How to Reduce Self-Criticism and Make Real Change

My biggest problem with New Year’s resolutions is that, too often, they’re grounded in self-criticism. And by self-criticism, I do not mean a positive or realistic aspiration to be a better human being. What I’m referring to is a deep, dark core belief that we are just not good enough. For many of us, this inner critic is so entrenched in our psyche, we’re hardly able to distinguish it from our real point of view. But when we do, we find that it’s actually extremely powerful and painfully prevalent. A 2016 survey found that the average woman criticizes herself eight times a day. Self-criticism is a strong predictor of depression, and several studies have shown that it consistently interferes with our ability to achieve our goals. So, if you think this mean inner voice is just a motivator, inspiring you to do better, think again, because chances are, it’s actually limiting you in ways of which you aren’t even aware. If you’re looking to be more goal-focused, less distracted by self-criticism, and simply more yourself, here are some psychological resolutions that are well worth making:

Get to Know Your Inner Critic

The time we waste either ruminating on destructive thoughts or listening to our inner critic is draining and demoralizing. It steers us away from our goals by giving us terrible advice. If you’re trying to be healthy, it will say, “Don’t bother working out today. Just do it tomorrow. You’re so tired anyway.” If you’re dating, it will entice you with words like, “Give him/her the cold shoulder. Don’t let him/her know how you feel. If someone really cares, they’ll chase after you.” All this unfriendly advice does is push us further from what we want. And, of course, this “voice” sets us up for major punishment, the minute we listen to it. “Ugh, you’re so lazy and fat. You just sit around all day, and now look at you. You look terrible.” “See? You blew it, and, of course, he/she never called you. He/She doesn’t like you. No one would.”

When we allow ourselves to indulge our critical inner voice, we are actually siding with an internal enemy. We are all divided between a real self, which is shaped out of nurturing experiences in which we identified with our early caretakers’ positive traits and caring attitudes and behaviors, and an “anti-self,” which comes from just the opposite – painful experiences in which we witnessed or observed critical, shaming, or resentful attitudes that we internalized toward ourselves. To really break free from the firm grip of this evolved enemy, we have to diligently recognize when it starts to talk to us, adopt a more compassionate and realistic attitude, and stubbornly ignore its skewed opinions and terrible advice.

Learn more about the steps you can take to challenge your critical inner voice or join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the CE Webinar “Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.”

Embrace self-compassion

Luckily, there is a much more favorable attitude to adopt toward ourselves that can act as an anti-dote to our “critical inner voice.” That is one of self-compassion. Research has proven that self-compassion training is effective in reducing self-criticism. Additionally, being more self-compassionate does not lead to less motivation toward goals. On the contrary, researcher Dr. Kristin Neff has found that self-compassion is much more conducive to making real change. Studies have shown that self-compassion, unlike self-criticism, increases self-improvement. Individuals who adopt a more self-compassionate attitude are more willing to learn and to look at how they can improve on mistakes.

Self-compassion is not at all like victimization. Instead of having a “poor me” attitude, people who are self-compassionate understand that their suffering is part of the human condition, and that this actually connects them to others. They have a kind attitude toward themselves, treating themselves like they would treat a friend. A person who is self-compassionate is also mindful to not over-identify with their thoughts and feelings. Because of these three elements, a person who has self-compassion is better able to respond to challenges, thinking of adaptive solutions, rather than becoming bogged down in self-evaluation and self-criticism.

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that allows us to sit with our thoughts and feelings without judgment. As Dr. Neff put it, “Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion involves being aware of one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignores nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life.” It’s probably no great surprise, that Dr. Neff’s Mindful Self-Compassion Program, which included formal meditation practices, showed very positive results in increasing individuals’ self-compassion and overall well-being. Many forms of mindfulness meditation practices have been shown to reduce psychological distress and help stop rumination. In addition, practicing yoga with meditation has been shown to lead to less self-criticism. Most of us get into trouble when we start blindly believing or focusing in on our flaws. We lose ourselves to self-evaluation, self-criticism, and even self-hatred. This leads to self-limiting or self-destructive behavior. Mindful meditation helps us to get a grasp on these thoughts before they take over.

As we get started on 2017, we all have different desires, different issues we want to tackle and aspirations we want to pursue that have unique meaning to us. However, we can all benefit from taking on the goal of freeing ourselves from our inner critic, practicing more self-compassion, and being a more mindful member of the world. When we do each of these things, we feel more connected and available to the people around us. We offer more of ourselves, as we start to truly evolve and shift our way of seeing ourselves. This leads us to grow into who we really are: our real selves, more awake and alive. Our critical anti-self will always encourage us to do the thing that is least in our own interest and is ultimately the most deadening. That is why when it comes to what we seek to change, we should take Howard Thurman’s advice to “ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the CE Webinar “Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.”

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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Aspasia Holley

I love this article! Also I love you mentioned yoga. I grew up in an extremely abusive house. Physically, mentally and emotionally. My critical voice is simply what I heard everyday. Depression check! Yoga helps me be self aware. My breathing, my body my calmer homeostasis. Not the trauma speed of the “usual” me. Thank you for sharing this. Becoming aware is so powerful! This clearly well written article is profound on so many points. Bless you!

Hykeem Brown

I am a millenial so how do I address self hate and self evaluation & criticism with myself as a bixexual black male that is unemployed.

Finances are short right now; but I am in Graduate school. I practice mindfulness; but the self evaluation part I still do; including I hate the word “man up”. The only thing I have is my training from religion that I practiced each and every day as proof of being a responsible adult; instead of people pleasing for others to be a “real man”.

School is my purpose and why I get good grades to be the best so I won’t complain about it later with anyone and with myself. My training and school are my pride & ego, so how am I expected to let that go for other people for sake of “positivity, self confidence, etc” that may borderline on stupid going beyond my own common sense.

I kinda made peace with the inner critic part through mediation & mindfulness; but I still fall in the habit of self evaluation, what else can I do to better myself as a person?

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