The Harmful Nature of Self-Criticism

It's time that we unmasked the truth about self-criticism.

We all have it. We all do it.

The question is why and what should we do instead?



Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying the effects of self-criticism vs self-compassion for much of her professional career.

One of the things she and her team have discovered is that many times we use self-criticism in the belief that it will motivate us to change and do better.


In fact, it'll do the opposite.

In one particular study they asked 222 undergraduates to fill out an anonymous survey questionnaire, which measured various traits such as Self-Compassion, Perceived Competence, and Intrinsic Motivation.

Guess what they found?

Those who were more self-compassionate had higher levels of motivation and lower levels of anxiety.

They also had less fear of failure and saw themselves as more competent, meaning they believed they were capable of succeeding.

Self-criticism did the exact opposite.



When we're being criticized our bodies treat it like a physical attack, and we go into survival mode - Fight-or-Flight Response.

Cortisol and adrenaline levels go up, and the immune system begins to shut down.

What's worse? It's a double whammy because with self-criticism we're both the attacker and the attacked.

It's a lose-lose!

Too much of this and you can experience serious issues like depression and impaired learning.

HOWEVER: Self-Compassion both lowers cortisol and increases oxytocin.

Oxytocin increases trust, relaxation, and psychological stability among other more intimate things...

Let's just say it's your best friend.

Here's another study where they tracked the effects of poor self-image versus compassionate ones, just in case you're still skeptical.



 To top it off, all of this self-criticism and stress increases your chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

Oh, that's scary.

If you're like me and heart problems are already an issue in your genetics, then it's in your best interest to take care of your mental health as much as your physical.

Don't get me wrong the heart is a very strong organ, but self-criticism along with brooding and ruminating over a particular issue in your life will only increase cardiac risk (study #3).

One of the best ways to avoid this is to change your mental tendencies!



It's all about self-compassion, baby.

Like I mentioned earlier, Kristin Neff has spent a great deal of her career studying this field and has become a leading spokesperson for it.

Here are what she likes to call the 3 Components of Self-Compassion.

1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement

Treat yourself with how you might treat a friend or family member. We're much nicer and more understanding of other people's problems, while being harsh about our own.

2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation

Don't look at yourself as alone, but apart of all of humanity. When we see our problems as unique to ourselves, it makes it harder to get over them. However if we see our problems as just a part of life and that many people go through the same things or even worse, then we can be more compassionate toward ourselves and get through the issues easier.


Kristin Neff
Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture, UT Austin
 "To be human means to be imperfect."


3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification

When we don't notice self-criticism, we allow those emotions to take over. Being mindful, on the other hand, means noticing it. It's the ability to face the issue with compassion instead of attacking ourselves.