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Toxic Criticism

When self-criticism leads to devastating consequences

Analyzing ourselves and our behaviors, picking up cues from the environment about how we are perceived and, in effect, nit-picking — all are part of a crucial internal dialogue that helps us figure out what works for us (and what doesn’t). Spotting areas for self-improvement is a useful skill to perfect, but while a critical eye has its advantages, self-criticism can lead to devastating consequences. Recent research from Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has revealed that self-criticism can be both mentally and physically harmful and can lead to psychological disorders, chronic fatigue and chronic pain, and, in extreme situations, even suicide.

Kicking yourself for a missed opportunity or rewriting a piece of work that doesn’t seem up to scratch are healthy forms of self-criticism, but for some this uncompromising demand for high standards and extreme derogation upon perceived failure is a way of life. Prof. Golan Shahar of BGU has spent the last two decades researching criticism, recently publishing his seminal work, Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism, (Oxford University Press). Self-criticism, explains Shahar, propels people to focus on stressful events such as rejection by others, relationship breakups and professional failures to avoid engaging in the positive life experiences they feel they do not deserve.

We are “wired” for self-knowledge and a search for authenticity, explains Shahar. Rather than the colloquial ‘feeling real,’ which is so often bandied about by adolescents at the height of their self-development, nurturing authenticity is a lifelong process, in which the talents, interests and psychological predispositions unique to each individual evolve. This process is bolstered by an innate desire for self-knowledge — the tendency to look inward, analyze ourselves and our actions and form a self-identity. Shahar posits that self-criticism is a distorted, rigid, and addictive “pseudo self-knowledge” that diverts us from continued experimentation. In other words, it stifles our ability to “play.” Self-criticism “robs individuals of resources that inform them what they are good at (their talents), what matters to them (interests), and how they regulate themselves (their proclivities).”

Unfortunately, self-criticism may be something people are born with, and is definitely something they grow up with. While Shahar explains that genes contributing to self-criticism have been identified, growing up with critical, harsh or punitive parenting is a surefire way to raise self-critical kids. When parents have unreasonable expectations of children or fail to affirm their successes, children internalize these negative voices. Likewise, when kids undergo traumatic experiences of abuse, they often can’t separate cause and effect and blame themselves rather than the perpetrator. This feeds into the development of a self-critical outlook. While limiting the critical experiences that children are exposed to can go a long way toward neutralizing this harmful characteristic, understanding its detrimental effects is the first step in defying self-criticism and developing a more benevolent and affirmative self.

So, is the self-critical individual doomed to failure? No, says Shahar. In addition to directing the Stress, Self and Health (STREALTH) Lab at BGU, Shahar is a practicing clinical psychologist and has found that by helping patients to identify, characterize and delineate their self-critical states, and in turn develop benevolent self-aspects, his patients develop more positive interactions and everyday experiences. The aim, explains Shahar, is not to completely eliminate all self-criticism; rather, it is “to turn a dictatorship into a town hall,” giving the more positive and self-affirming elements a stronger voice.

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