Self-criticism can be harmful for self-esteem. It is therefore essential to know how to turn self-criticism into strength and use it to your advantage.
The philosopher Condillac, concerned with the link between thoughts and emotions, once proposed: “Avoid error by avoiding judgments.”
This task seems complicated, but at least we can be a little more vigilant about the thoughts we have about ourselves.
This article will give you the keys to practicing helpful self-criticism.
Table of Contents
- 1 Turn self-criticism into strength: Introduction
- 2 Some tips to avoid criticizing yourself and turn self-criticism into strength
- 2.1 Differentiate between the facts and your interpretation
- 2.2 We must realize that we are responsible for much of our own suffering
- 2.3 Changes in the relationship with yourself will happen slowly
- 2.4 Be cautious about jumping to conclusions about the inner critic
- 2.5 Try to reformulate your self-talk
- 3 Self-critical versus realistic conversation
- 4 Stepping back is necessary for turning self-criticism into strength
- 5 Avoid blaming yourself for blaming yourself
- 6 Turn self-criticism into strength: Conclusion
Turn self-criticism into strength: Introduction
Neutral and benevolent information can help us change, unlike biased and aggressive judgment.
Indeed, to progress, it is often necessary to learn to criticize ourselves differently.
For example, we must criticize ourselves with measure. Namely, we only change correctly based on our acceptance of self, our mistakes, and our limits.
Then comes the time of judgment, which can be critical or favorable.
Some tips to avoid criticizing yourself and turn self-criticism into strength
In the fight against self-criticism, sanitizing and diminishing our negative self-talk is necessary.
Suppose we let our inner critic run wild. In that case, it will feed on the confusion of our emotions and will always take advantage of that little bit of chaos created by our worries.
To better cope with it, here are a few tips:
Differentiate between the facts and your interpretation
It is essential to differentiate between what is happening and how you feel about it. This is where the inner critic will tend to confuse the two and influence how we see the world.
Self-esteem issues can make people hypersensitive and make them distrust other people. For example, if you feel like you’re not appreciated by someone, it may come from:
- The coldness of the other person.
- Or your fear of not being appreciated by this particular person or by others.
These regular awarenesses, which separate information and observation from value judgments, are essential elements in the development of self-esteem.
We must realize that we are responsible for much of our own suffering
Indeed, a majority of our sufferings are created by ourselves. It is, therefore, essential to see things differently:
- Try to find out where the problem comes from: your imagination (rare) or your tendency to amplify (more likely).
- Don’t let an idea or a thought destroy you.
- If your fear has detected a problem, deal with it calmly.
- Listening to your fear does not mean submitting to it; quite the contrary.
- Acknowledge the concern instead of trying to minimize it instantly or trying to chase it away by thinking about something else.
Changes in the relationship with yourself will happen slowly
Many worthwhile changes do not happen overnight, and patience is required! We can start by practicing situations that are not very “hot” on an emotional level, i.e., that do not involve self-esteem.
Then, we can tackle more delicate situations.
We will begin to accept regular feedback from the inner critic on our mental stage.
Don’t panic. Just acknowledge it and don’t dwell on it.
Be cautious about jumping to conclusions about the inner critic
Suppose you’re having a conversation with someone who seems rather cold. In that case, self-criticism can lead us to think and adhere to ideas like:
“It is obvious that he/her doesn’t like me. Let it go.”
However, this “ready-to-think” attitude can lead to many mistakes:
- A personalization: this person may be unpleasant to many other people, and therefore it has nothing to do with us.
- A misattribution: just because someone isn’t warm to you doesn’t mean it’s from us. This person may also have problems that make them cold and distant.
- A feeling of powerlessness to act: You can always decide to remain friendly or go to more receptive people.
Try to reformulate your self-talk
Avoid radical and definitive terms such as catastrophe, unacceptable, useless, completely failed, etc. Behind the naivety of the process, the weight of the words is real and can impact self-esteem.
Therefore, the reformulation technique has been widely attested in psychotherapy as an effective practice to boost one’s self-confidence.
Staying in our example with the cold person, you will have a different effect depending on your thoughts:
“He’s not a very warm man… Is it related to him or to me?”
“He hates me, that’s obvious.”
Generally, negative and categorical formulations will facilitate the violent ignition of disaster scenarios of social rejection.
As soon as a doubt arises (such as: “What if I’m not loved?”), it will then become a certainty (“I am surely not loved”).
A useful self-verbalization does not deny the facts but is careful to limit itself to what is real and not virtual. This distinguishes observation from speculation.
- Gross & John, Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003
- Fennell, Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, 2nd Edition: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques, Robinson, 2022
Self-critical versus realistic conversation
What prevents us from doing this technically simple work of stepping back from ourselves is that we confuse self-critical conversation with realistic conversation.
Furthermore, we are (often wrongly) convinced that we are experts on ourselves, especially in “emotionally hot” situations.
Therefore, this argument leads us to accept the constant reproaches of the inner critic. For example, people with low self-esteem who say “I know myself well” are often mistaken.
In reality, they only know one part of themselves well: their weaknesses. And they don’t know much about everything else. All the qualities of these people with low self-esteem are better perceived by those around them than by themselves.
The rules of effective self-criticism are the same as the rules of criticism that we have to address to others:
- On the one hand, to show an overall unconditional acceptance and a capacity for self-criticism on specific points. Indeed, the more specific a criticism is, the more it activates reflection rather than emotion.
- On the other hand, self-criticism should be constructive whenever possible rather than merely critical. This is the difference between “you were bad” (global and negative) and “next time, try to do more like this” (specific and constructive).
- Dutton & Brown, Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Views as Determinants of People’s Reactions to Success and Failure, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1997
Stepping back is necessary for turning self-criticism into strength
To achieve this kind of helpful inner self-talk, it is recommended to take a step back and practice.
One of the rules could be not to trust our intuitions blindly when we find ourselves in a situation where our self-esteem is threatened.
And this is especially true for people who are usually self-critical: any self-assessment will be irreparably distorted by the stress on the self-image.
There is no worse judge than ourselves. Indeed, research has confirmed that when we have just made a mistake (or what we think is a mistake), we systematically overestimate the severity of the gaze of others.
Gently reminding ourselves of this reality, before addressing situations that worry us, seems to be a good rule.
It is also essential to know how to talk to yourself. Say phrases to yourself such as:
- “Take care of yourself.”
- “Focus on the situations and don’t be too quick to judge what’s going on.”
- “Don’t be impressed by your inner alarms, which are wrongly set off for small or non-existent threats.”
- “Do not harm yourself, and do not let your fears take you away.”
- Ehrlinger & Dunning, How chronic self-views influence (and potentially mislead) estimates of performance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003
- Seibt & Förster, Stereotype Threat and Performance: How Self-Stereotypes Influence Processing by Inducing Regulatory Foci, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004
- Savitsky, et al., Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings, and mishaps, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001
Avoid blaming yourself for blaming yourself
Often, we think of reproaches that concern the fact of ruminating too much on ourselves: “Put it in perspective, there are more unfortunate people than you.”
These reproaches about reproach are classic, and we find these “squared emotions” in emotional disorders:
- In depression: one grieves to see oneself sad.
- In phobic states: we are afraid of being afraid.
- In anxious states: we worry that we cannot control our worries.
Often, those around us suggest a recalibration of daily worries: thinking that there are worse things than oneself.
But for this to work, you must first calm down and accept yourself. You must not consider yourself stupid for constantly reminding yourself to think about serious things to not drown in your little problems.
Gently removing these self-reminders is a work in progress.
Turn self-criticism into strength: Conclusion
Self-criticism or self-questioning is a normal process for everyone. It is pretty common to criticize oneself, but the most important thing is to do it correctly so as not to lower one’s self-esteem.
Rephrasing your inner self-talk, accepting that change will come slowly, and taking a step back are good tips for helpful self-criticism.