea that there is a right and wrong way to do your life. If you had only made all the “right” choices in your life, your life would now be perfect and nothing bad would ever happen. Now, that is a slight exaggeration, but really think about it. What if you let go of the idea that there was a “right” way in your life. All the choices you made were just that, choices. Those choices had consequences. There is no right or wrong way, just choices and consequences. What if you believed you were always doing the best you could, no matter how terribly things turned out? 

The second problem with criticizing your past is that you can’t change it. It is what it is. So wanting it to be anything different is a waste of energy.  Byron Katie likes to say, “if you argue with reality you will lose. But only 100% of the time.” What’s more, when you are so busy criticizing yourself, you’re not actually learning what there is to learn from your past. Criticism does not beget growth, it only begets more criticism. The longer you spend looking back and lamenting your actions, the less you are engaging in your present, addressing the problems you face and using the wisdom you learned from your past. 

Myth #3 – You Should Be Perfect

So often we are holding ourselves to this ideal self that only exists in our mind. When your self-criticism is part of your daily self talk, you are believing the myth that you should be perfect.  So many of us are so critical of ourselves! This idea that there is a perfect version of ourselves that we need to strive toward always and beat ourselves up when we don’t meet it. Sometimes we are our own harshest critics. We are the ones keeping ourselves down.  

My mentor, Brooke Castillo, likes to say “perfection is for scared people.” When you are scared of your own harsh judgement, you will be less likely to take risks, to follow your own wisdom, to trust in yourself. And no wonder, look at the standard you are holding yourself to! 

Instead, I want to offer that you can love all of yourself. The good and the bad. The pretty and the ugly. All human beings have both within us. There is no perfect person. The more you are able to love and accept all of yourself, the more trust you will develop with yourself and be able to access your own wisdom. And the lovely benefit of loving and being accepting of your imperfect self is that you will be more loving and accepting of the imperfections in others as well. 

Where Growth Comes From

Growth comes from love, acceptance, and curiosity. It comes from understanding that there are simply choices and consequences. It comes from being open and accepting of your entire self, all the beauty and ugly within you. It does not come from criticism, shame and blame. EVER! So the next time you are tempted to give yourself a “good talking to,” resist that urge! Nothing good will come of it! 

Imagine you could talk to yourself with love and kindness…. Imagine you felt calm and peace instead of fear and worry… Imagine you felt strong enough to handle what ever the future offered…. Does that sound impossible? Well it’s not when you join my coaching program for caregivers who have a partner with cancer! Click here to schedule a free call and learn more.

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