How do you react when you make a mistake?

Do you beat yourself up over the mistake?

Do you feel guilty and find it hard to accept the mistake?

Or do you find ways to correct your mistake and learn from it?

As a tutor, I have the privilege to observe how students react to making mistakes. For some students, they just move on and not think too much about it. For others, they joked about it: I know the correct answer. I’m just testing you, teacher.

There are also some students who can’t stop criticizing themselves. For every single mistake they made, they told themselves: I am stupid. They don’t just think about it; they said it out loud.

Young children might not know the negative consequences of self-criticism.

But as adults, most of us know that constant self-criticism will lower our self-esteem and confidence. It might also cause fear, anxiety, depression, and affect our relationship with others. Yet, we still do it, why is this so?

Why Are We So Self-Critical?

Negative Self-Talk Has Become a Habit

We can’t stop criticizing ourselves because it has become a habit. Due to repetitive self-criticism, our subconscious minds now control the process. Every time we make a mistake, the subconscious mind automatically generates negative thoughts about us.

It’s not easy to break this habit of negative self-talk because it is rewarding to criticize ourselves. It helps to reaffirm our negative self-beliefs. But the reward isn’t for us, it’s for the mind.

Negative self-talk is only rewarding for the mind.

Keeping our beliefs intact helps the mind work more efficiently. The mind doesn’t have to reassess whenever there is new information. It just decides based on our past conditioning and beliefs previously stored in our brains. It doesn’t care if our past beliefs are positive or negative. Its job is to conserve energy and work efficiently. The stronger our belief system get, the fewer doubts we have, and the less work the mind needs to do.

(Read my previous post, Why Do You Enjoy Beating Yourself Up? for more information.)

We Beat Ourselves Up for Self-Discipline

Recently, someone told me that his greatest enemy is himself. He is very ambitious and has high self-expectations. Even though he doesn’t like to be criticized by others, he believes that self-criticisms will make him successful. He thinks that people who are too soft and too nice to themselves are deceiving and reassuring themselves they are good enough.

From this conversation, I have a sense that this person will have a difficult time being happy. It’s not because he can’t be successful. It’s because he will never be satisfied with himself or with any success he achieves. The mind will keep creating a more ideal and perfect identity for him to achieve. So he’s never going to reach it.

Some of us believe that being hard on ourselves will make us better. We think that being self-critical is necessary for self-discipline. But is this accurate?

Our inner critic is a replica of our parents.

Perhaps you have critical parents. When you were a child, they scolded you for your misbehavior and mistakes. But now that you are an adult, do you still need someone to punish and scold you to get you going? Couldn’t you decide what’s right for you without any nasty criticism? Why do you need a voice inside your head to criticize you?

For some of us, we still see ourselves as kids and we are afraid to take responsibilities for our choices. We might have developed this inner critic subpersonality to act as our parents to reduce our mistakes or our guilt for doing something wrong.

But being critical is what our parents believe is necessary to teach us. It might not be the most effective way. We don’t have to copy our parents and treat ourselves badly.

How to Stop Excessive Self-Criticism?

1. Be aware of your negative self-talk.

To get rid of your negative self-talk, you must first be aware of it.

Recently, one of my students is feeling stressed over the school-leaving examination that she has to take at the end of the year. She didn’t even realize she kept scolding herself stupid until I told her so.

Without awareness, it’s hard to silence your inner critic.

If you are reading this post, you probably are aware of your negative self-talk to a certain extent. But are you aware of it every time it arises?

Many years ago, I used to set an hourly alarm on my mobile phone to remind me to check my thoughts. It was disruptive to my work, but it was rather useful. I was so surprised by how noisy and negative my thoughts were.

We get so lost in our thoughts that we might not be aware how subtle they are at affecting our lives. So at least for the initial phase, it’s good to have some external reminders such as the alarm clock to wake us up from our habitual self-criticism and break our negative self-talk habit.

2. Observe the criticisms and your reactions.

Once you are aware of your negative thoughts, the next step is to observe your self-criticism and how you feel about it. But don’t try to change your negative self-talk because it’s ineffective.

Replacing your self-criticisms with praises doesn’t work.

After my student became aware of her self-criticism, she started telling herself, “I am clever” whenever she had the urge of saying “I am stupid.” This seems better than before but the only problem is she doesn’t believe that she is clever. From her tone, I know that she was just saying it for the sake of saying it. She tried to prevent her subconscious mind from getting the reward by avoiding her negative thought and replacing it with a positive one.

However, instead of blaming herself, she started blaming the school and the teachers for setting the examination papers. She kept asking why she needed to take the examination. She still resists taking the examination and this creates an endless stream of mental noises.

Observing means noting your reactions and not judging your negative self-talk and your reactions. Once you label your negative self-talk as bad or think it shouldn’t be here, you are creating more resistance toward it. Instead, use observation as a way to gather information to help you overcome your negative self-talk.

3. Don’t believe what you hear.

After you have observed your thoughts, the next step to deal with self-criticism is to not believe it. This might sound like you are denying or resisting your thoughts, but it’s not.

When you doubt your thoughts, you are neither saying it’s true nor saying it’s false. You are just suspending your need to believe that it’s true and looking it from a neutral point of view. This gives you a chance to question your criticism:

  • Is this evaluation valid?
  • What is this evaluation based on?
  • Is it a fact or a fiction?

Take my student for an example. When she said she was stupid, she based her evaluation on the mistakes she made.

Her evaluation of herself is based on her belief systems, her worldview. It’s not necessarily the truth. When you ask someone else to evaluate intelligence, they might have a different set of measures. To another person, stupid might mean not thinking logically. For others who make their decisions based on emotions, they might not see themselves as stupid.

Adjectives are not necessarily the truth; they are opinions. 

We used adjectives all the time in our language. But we forget that adjectives are none other than opinions; they don’t necessarily represent the truth. When my student made a mistake, the truth is she made a mistake. That’s a fact. Anything else she uses to describe herself for making mistakes is just a fiction. It’s just a story she tells herself.

Our minds tend to exaggerate the negative. The reason why we suffered so much from our own criticisms is because we believe that these criticisms are true. But when we don’t believe these self-criticisms, they can’t hurt us.

4. Understand that self-criticisms are just part of your conditioning. 

Even though not believing your criticisms helps to reduce your suffering, it doesn’t help to eliminate your negative self-talk and the emotions attached to it. You have to understand that our subconscious mind had already been programmed to be self-critical since we were young. It will continue to create those thoughts and emotions automatically whenever it’s triggered.

Even though we know those criticisms are false, our bodies still react as though they are true.

I used to have low self-esteem. If someone were to criticize me, I would still feel the tingling feelings in my body. Learn to be okay with these feelings. When you observe your feelings and understand that they are part of your conditioning, you don’t get carried away into the drama. When you are not attached to the story, these feelings can be let go of much easily

Also, understanding the mind’s mechanism helps you to be more compassionate towards yourself. Now that you know you are not to blame for your self-criticisms, whenever you get self-critical again, you would not be as frustrated with yourself anymore. You know it’s part of conditioning and you have no control over these thoughts, so it’s not your fault.

5. Let go of your beliefs.

If you want to reduce the recurring mental noises in your head, you will have to let go of or change your beliefs, and break the habit pattern. To do that, you need to go back to your past and correct the misinterpretation you had when you were young. Understand that when you were a child, you might have given the wrong meanings to certain events. Realize that these beliefs don’t apply to you now and let them go.

Those misinterpreted childhood events become our beliefs for years.

For example, if you have a tendency to be a perfectionist, reflect on your childhood and see if there were any incidents where you tried to please your parents by being the perfect boy or girl. Ask yourself why do you do that. Perhaps you thought that being perfect would get you more love and attention from your parents. Or maybe you thought that it would make your parents proud.

Whatever your belief is, know that it’s okay to let go of it now as it is not needed anymore.

6. Extract the lessons to be learned.

The inner critic is hard to us for a reason. Apart from helping us resolve our past issues, it tells us where we can improve. Instead of fighting with your negative self-talk, learn to extract lessons from it.

When we observe our self-criticisms, we don’t deny the facts. When we make a mistake, we don’t pretend that we didn’t. That is a fact and we have to accept it. We just don’t add any stories to it. If we are always criticizing ourselves for making the same mistakes, perhaps it’s time to change our methods or get help from someone else. The inner critic brings some valuable information to us, so we don’t want to shut it off completely.

Instead of being self-critical, we can change the tone.

Instead, we can learn to criticize ourselves constructively. Rather than telling yourself, I am stupid, you can identify what you have done right first, then find areas where you can improve. Change your inner critic to an inner coach. Change the tone to a more encouraging one.

Also, allocate a time for your inner critic. For example, I schedule 15 minutes every evening to review my day and receive constructive criticism. Whenever I have a self-criticism, I recognize it but I ask it to come back later during the evening review. This allows me to focus on what I have to do now and not get stuck in rumination.

Freedom from Your Inner Critic

Stopping your self-criticism is not about resisting it. It’s about embracing your inner critic and working with it. You don’t have to beat yourself up over mistakes anymore, you can learn from your mistakes too by being kind.

Question: What triggers your inner critic? Is it when you make a mistake, when you have relationship issues such as a break-up, or when you feel stuck at work? Let me know in the comment section below!


Featured Photo Credit: Untitled / lauren rushing

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