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Ten Ways to Tell if You’re Too Hard on Yourself

New research shows how being too self-critical can affect your well-being.

Key points

  • The desire to be perfect can become a mental state that extends far and wide through day-to-day experiences.
  • According to new research, self-criticism and the tendency to ruminate over personal flaws detracts from mental health.
  • A ten item test can help identify whether a person is too likely to focus on personal flaws rather than strengths.

You would undoubtedly agree with the idea that it’s better not to make mistakes or poor decisions that you later regret. It’s also likely that you’d prefer that your efforts are always successful in producing the results you desire.

Perhaps you’ve prepared a meal for your extended family or at least contributed a side dish. To your chagrin, it hasn’t come out the way you expected it to. Although you followed the directions to a “t,” something just plain went wrong. In the days that follow the event, you continue to relive the steps you went through in getting the food to the table and wish you could change whatever went wrong so that the finished product was perfect.

The desire to be perfect, or at least be the best you can be, can become a mental state that extends far and wide through your day-to-day experience. You may replay situations at work or with the people close to you, such as your children, romantic partner, and friends, wishing that things came out differently. Or maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and fuss endlessly over a section of your hair that won’t cooperate with your attempts to tame it down.

Why Is Extreme Self-Criticism So Bad for Your Mental Health?

According to London South Bank University’s Daniel Kolubinski and colleagues (2021), this constant search for personal perfection reflects the quality of self-criticism, “an intense and persistent form of inner dialogue that expresses hostility toward the self when one is unable to attain one’s own high standards… [and is] a transdiagnostic risk factor for several mental health disorders” (p. 307). In this extreme form, ruminative self-criticism can become more than a way to correct yourself for a mistake or weakness, but can even serve as a form of punishment.

The purpose of the British study was to investigate the relationship between self-criticism in its extreme form with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Their study’s theoretical basis is called the Self-Regulatory Executive Function Model (S-REF). According to the S-REF model, it’s not so much the content of what you think when you’re being self-critical, but “the mechanisms that generate, monitor, and maintain the process of worry and rumination” (p. 308). In other words, your focus on your flaws can morph into the process of thinking there’s something wrong with you for blaming yourself for these flaws.

To test the S-REF model in relation to self-criticism, Kolubinski et al. devised an experimental procedure that exposed the 30 undergraduate participants serving as the sample (average age of 25 years old) to one of three conditions intended to stimulate self-critical reflections. In the self-criticism induction condition, participants tried to solve difficult math problems so difficult that they were intended to produce certain failure. However, the experimenters informed the participants prior to the induction that most people could solve these problems. Then, after participants inevitably failed this task, the experimenters asked them to record an audio clip containing typical self-critical thoughts (e.g. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you do anything right?”).

The researchers compared the responses of the experimental to two control groups, one of whom received the math task but didn’t read self-critical statements. The key measure for this comparison was a scale assessing psychological distress. As predicted, the students in the math failure/self-criticism experimental group had the highest distress scores compared to controls. The research team then debriefed the participants about the study's actual purpose and measured their distress once again.

This final set of findings showed that participants in the failure condition not only had higher distress overall right after completing the math problems, but that even after the debriefing they continued to feel distraught about their performance. They knew the experimental situation was rigged, but the highly self-critical couldn’t get their minds off their perceived poor performance.

How Much Do You Ruminate Over Your Imperfections?

Turning now to the self-critical rumination scale itself, you can test yourself on the following ten items from the Metacognitions About Self-Criticism Rumination Questionnaire (MSCRQ) that Kolubinski and his team developed in a previous study (2017). Rate yourself on each using a 1 (“do not agree”) to 4 (“agree strongly”) scale:

  1. I find it hard to focus on anything else when I think about my past mistakes and failures.
  2. I motivate myself to try harder by dwelling on stupid things I did in the past.
  3. I need to repeatedly think about things that I got wrong in order to avoid making mistakes in the future.
  4. Dwelling on my past mistakes represents a weakness of character.
  5. Repeatedly reviewing how I should have acted differently in the past shows that I care about the outcome.
  6. I will get depressed if I don’t stop reviewing my self-critical thoughts.
  7. Not spending sufficient time thinking about past mistakes and failures will make me arrogant
  8. Having self-critical thoughts means that I am a weak person.
  9. I have a hard time distancing myself from thoughts about not being good enough.
  10. I tend to treat thoughts about my worth as facts–If I think them, they must be true.

These ten items divide into two subscales. Negative rumination subscale items are 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10, all reflecting ways that thinking about your mistakes can make you feel worse about yourself. The so-called “positive subscale” items, which include 2, 3, 5, and 7, aren’t considered positive because they are healthy but because they provide “justifications for why individuals might engage in self-critical rumination” (Kolubinski et al., 2017, p. 130).

The total scores on the negative items ranged from six to 24, with an average of 14.3, or slightly over 2.3 per item; most people scored between nine and 19. On the positive scale, the scores ranged from four to 16, with an average of 2.1; a high score would be considered approximately 11, or just above three per item.

By rating yourself on the MSCRQ, you can now understand how being too hard on yourself can take a variety of specific forms. Perhaps you were higher on the positive than the negative items. This might indicate that you think it’s a good idea to relive your least successful moments. This tendency can be as detrimental, based on the Kolubinski et al. 2021 findings, as out and out giving engaging in the negative type of rumination. What’s more, you can see that the content of such self-tormenting thoughts are bad enough. However, the fact that you keep activating them can become even more of a threat to your well-being.

How to Be Less Self-Critical

Before you jump to the conclusion that your highly self-critical thoughts make you even more flawed than you first imagined, it’s worth considering an antidote. As the U.K. authors point out, treatment involving metacognitive therapy, in which you address the thought process rather than thought content, can be highly effective for a range of disorders and behaviors, including not only depression and anxiety but also problem drinking, problem gambling, nicotine use, and even procrastination.

In this form of therapy, you learn how to treat your thoughts in an objective fashion, and “consciously perceive them as being separate” from yourself as the observer of those thoughts. You can adopt, as the authors go on to note, a “self-distanced” rather than “self-immersed” perspective which allows you to stand back and challenge their veracity (p. 316).

Armed with the knowledge that you don’t have to accept the ruminative thought processes you engage in but can study those thoughts in a rational manner, you can then experiment with silencing them, or at least putting them aside and removing them from your conscious awareness. When they come back, you can label them as ruminative metacognitions, and go back through the questioning processing once again.

To sum up, just the expression “being hard on yourself” should contain its own inner warning about the unproductive nature of overly self-critical thoughts. Understanding that they are in fact “thoughts” and not reality can help you lead you to a more reasonable and self-accepting sense of your own self-worth.

References

Kolubinski, D. C., Nikčević, A. V., & Spada, M. M. (2021). The effect of state and trait self-critical rumination on acute distress: An exploratory experimental investigation. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 39(3), 306–321. https://doi-org/10.1007/s10942-020-00370-3

Kolubinski, D. C., Nikčević, A. V., Lawrence, J. A., & Spada, M. M. (2017). The metacognitions about self-critical rumination questionnaire. Journal of Affective Disorders, 220, 129–138. https ://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.06.002.

Peters, L.M., J. R., & Baer, R. A. (2016). Development and validation of a measure of self-critical rumination. Assessment, 23(3), 321–332. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191115573300.

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