How to Do Self-Criticism Right
Self-criticism is a powerful but dangerous drug. Too large a dose can kill your confidence and seriously knock your mental health.
"Unrelenting self-criticism often goes hand in hand with depression and anxiety, and it may even predict depression," reports the Wall Street Journal, citing a study that found those who were most self-critical were more likely to be depressed and have difficulties in relationships. "Self-criticism is also a factor in eating disorders, self-mutilation and body dysmorphic disorder -- that is, preoccupation with one's perceived physical flaws," the less than cheerful round-up of the scientific consensus on self-criticism adds.
On the other hand, administered in moderation, self-criticism is the key to bettering yourself and your business. It’s hard to improve without taking a clear-eyed look at faults. So how do you strike that balance between beating yourself up and being productively honest about your shortcomings? UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which focuses its research on the field of positive psychology, recently offered some tips.
Criticize Behaviors, Not Attributes
The first piece of advice in the article by doctoral candidate Juliana Breines is to focus your inner critic on behaviors, not attributes. What’s the key difference between the two? The former you can change, the latter you can’t.
Research, she explains, shows "that people who blame negative events on all-encompassing, permanent aspects of themselves (e.g., ‘I’m just not an intelligent person’) are more likely to become depressed and suffer from health problems. Constructive self-criticism, by contrast, involves a more optimistic explanatory style, with a focus on specific and modifiable areas in need of improvement (e.g., ‘I stayed up too late watching TV when I could have been studying; next time I could set a TV limit for myself’)."
Focus on Context
Take that TV example above. Why did you stay up late binge watching old episodes of the Simpsons when you should have been hitting the books or catching up on work? If your roommates were breaking out the popcorn and pushing for a viewing marathon, only the staunchest worker would be able to resist. What’s the point? Understanding your weaknesses and your triggers can help you keep yourself out of the temptation and avoid situations that end in behavior or outcomes you’re less than proud of.
Notice the context of your failures and use is as leverage. "When you have an exam the next day, you now know that studying at home may not be a good idea," suggests Breines. "Awareness of the power of situational factors like peer pressure can actually help us make better decisions. If we believe we’re invulnerable to external pressures, we are more likely to be blindsided by them."
If you find these tips helpful, the complete article has several more as does the WSJ piece on self-criticism.
How do you tame your inner critic?