5 ways self-criticism sets you up to fail

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One of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, Dr Kirstin Neff, has found in her research that one of the biggest blocks to being kinder to yourself is fearing that it will make you complacent, lazy, and about as motivated as Homer Simpson on a treadmill.

The thinking goes that, in order to get fit, achieve professional success and make ourselves floss, work out and read a book a week, we need to beat ourselves up when we fall short.

We think that if we’re kind to ourselves and attend to our own needs, we will stay under the duvet all day, binge-watching Breaking Bad and eating salted caramel Häagen-Dazs.

In fact, the opposite is true. Being harder on ourselves makes it less likely that we will achieve our goals. Here are five reasons why.

  1. You’re more likely to be anxious or depressed

Self-criticism leads to poor mental health, which goes hand in hand with finding it difficult to motivate yourself. Anxiety makes us expect things to turn out badly and depression makes us feel as though there’s no point in anything, so why bother?

2. If you believe you can, or believe you can’t, you’re right.

When you expect to fail because you don’t believe in yourself, it is more likely that you will. Dr Neff explains in her book Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself:

‘Dozens of studies have confirmed that our beliefs in our own abilities — which research psychologist Albert Bandura terms ‘self-efficacy beliefs’ — are directly related to our ability to achieve our dreams.

For example, one study followed more than two hundred high school wrestlers through the course of one wrestling season. It was found that, independent of their prior success at wrestling, those students who had stronger self-efficacy beliefs won more matches than those who doubted themselves…

Because self-criticism tends to undermine self-efficacy beliefs, self-criticism may harm rather than help our ability to do our best.’

3. We become more nervous, distracted and unable to focus on the task in hand

Because we fear the pain of failure, we put ourselves under a lot of pressure not to, which makes it hard to stay on-task.

Self-critical people spend a lot of time tidying the kitchen, playing online chess with Americans and going out for flat whites and chocolate fudge brownies. Or maybe that’s just me.

4. It leads to ‘self-handicapping’

This is the tendency to undermine your performance in ways that create a plausible excuse for failing.

The most common form of self-handicapping is simply not trying. If you don’t study for a test, you can blame getting a bad grade on your lack of revision rather than on being incapable.

Not trying your best obviously makes it less likely you will succeed. But at least you get to say to yourself that you could have succeeded, or that maybe you will one day.

5. Not seeing where you need to improve

Dr Neff explains in the same book:

‘Research indicates that people who suffer from shame and self-judgment are more likely to blame others for their failures. Who wants to admit their inadequacies when it means facing the attack dogs of self-criticism? It’s easier to sweep things under the rug or point your finger at someone else.’

So, if you see someone blaming and judging other people a lot, or maybe you recognise your own tendency to do so, it could be due to a lack of self-compassion and could be leading to a lack of personal responsibility.

Bottom line

If you’re not pursuing your life goals and instilling the positive habits that you know make you feel good, notice if you’re beating yourself up about it.

If you are, try digging into why you’re not taking action and what would support you to make progress.

If you’d like help with this, you can book a free taster coaching session with me here.