Episode 27: Silencing Self-Criticism

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In this series, adapted from my book Toxic Criticism, we examine the ways that criticism and self-criticism interfere with our ability to find our life purpose and live as strongly, passionately, and effectively as we would like to live. Today’s episode is called “Silencing Self-Criticism.”


Hello, everybody. Today’s is the ninth episode in a series called Handling Toxic Criticism. In this series we look at the terrible toll that criticism takes, how it interferes with your ability to live your life purpose, and what you can do to reduce the effects of criticism in your life. Today’s episode is called “Silencing Self-Criticism.” Let’s begin!

What is the relationship between the criticism you receive and the criticism you inflict on yourself? Why do so many people inflict daily doses of self-criticism upon themselves in neurotic ways, that is, in ways that are patently unjustified, unhealthy and self-sabotaging? To what extent does a penchant for self-criticism turn uneventful episodes of minor criticism into toxic, wounding events? These are the tangled matters we examine next.

Criticism arises because human beings have opinions, make judgments, carry grudges, and act cruelly: you may get criticized simply because an angry shopkeeper needs someone to lash out at and, because you are wearing a turban, today it is you. Criticism arises because of supply and demand, competition, and for reasons having to do with survival and scarce resources: you may get criticized because a magazine can only accept one of the several hundred stories it receives and so rejects you in the natural course of doing business, which rejection you interpret as criticism. Criticism arises because human beings set up social systems and adopt roles: the policeman who stops you has to criticize you for going seventy miles an hour when you are supposed to be going sixty-five, even though he himself goes seventy all the time. The structure of human personality, the structure of human organizations, and Darwinian dynamics of competition and survival cause criticism to pour in.

We exist in a sea of criticism. Advertisers subtly criticize us for the smells in our house (which their product will eradicate), for the yellowness of our teeth (which their product will eliminate), for toying with the lives of our children by not buying their “safe” tires or their “safe” car. For a full twenty years (if we do some graduate work in addition to elementary school, middle school, high school, and college) teachers are there to criticize us by grading us as imperfect and by kindly or caustically pointing out our lack of knowledge and our lack of ideas. Parents often do little else but criticize their children, noticing their children only when they are making noise, not eating their peas, wasting hard-earned money, or not doing their homework. This is the human psycho-sphere, the psychological bubble that surrounds our every move, one saturated with criticism.

Many of the reasons for this rampant, ubiquitous criticism are sinister. Millions of workers in sweatshops worldwide are criticized for “going too slow” or for “taking too many breaks” so that they will feel coerced to do the work of three people rather than the work of two.  To exert their power and maintain their control, clerics mercilessly criticize their billions of parishioners as sinners or potential sinners, criticizing them for everything from eating unblessed pizza to facing in the wrong direction while praying. To maintain their authority, conscience-less politicians criticize their citizens for rightly criticizing them. An enormous amount of the criticism that human beings receive is calculated criticism arising from the self-serving needs of tyrants who operate openly in every sphere of life. 

There are two basic reactions (with a million variations) to this avalanche of criticism. One child who is repeatedly told “You are too loud!” will internally respond with “F**k you!” A second child will respond with “I must be too loud.” The first child runs around like a madman, being as loud as he can be, and the second child becomes meek and quiet. The first child grows a lax conscience, if he grows a conscience at all, and becomes the next sweatshop magnate, ruthless politician, ambitious clergyman, or mass murderer. The second child grows a punitive conscience, becomes a self-critic, and, in the natural course of events, is meekly bullied and controlled by the first child, who is now his pastor, boss, or President. 

In this over-simple model, one person becomes relatively conscience-less and another person becomes a fierce self-critic. By virtue of the interaction between the criticism she received in her formative years and her particular personality, each individual more inclines toward sociopathy or self-flagellation. If she has become even just a mild self-critic, she will continue to criticize herself in the absence of any new criticism from the world and she will take the information she receives from the world as new opportunities to criticize herself. 

In order to eliminate self-criticism, it has to make sense to you to eliminate self-criticism. As long as you hold it as sensible to criticize yourself for making this or that big mistake or for failing yourself in this or that big way, you will continue to criticize yourself. The alternative to self-criticism isn’t denial or a merry relinquishment of power and control. You don’t say “I never make mistakes” and you don’t say “Yes, I haven’t done the things I wanted to do, but that must be what the universe wanted of me.” The first is denial and the second is slavishness. You say, “I haven’t done the things I wanted to do” and you end that with a full period. You name the truth, feel the pain if there is still pain, but refrain from criticizing yourself. Then you continue with, “And?”

You name the truth and then you ask yourself what you want to do. What if the truth is just too awful: that, by failing to carefully watch your child, she was run over and killed; that, by acting out for one split second with a choreographer, you ruined your chances for a dance career; that all the writing you have done for the past fifteen years has been irredeemably bad; that your miserable personality has cost you a lifetime of love? Even if the truth is this horrible, self-criticism adds on nothing of value. “I acted out and ruined my chances” is bad enough. How are you helped by adding “And let me beat myself up about that until the end of time”?

The truth is bad enough. The truth about the situation in Africa, whether you want to look at poverty, malaria, AIDS, famine, drought, warfare, or somewhere else, is bad enough. To add on, “And I am a bad person for not doing anything about that situation” does not add on anything of value. Saying “And?” and meaning it does. The “And?” means, what do I want to do about this hard truth? Your answer might be, “I want to do this.” Your answer might be, “I don’t know precisely, but I will think about it.” What it can’t and shouldn’t mean is, “And I will continue to beat myself up about it, and about the failing ozone layer too.”

It is important that we separate the pain we feel because something happened from the activity of criticizing ourselves. If your child was run over and killed because for too long a moment you chatted with your neighbor and failed to notice your daughter drifting out of the front yard and toward the street, you will have to endure the pain of her absence forever. But that is entirely separate from having to blame yourself forever. The pain is unlikely to go away. The self-criticism must. If, every time you experience this pain, you mentally move to guilt and self-chastisement, you are making a mental mistake of the most horrifying kind.

Our job is to keep a thought, any thought (“How horrible a time Africa is having!” or “I am fully forty pounds overweight”) from turning automatically into self-criticism; and also to keep a feeling, any feeling (pain, anger, envy, resentment, disappointment) from triggering self-criticism. We are so used to moving from a certain kind of thought and a certain kind of feeling directly to self-criticism that separating them at the hip may feel impossible. But until you can do that, you will live a half-incapacitated life.

You eliminate self-criticism by not turning thoughts and feelings into self-criticism. No matter how accusatory the thought, no matter how dreadful the feeling, you do not allow that thought or that feeling to glide into self-criticism. You can see why committing to eliminating self-criticism necessarily returns you to the six keys we discussed in earlier episodes:

• You refrain from criticizing yourself because self-criticism does not help you achieve your meaning-making goals or aid you in leading an authentic life.

• You refrain from criticizing yourself because self-criticism does nothing to help you appraise situations.

• You refrain from criticizing yourself because self-criticism is in conflict with the philosophical, phlegmatic attitude you have decided to adopt.

• You refrain from criticizing yourself because you recognize that self-criticism is maladaptive self-talk that only serves to weaken and incapacitate you.

• Your refrain from criticizing yourself because you conclude that self-criticism is a shadowy part of your personality and one of the ways you avoid facing up to life’s challenges.

• Your refrain from criticizing yourself because you understand that self-criticism is not a motivator but a disincentive to act.

It is hard, verging on impossible, to effectively handle criticism if you regularly turn information from the world into self-criticism. Insofar as you are prone to criticize yourself, you will also be prone to interpret innocent or neutral comments as criticism, magnify the importance of mild criticism, and in a variety of ways pile criticism on your own head. Honesty and self-criticism are two different things: an honest appraisal of a flaw leads to useful action, self-forgiveness, or some other beneficial outcome; criticizing yourself for the flaw leads to inaction and depression. There is nothing noble or righteous about self-criticism. Let it go.

That ends today’s show. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that you’ll tune in next week for another episode of Your Purpose-Centered Life. If you subscribe to your Purpose-Centered Life, you won’t miss a single episode!—to subscribe, please visit personallifemedia.com or look for Your Purpose-Centerd Life in iTunes. You might also want to visit my blog, where many guest correspondents write about issues of interest in the secular-humanist, skeptical, free-thinking, existential and atheist traditions. My blog is available at the personallifemedia.com website. If you’d like to drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you. My email address is [email protected]. And I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services, including my annual Taos workshops. To visit, please head over to ericmaisel.com—that’s e-r-i-c-m-a-i-s-e-l.com. Thank you for listening!