- Adam Stanford
How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help You Overcome Self-Criticism
What is Self-Criticism?
Self-criticism is when we judge ourselves harshly and can lead to becoming our own worst critics. It can manifest as negative self-talk or it can be expressed outwardly as berating ourselves for our mistakes or our perceived failures. I’ve done a lot of my own work around how I criticize myself for things like coming across as awkward or overbearing, not standing up for myself enough, and many mistakes that I have made.
It is important to remember that self-criticism is not constructive – it does not help us learn from our mistakes and it does not motivate us to do better. Instead, it can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness which contribute to an overall sense of hopelessness and overwhelm. Additionally, self-deprecating humor can be funny, and it is important to be able to laugh at yourself, but sometimes it becomes excessive to the point of causing harm.
Types of Self-Criticism
There are several different types of self-criticism. The first type is perfectionism – when we expect perfection from ourselves and are never satisfied with our performance. Another type is personalizing – when we take responsibility for everything, even when it is not our fault. A third type is overgeneralizing – when we draw sweeping conclusions about ourselves based on one incident or experience. A fourth type is catastrophizing – when we focus on the worst-case scenario and jump to conclusions. One last example is discounting the positive – when we refuse to acknowledge our successes and accomplishments.
Rational Responses to Automatic Thoughts
One of the key principles of CBT is that our thoughts influence our feelings and our behavior. When we are feeling down, it is easy to fall into a cycle of negative thinking which can lead to more negative feelings and unhelpful behaviors. With CBT, we can learn to challenge and change our negative thoughts and replace them with more rational and balanced ones. For example, you may notice that you are blaming yourself for something that wasn't really in your control or blowing a mistake you made out of proportion. You can then respond to yourself in an objective way to acknowledge that no one can control everything or that you can learn and grow from your mistakes.
True CBT therapy goes even deeper though to help people identify where those thoughts are coming from to address their cause, which we call core beliefs. Common core beliefs include, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m unlikeable,” and “I’m a failure.” By shifting these to healthy rational beliefs, I have made great strides in reducing self-criticism and you can too.
Strengths-Based Approach to Self-Criticism
This approach focuses on our strengths and ability to grow rather than our challenges and mistakes. It can be difficult to break out of the cycle of negative thinking and self-criticism, but by focusing on building on our strengths and adopting a growth mindset in which we embrace challenges and persist in the face of setbacks, we can learn to be kinder to ourselves and acknowledge our successes and accomplishments. A strength-based approach to self-improvement is far more motivating as it keeps our focus on working toward more of what we want rather than getting stuck on what we don’t want.
Self-Gratitude as a Tool to Overcome Self-Criticism
Another way to overcome self-criticism is to practice self-gratitude. Self-gratitude is the practice of recognizing and appreciating our successes and positive attributes, no matter how small. It takes time and dedication, but research has also shown that practicing self-gratitude can lead to increased levels of happiness and well-being. This is key to developing self-compassion and self-love and it really helps to combat perfectionism, discounting the positive, and overgeneralizing.
Self-criticism can be damaging to our mental and emotional well-being, but it is possible to overcome it with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT can help us to recognize and challenge our negative thoughts and to focus on our strengths and successes. It can also help us to practice self-gratitude and to take better care of ourselves. It helps repair not only our unhealthy automatic thoughts, which are a symptom, but also the core beliefs, which are the cause.