compass Explore next steps to improve your mental health. Get mental health help

Self-criticizing and self-criticism: How do I stop the cycle?

Self-criticizing and self-criticism: How do I stop the cycle?

Have you noticed negative mental dialogue going on in your own head, calling yourself names and incessantly chattering? This thought pattern is called self-criticism, which is the act of evaluating, judging, or scrutinizing oneself, often in a negative or harsh manner.

This critical voice can manifest in various ways, such as dwelling on past mistakes, focusing on perceived flaws or shortcomings, or engaging in negative self-talk. However self-criticism manifests, it’s important to learn how to manage these thoughts to prevent them from overwhelming you with negativity or causing low self-esteem.

What Is Self-Criticizing?

Self-criticizing involves internalizing and applying externally received standards or expectations to one’s thoughts, actions, or accomplishments, and then finding fault or inadequacy based on these criteria. 

While some self-criticism can be constructive and can motivate individuals to improve and grow, excessive or relentless self-criticism can have detrimental effects on mental health and well-being, leading to feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. 

Learning to balance self-awareness with self-compassion is an essential part of managing self-criticism effectively, fostering a healthier and more supportive relationship with oneself.

Why Does Self-Criticizing Behavior Occur? The Psychology Behind Self-Criticizing Behavior

Self-criticizing behavior arises from a complex interplay of psychological, social, and environmental factors. At its core, self-criticism often stems from internalized beliefs about one’s worthiness, competence, or likability, which can be influenced by early experiences, cultural norms, and societal pressures. 

Individuals who exhibit self-criticism or tend to be hard on themselves may have grown up in environments where perfectionism was encouraged or where criticism was prevalent, leading them to adopt harsh standards for themselves. Comparing oneself unfavorably to others—whether in terms of achievements, appearance, or abilities—can fuel feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. 

Experiences of trauma or abuse can also increase the likelihood of internalizing negative messages about oneself, resulting in a persistent pattern of self-blame and self-condemnation. 

Additionally, societal ideals of success and beauty often promote unrealistic standards, causing individuals to constantly judge themselves against unattainable benchmarks. 

It’s important to note that these thoughts are not objective truth, even though they can feel that way. In order to push back against internalized negativity and criticism, try to assess the truth of critical thought as you have them. What did you do wrong? What specific standards were you trying to achieve? How would you feel if someone else made the same mistake? Will punishing yourself do anything to fix the situation?

Effects of Self-Criticism on Mental Health

Self-criticism can have significant negative effects on mental health, including:

  • Increased stress and anxiety: Constantly criticizing oneself can lead to heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Ongoing internal pressure to meet unrealistic standards can create a perpetual cycle of worry and tension.
  • Low self-esteem: Continuous self-criticism often erodes self-esteem. When individuals focus solely on their flaws and mistakes, they begin to see themselves in a negative light. This can lead to feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy.
  • Depression: Persistent self-criticism is closely linked to depression. The constant barrage of negative self-talk can contribute to feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and a general lack of motivation or interest in activities.
  • Perfectionism: Self-criticism can fuel perfectionistic tendencies, where individuals feel they must meet impossibly high standards to feel worthy or accepted. Perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure and avoidance of challenges.
  • Impaired relationships: Excessive self-criticism can affect relationships with others. People who are overly critical of themselves may become irritable, or may also be overly critical of others, leading to strained interpersonal dynamics.
  • Procrastination and avoidance behaviors: Fear of failure resulting from self-criticism can lead to avoidance behaviors and procrastination. Individuals may avoid taking risks or pursuing goals because they fear they won’t meet their own high standards.
  • Physical health issues: Chronic stress and anxiety resulting from self-criticism can have negative effects on physical health as well, including increased risk of cardiovascular problems, weakened immune system, and other stress-related ailments.
  • Difficulty accepting feedback: When individuals are overly self-critical, they may have difficulty accepting constructive criticism from others. They may interpret feedback as further evidence of their inadequacy, leading to defensiveness or withdrawal.

Addressing self-criticism often requires cultivating self-compassion and self-acceptance, challenging negative thoughts, setting realistic expectations, and seeking support from friends, family, or mental health professionals. Learning to treat oneself with kindness and understanding can help break the cycle of self-criticism and improve overall mental well-being. 

Healthy Strategies for Overcoming Self-Criticism

Healthy strategies for overcoming self-criticism involve three main factors: self-compassion, mindfulness, and cognitive restructuring techniques

Additionally, engaging in activities that foster self-care and self-expression, such as exercise, hobbies, or creative pursuits, can bolster self-esteem and reduce self-criticism. Seeking support from trusted friends, family members, or a therapist can also provide perspective and encouragement on the journey toward self-acceptance and growth. 

Overall, these strategies emphasize building resilience and fostering a compassionate relationship with yourself, which is essential for mental well-being.

Building Self-Compassion and Acceptance

Building self-compassion and acceptance involves several key practices aimed at fostering kindness, understanding, and tolerance towards oneself. These include:

  • Developing mindfulness, which involves being present in the moment without judgment. This allows individuals to observe their thoughts and feelings without criticism or attachment, fostering a sense of self-awareness and understanding. 
  • Treating oneself with kindness and care, similarly to what one would offer to a friend in times of difficulty or suffering. This may involve offering oneself words of encouragement, comfort, and support. 
  • Recognizing and embracing one’s strengths, weaknesses, and imperfections without harsh self-criticism or comparison to others. This involves acknowledging that everyone experiences setbacks and struggles, and that it’s okay to be imperfect. 
  • Seeking support from others, whether through therapy, support groups, or trusted friends and family members. They can offer guidance, encouragement, and perspective on one’s journey towards self-acceptance and compassion. However, it’s important to make sure that you are getting real support, not just external validation.

Through consistent practice and patience, individuals can cultivate a greater sense of self-compassion and acceptance, leading to improved well-being and resilience in the face of life’s challenges.

Anxiety, Depression, and Self-Criticism: How Are They Related?

Self-criticism can exacerbate anxiety and depression by perpetuating negative thought patterns and reducing self-esteem. 

When individuals engage in self-criticism, they consistently focus on their perceived flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings, often with a harsh and unforgiving attitude. This self-scrutiny fosters feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and hopelessness, which are common features of both anxiety and depression. 

Self-criticism can lead to a cycle of rumination, where individuals obsessively dwell on their perceived failures, creating a persistent state of worry and distress that is characteristic of anxiety disorders

Additionally, relentless self-judgment can erode one’s sense of self-worth and contribute to the development or exacerbation of depressive symptoms, such as low mood, fatigue, and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. 

The relationship between self-criticism, anxiety, and depression is intricate, with each reinforcing and exacerbating the other in a detrimental cycle that can significantly impact an individual’s mental well-being.

Mindfulness Practices for Self-Compassion

Practicing mindfulness can be a powerful way to cultivate self-compassion. Here are some mindfulness practices specifically geared toward fostering self-compassion:

  • Self-compassion meditation: Set aside time each day to practice meditation focused on self-compassion. This can involve sitting quietly, focusing on your breath, and then intentionally directing kind and compassionate thoughts toward yourself. You can use phrases like “May I be kind to myself” or “May I accept myself just as I am.”
  • Body scan: Engage in a body scan meditation where you systematically bring attention to each part of your body, noticing any sensations without judgment. This practice helps to develop awareness and acceptance of your body just as it is, fostering self-compassion.
  • Mindful self-talk: Pay attention to your inner dialogue throughout the day. When you notice self-critical thoughts, practice responding to them with kindness and understanding, as you would to a friend in need.
  • Mindful breathing: Use your breath as an anchor to the present moment. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or stressed, take a few moments to focus on your breath, allowing it to ground you and bring you back to the present. This can create space for self-compassion.
  • Non-judgmental awareness: Practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without attaching judgments to them. Instead of labeling thoughts as good or bad, simply acknowledge them with curiosity and openness. This attitude of non-judgment can help you cultivate self-compassion by accepting yourself fully, flaws and all.
  • Gratitude practice: Take time each day to reflect on things you’re grateful for in your life. Cultivating a sense of gratitude can shift your focus away from self-criticism and toward appreciation for yourself and your experiences.
  • Self-compassion journaling: Keep a journal where you write down moments of self-compassion, as well as any challenges or obstacles you encounter along the way. Reflecting on your experiences can deepen your understanding of self-compassion and help you integrate it more fully into your life.

Remember that self-compassion is a skill that takes time and practice to develop, so be patient and gentle with yourself as you explore these mindfulness practices. If you find that these self-criticizing habits are too strong to break on your own, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. They can help you get to the root of the issue and give you personalized strategies to help you overcome your negative mindset.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 1 sources
Avatar photo
Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
See Theresa's availability

Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

Avatar photo

Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Picture of woman in front of flowers
Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Wakelin, K. E., Perman, G., & Simonds, L. M. (2021). Effectiveness of self‐compassion‐related interventions for reducing self‐criticism: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy/Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 29(1), 1–25.

No comments yet

The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use these resources to get immediate help.

Get the latest mental wellness tips and discussions, delivered straight to your inbox.