- A punitive and constant inner critical voice can cause psychological harm.
- Giving psychological credence to a critical inner voice may result in it growing and overtaking our psyche.
- Self-criticism of our faults or limitations is not harmful if tempered and without self-condemnation.
- Self-acceptance and kindness fosters well-being, self-esteem, and abates mindless worrying and insecurity.
Sigmund Freud’s (1959) concept of the trio of inner representations, i.e., the id, ego, and superego, is one model for understanding why self-criticism can spiral out of control. The superego—that reprimanding and critical inner voice that serves to override the impulsive and immature urge of the id and to keep the mediator, the ego, pinged by the guilt or shame—could be the core to how we come to beating up ourselves. A negative introject is an early critical voice that reflects the incorporation of a reprimanding significant other into the psyche. Unfortunately for some, the scope and degree of their self-criticism are not always benign and results in significant harm. Psychoanalysts suggest that this superego reflects early internalization of our caretakers. If the internalized caretaker is harsh, then a punitive superego may develop.
Some Effects of Self-Criticism
Blatt and Zuroff (1992) describe a psychologically serious form of self-criticism as one where there is a harsh and constant self-evaluation leading to feeling unworthy, shameful, and guilty. These are not fleeting emotions or reactions and may pave the way for harmful consequences to oneself. At the malignant end, the punitive superego may lead to severe self-derogation: a chronic sense of self as “less than” and of no value.
A punitive and constant inner critical voice can cause psychological harm. The greater the level of self-criticism, the greater the probability of having or developing a psychological disorder. The possible conditions may include depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Moreover, it has been proposed that those who are perfectionistic may be more inclined to be self-critical; consequently, the greater the perfectionism, the greater the psychological reaction to mistakes (e.g., greater negative mood, lower self-confidence). This perfectionistic concern can lead to ruminative brooding and a cycle of negative effects, such as issues regarding one’s self-worth, more critical self-judgments, and depression (Manfredi et al., 2016). Unfortunately, another potential risk resulting from self-criticism, perfectionism, depression, and rumination is suicidal ideation (Dunn, 2022).
Self-Compassion and Self-Acceptance: Muting the Critical Voice
Berman (2019) viewed the negative introject as a foreign object or an implant that rooted itself in the psyche such that the person becomes a victim to its dictates. Berman observed that the negative introject can grow out of control and requires “taming.” This is an interesting concept: that we may, over time, give psychological credence to the inner critical voice and let it, like a weed, take over the garden of our psyche.
The antidote may be to recognize when this inner voice becomes harsh and critical and to engage in compartmentalization. That is, understand that it is only one aspect of our psyche that we may have inadvertently nurtured by giving it attention and importance. If it has overgrown (e.g., we find that we are “beating up” ourselves more than praising ourselves), it is time to set boundaries on this critical voice.
In order to flourish, we need to give space to the other aspects of our psyche—those states where we experience an inner psychological sense of self-control and competency. Researchers have suggested that to deal with or avoid serious self-criticism, efforts should be directed toward self-compassion and self-acceptance (Neff, 2003). Such self-compassion is that of “self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical.” (Ness, 2003, p. 85).
Be Kind to Yourself
Kindness to oneself not only encourages a caring attitude when one is having difficulties but also diminishes intolerance, disapproval, and other negative intrapersonal emotions. This may not come naturally as self-criticism and negative self-appraisal may have become a habit. Gilbert and Irons (2005) developed “compassion training” for those with high levels of self-criticism. The interventions focus on the individual attaining “authentic concern for one’s well-being“ (Gilbert & Procter, 2006). By doing so, the person may be better at understanding and more accepting of themselves. Consequently, they are less likely to engage in self-criticism and more tolerant to distress.
When you are kind to yourself, it can lead to the acceptance of self—warts and all. This is essential for positive mental health. Unlike self-criticism, self-acceptance and kindness can augment well-being, self-esteem, and reduce mindless worrying and insecurity. Being kind to yourself is especially important when one is going through hard times. As such, self-compassion is particularly valuable during stressful times. Interestingly, most of us extend kindness and concern toward others when they have experienced a loss or a failure. In the same way, we should make it a habit to extend kindness to ourselves when we make a mistake; in other words, give yourself a break. In doing so, it affords the opportunity to stimulate powerful and highly meaningful emotions such as self-worth and the belief that one deserves love, happiness, and affection.
Moreover, self-compassion can promote self-efficacy—the sense that you are competent and can overcome difficulty. Self-compassion can be a protective agent against developing feelings of helplessness or vulnerability in situations where a person believes they can be effective. For example, if they feel sure of themselves under certain circumstances, they will be less susceptible to harmful self-criticism. This belief in one’s capabilities and competence add immeasurably to protecting one from vulnerability.
This is not to say that one should not engage in self-evaluation. Self-criticism is not harmful if the acknowledgment of our faults or limitations is tempered and not accompanied by self-condemnation. This process enhances the likelihood of making positive changes. Self-criticism and second-guessing—the coulda, shoulda mantras—only worsen pain and deepen suffering. It is no big revelation to understand that the human journey is filled with missteps, but rather than use such failures to bludgeon oneself, they are opportunities for learning and growth.
Berman, C. W. (2019). Taming the negative introject: empowering patients to take control of their mental health. Routledge. DOI:10.4324/9780429505928
Blatt, S. J., & Zuroff, D. C. (1992). Interpersonal relatedness and self-definition: Two prototypes for depression. Clinical Psychology Review, 12(5), 527–562. https://doi.org/10.1016/0272-7358(92) 90070-O.
Dunn, N. A., & Luchner, A. F. (2022). The emotional impact of self-criticism on self-reflection and rumination. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 95(4), 1126-1139. doi: 10.1111/papt.12422.
Freud, S. (1968). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. Standard Edition, Vol.1.20, Hogarth Press.
Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice, 13(6), 353–379. https://doi. org/10.1002/cpp.507
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032