People generally treat you like you’re a successful person. They compliment you on how much you accomplish, and how you help others. But no matter how much they praise you, you still feel like a failure. And you let yourself know it with ample helpings of self-criticism. If these words describe you, let’s ask that obvious question, “What can I do to give myself some credit and stop being so self-critical?” Our entry of June 25, 2021 described a technique used by therapist Michael Church to help his clients improve their self-esteem. Could you adapt that technique to reducing your self-criticism?
Church’s exercise is pretty simple. He asks clients to draw a circle and divide it into pie-like slices that represent the main areas of their life. He says, “Clients eventually section off spaces relevant to job or school, friendship, family, girlfriend/boyfriend, intelligence, physical attractiveness, morality, and health. I discuss their choices with them to make sure that they are comfortable that all pertinent aspects of self-concept in their life are included. Then, I ask them to shade the areas where they see themselves with at least a modicum of self-esteem. I have never had anyone fail to shade in at least a few areas, even those who claim to have ‘no self-esteem.’ This part of the exercise helps them realize that contrary to what they believe, their low self-esteem does not pervade all aspects of their life. Then, we work on identifying actions they can take within productive and proactive goal-setting guidelines.” Church’s exercise stresses action. As he puts it, “The best way to increase self-esteem is not by positive thinking, but by doing things that bring about positive results.”
Sounds good, but could you adapt this technique to your feelings that you are a failure? Once again, draw a circle and divide it into slices. Now let each slice represent an action you perform on a regular basis – activities might include time with your kids, spouse, or friends; projects at work; home maintenance; hobbies. Next shade those areas in which you feel that you do pretty well. Be objective about it. If you build something as a hobby, do others look at it and say, “That’s pretty nice”? Do your kids seem to enjoy doing things with you? Does the boss compliment you now and then with “Good job”? The point is, you’re likely to discover that everything you do is not a disastrous failure; in fact, many things you do probably bring you satisfaction, and enjoyment to others. In other words, your tendency for excessive self-criticism might not be justified by the “data” right in front of you.
The first step in dealing with a tendency to be overly self-critical is to understand that it’s easy to inadvertently teach yourself to be self-critical. In fact, each time you put yourself down, the tendency to do so gets stronger. John says he’s an angry person, and it’s ruining his marriage. “When I get into a spat with Eva [his wife] I usually storm out of the house and head to the corner bar to have a couple of pops and cool down. I sit there chugging my beers and telling any of my buddies who might be there, or Al [the bartender], what a jerk I am. I have this great wife and all I do is upset her. I’m such a loser.”
Two things are happening here. First, John is teaching himself to drink and put himself down when he’s angry, because those are the actions he practices when he’s angry. Second, John is also teaching himself to be angry and criticize himself when he’s drinking. This is an especially dangerous association when it comes to coping with stress because it creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. Imagine one afternoon when John and Eva have some friends over for a cookout. John is in a jovial mood but when he hits his third beer, he begins to express the emotions he has been inadvertently practicing at the bar – being angry because he’s a lousy husband and doesn’t understand why Eva puts up with him. This pity-parade cookout is not going to end well.
John, of course, is trapped in an emotion-based approach to his self-criticism. Anger, self-blame, and drinking have all become associated in a two-way street where each action and emotion causes, reinforces, and results from the others. What John needs to do is take a more problem-based approach that involves analyzing his actions more objectively: Work with Eva to keep open lines of communication that do not involve alcohol; identify his values and clearly-stated goals that enhance those values; and practice positive behaviors when angry and frustrated that bring him a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, not self-humiliation.
Remember, coping is all about the actions you perform. To cope well, you need to evaluate objectively how appropriate those actions are, and to focus on the conditions under which you practice – and strengthen – those actions.