6 Ways Self-Criticism
Hurts Your Relationships

by Melissa Karnaze

Regretful manSelf-criticism is rarely constructive.

It’s based on the belief that you’re not good enough.

Nowhere inherent in that belief is a concrete definition or metric of “good,” let alone “enough.”

Any self-criticism based on your not being good enough is actually counter-productive to cultivating healthy relationships, because it:

  1. Gives you an excuse to avoid dealing with conflicts
  2. Distracts you from your relationship goals
  3. Locks you into (unproductive) abstract thinking
  4. Downplays the importance of learning from mistakes
  5. Makes you emotionally unavailable
  6. Encourages you to be critical of others in the same ways in which you are critical of yourself

1. An excuse to avoid dealing with conflicts

“I’m not good enough” is actually a cop-out.

The statement allows you to evade any immediate conflict, and especially any relationship problem.

Instead of focusing on the conflict or problem at hand, you can simply say, “Well, I’m not good enough. I’m sorry.”

The other person takes that as: You don’t care enough about them to figure something out — instead of giving up.

Imagine if someone hurt you, and instead of apologizing they said, “I’m so ashamed.”

Would that make you feel validated, or shut out?

Instead of going on about how ashamed you are for “not being good enough” — reframe “good enough” to: committed to working toward resolution with the other person, because they matter to you.

2. A distraction from the actual relationship

Let’s look more closely at the statement, “I’m not good enough.”

It’s natural to get hung up on this conclusion — rather than the original relationship problem that spurred to you self-criticize.

And you might think that ruminating on your faults will condition you not to repeat them.

But rumination merely shifts your attention to your faults — without necessarily circling back to your relationship with another person.

Relationships aren’t all about you, and your faults.

3. Unproductive abstract thinking

“Good enough” is a loose construct that doesn’t help you take response ability for your actions.

What you need are tighter constructs, ones more easily defined, more de-constructed.

Being “good enough” might mean:

In each of these cases, “good enough” is defined by an action:

  • Listening
  • Venting in private (or with permission if in the company of another)
  • Agreeing to disagree
  • Talking about how you feel

You can get clearer on what each action entails if you just reflect on your goals.

Clarity doesn’t come from abstract thinking, about notions of “good,” “right,” or even “healthy” (if it’s not de-constructed in its definition).

Clarity comes from staying grounded in your emotional experience, and attending to your needs, and focusing on building your life as your mindful construct.

4. Downplaying the importance of learning from mistakes

When you choose goals and resolutions that reflect your values — rather than conform to the social ideals of notions such as “responsibility” — something beautiful happens.

The language of “good enough” disappears. Because there is no need to self-criticize when you mess up.

Instead, each mistake is a stepping stone to more fully flesh out why you have the goal, why you have resistance, and how you can work through that resistance.

The language of “good enough” implies that you are being judged on your performance — that you have to meet expectations for approval (from yourself).

The language of “I made a mistake,” “I’ll learn from this,” “I can figure out a solution,” “I won’t give up on my goal,” “Even though I’m embarrassed, my priority is this relationship” implies that you are being mindful of your actions so that you can increasingly be response able for them.

So that you can increasingly work toward your goals — not to gain approval, but because that’s what you want.

There’s a huge difference between evaluating your actions (read: not you) based on what you want, and evaluating you (read: not your actions) based on what you “should” be and do.

5. Emotional unavailability

Self-criticism also cuts you off from loved ones. (You just don’t pay attention enough when it happens.)

To illustrate, here’s Philadelphia Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee recalling when he visited pitcher Cole Hamels at the mound during a game in 2009:

“If I came out to the mound and ranted and raved and called you all kinds of names, would that do you any good?” Dubee asked.

“No,” Hamels responded.

“Then why do you do it to yourself,” Dubee shot back. “You’re out here chewing out yourself and crushing yourself, and now you’re so mad that you’re not able to compete against the opposition.”

Dubee’s advice goes for all of us.

Anytime you chew yourself out and crush yourself (which is what most self-criticism takes the form of), you’re so mad at yourself that you’re not able to:

  • Compete against the opposition
  • Overcome an obstacle
  • Fix a problem in a relationship
  • Learn from a mistake to avoid repeating it
  • Make amends for giving someone cause for hurt feelings
  • Work with another person to keep your relationship healthy

Chewing yourself out and crushing yourself usually alienates you from the mindset that’s required to persevere despite any disappointment you have with yourself.

Very rarely does it fuel you to succeed, in the long-term — without incurring negative unintended consequences (which undermine your success).

6. Judgments all around

And finally, self-criticism puts you in a mindset to judge — people for their actions.

No doubt we all need to judge to keep our bearings in this world.

But if you chew yourself out or crush yourself — even subconsciously — you’ll do it to someone else.

In fact, you’ll jump at the opportunity to do it to someone else (even if subconsciously), because it will distract you from having to look your own undesirable traits.

Welcome to human nature. How you treat yourself constrains how you can treat others. How you acknowledge and respond to your own feelings shapes your empathy.

If you can’t own up to your true feelings or mistakes, then you can expect to have difficulty accepting others for their true feelings or mistakes. That sets up tensions, resentments, and other barriers to emotional honesty and joint conflict resolution. Which means, your relationships suffer.

Stop being so critical of yourself

Even if you understand these six ways that self-criticism hurts your relationships, it’s not like you can just “stop” being so critical of yourself — or maybe you can.

Maybe all it takes is awareness in each moment that you are self-critical, and the commitment to experiencing your emotions.

After all, once the emotions pass, you’ll have more direct experience with how chewing yourself out and crushing yourself accomplishes two things:

  1. Chewing yourself out and crushing yourself
  2. Hurting your relationships in at least one of six crucial ways

Learn from the mistake of self-criticism, and you’ll be more effective in your relationships, and more understanding when someone else in a relationship is being to hard on their self.

(It will do wonders for your relationships.)

What do you think?

How has self-criticism hurt your relationships?

How can we learn from it to make our relationships better?

Share your thoughts below.

Want to learn more about how to transform self-criticism into response ability? Check out the free 10-part e-class, Your Life is Your Construct, which gives you practical tips on how to work with and learn from your negative emotions.



{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Cory June 23, 2011 at 8:32 am

Seeing as how we already live in a culture dominated by fear, guilt, and repression, it’s a shame that we buy into self-criticism as a valid way of expressing all the ways we don’t measure up to an illusory social standard.

Corporate culture is a projection of all our insecurities: we may choose to participate or not. When we choose to participate, we lose concept of the the true self and instead identify with external objects as proof of self-worth. This never leads to lasting self-esteem.

When we finally get to the point where we realize that the Self is enough–that the Self is the source of all our freedoms, expressions, and emotions–then we realize that we don’t need to feed into the cultural illness–that we can feed ourselves, and our relationships, with courage and strength and truth.

I’ve witnessed firsthand self-mutilation, self-injury, and suicidal gestures, which, IMO, are extreme manifestations of self-criticism. If we only understood the “divinity” of the Self, that we have universes within our own bodies, then would we continue to behave as such irresponsible gods?

Wonderful article, Melissa. You are a great writer.

Melissa Karnaze June 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Yes, it’s unfortunate that self-criticism goes along with the widespread dependence on external validation, which mainstream media and corporate culture most definitely pry on.

So much can be gained by simply deconstructing the statement, “I’m not good enough” and as you mention, illusory social standards.

John June 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Good day Melissa,

I agree with you, self critisism is rarely constructive. People often torture themselves with their perceived inadequacies: “Hopeless as a parent, wife/husband, host/hostess, cook, lover, home maker, provider, etc, etc”.

Self critisism, whether constructive or destructive is though, I think, a by-product of self awareness and I don’t think you can seperate them.

People can be prone to negative conclusions about themselves because of the environment they are in or the person they are trying to please. Self critisism can hurt or eventually destroy a relationship (be it personal or business) but sometimes we can mistake inadequacy for incompatability. If it makes you so unhappy then maybe it’s time to move on. Sometimes easier said than done I know.

The other day I applied fo a job which I thought I was fairly well qualified to do. I didn’t get the job so, of course, I started beating myself up about not being good enough, being too old, not having the right image, etc, etc. I later discovered that the vacancy had been filled before I had submitted my application. I felt immediately better as I had been ‘let off’ and did not have to spend days wondering why I was such a failure!

What I’m trying to say is that there are very often positive outcomes to be found in, what first appears to be, a completely negative situation. Very often, if we add humour into the mix, we can learn to live with our inadequacies and put them into perspective, – rather than give them the highest priority.

Anyway, another very good article Melissa – keep up the good work!

Kam July 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I agree overall with the points made. I try to acknowledge my shortcomings and my perceived shortcomings of others. It affects my feelings towards my closest family members.

I do give myself self critiscism, acknowledge my shortcomings and try to move on.

Robin August 1, 2011 at 6:10 pm

I think “I’m not good enough” is so widespread because we erronously assume there are things people should ‘just know’ as part of being a functional adult. Adults are supposed to ‘just know’ how to have a successful relationship, communicate effectively, and solve problems. And yet these skills are not formally taught anywhere in our day-to-day life. We’re supposed to just learn it somehow (by watching other adults, who are generally just as clueless as everyone else) and if you don’t ‘know it’ you’re hopeless, a failure, or just ‘not good enough’. Asking for help with these kinds of skills is likely to get you the ‘what the heck’s wrong with you?’ glance, or lots of useless bumpersticker advice. If I knew where to learn these kinds of skills, I certainly wouldn’t have half the troubles I do. They don’t teach this kind of stuff at your local community college, ya know.

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