Self-Protective Self-Criticism

Source:  Self-Compassion – Kristin Neff

Bold italicized sentences indicate book quotes.

Why are so many of us so hard on ourselves?  It feels counter-intuitive. We want to succeed and become the best versions of ourselves. It makes no sense to self-sabotage with self-destructive thinking.

Kristen Neff, psychologist and self-compassion specialist, suggests a straightforward explanation for this hypercritical tendency.  However, it too seems counter-intuitive.

We criticize ourselves to protect our own hearts.


Let’s break this down.

Like a toxic romantic relationship, hyper self-critical people hurl hate and vitriol within before sweetening up and rationalizing their behavior.

“I only want the best for you.”

“You know I care about you deep down, right?”

Moreover, this is where the protective motivation of self-criticism steps in.

A verbal assault doesn’t have quite the same power when it merely repeats what you’ve already said to yourself.

By harping on our own faults with a fervor we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies, we preempt potential criticism from others.

“Go ahead.  Say what you want.  You can’t say anything I haven’t already said to myself.”

“I’ve heard it all before. Is that all you got?”

Through a gauntlet of self-criticism, we steel our hearts from the scorn of others – regardless if such fears are justified.

In the minds of self-critics, hardening our hearts with regular beatings is preferable to allowing others pierce our naive and ignorant hearts with incisive criticism.

However, many go overboard with this “preemptive criticism.”  One can see this when friends and colleagues bathe in self-deprecating humor.

“I am in shape!  Round is a shape.”

“I am so clever, sometimes I don’t understand a single word I am saying.”

A dash of self-effacing humor is endearing.  It shows humility. We assure others we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  However, when taken to excess, self-deprecation becomes problematic.

There is a difference between healthy self-deprecating humor and unhealthy self-disparagement.

Self-deprecating humor turns to self-disparagement when the jokes turn tired with a dash of sadness.  If left unchecked, self-deprivation veers into self-loathing, culminating in such statements as,

“You ought to be with someone better than me.”

Research shows that highly self-critical people tend to be dissatisfied in their romantic relationships because they assume their partners are judging them as harshly as they judge themselves. The misperception of even fairly neutral statements as disparaging often leads to oversensitive reactions and unnecessary conflicts. This means that self-critics often undermine the closeness and supportiveness in relationships that they so desperately seek.

Excess self-criticism is the bane of healthy romantic relationships.  We are human. We’re liable to slip into believing that others see the world as we do -a.k.a. the false-consensus effect.

This precipitates a vicious cycle.  Ben, a hyper-self-critical type of guy, uncharitably interprets a neutral critique from his girlfriend Amber as hostile. A fight ensues.  As emotions roll up to a boil, Amber grows frustrated, exasperated, and speaks from a place anger. These words of passion then validate Ben’s toxic internal monologue.

“See, I knew I was a bad person.”

Not only does this self-criticism fuel downward spirals in current relationships, they also potentiate future relationship misery.

Self-critics are often attracted to judgmental romantic partners who confirm their feelings of worthlessness.

It’s sad, but true.  A self-loathing individual responds poorly to a kind, loving partner who dotes on them and says they are great.  After all, how can one accept a compliment that rings false in their heart?

With heaviness, I relate to this.  When my ex-partner’s compliments did not fit my negative self-image, I suspected disingenuity.  A hollow feeling followed as I rejected compliments in machine-gun fashion. I deflected kindness like Teflon.

Rejecting such words of affirmation (a designated love language) often left my ex feeling rejected and dispirited.  I dragged her down to my level – not out of malice, but ignorance.

During semi-regular depression spells, self-criticism serves to insulate my mind and block me from outwardly-direction action. This exacerbates my mood as I descend a spiral staircase of selfishness.

“I’m not doing anything to help others. I’m so selfish.”

“You’re so selfish. You’re a bad person. Let’s stay inside and think about what you haven’t done.

Consequently, I find the solution to breaking this cycle involves looking outward – to serve others.  This is a blessing that teaching gifts me everyday.

When I am in class, I have no time to self-criticize and lambaste myself.  I have a room of 28 students. 28 teenagers depend on me to enrich their English education.  

So what if my activity isn’t going well?  So what if students are sleepy or inattentive today?  I don’t have time to take things personally. There is no time to stew in self-loathing marinades.

When I teach, I am in the moment.  I am present. And in the present moment, I lose sight of my past failings and future fears.  I melt into the warmth of now. I accept myself as I am. Because in the present moment, that’s all I have.

When that bell rings and students leave, I know they will return.  So I feel a duty to deliver even better lessons next week.

That duty, that purpose, fuels me past bouts of self-criticism. It shatters the cycle.  When I am accountable to others, I move beyond self-flagellation and step into self-improvement.  I have no choice. Others depend on me to do better.

Self-criticism may protect us from the derision of others, but it doesn’t help us in moments of accountability. Sure, a dash of self-reflection is important. But obsessing over criticism can turn south fast if we lose vigilance.  

Once we embrace our interconnected dependence and assume our position in the social web with pride, growth seems more attractive than self-pity.

Mutual accountability to our fellow humans is more protective than the harshest self-critique and fuels a fulfilling life.

Source:  Self-Compassion – Kristin Neff

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