“Self-criticism is an art not many are qualified to practice”
– Joyce Carol Oates
So… I am going to let you all in on one of my pet peeves…
I think most individuals live their lives through a certain degree of self-criticism. Sometimes it can help one to self-monitor their progress in tasks, and in life, and sometimes it can enable one to avoid minor mistakes and arguments. For some of us though, self-criticism becomes a force to be reckoned with. It takes control and shapes far too much of our lives and relationships.
So, in light of these factors, why is it that the general consensus is that one cannot tell an individual suffering from depression to “just get over it” or to “just cheer up”, while it is still fully acceptable to tell someone that they are just being “too hard on themselves” or that they are just “beating themselves up”?
Trust me, I am one of the first ones to argue that depression is so much more than just being overly negative and weak, and I am glad that we have now reached a point where we have acknowledged the seriousness of the diagnosis. Hopefully, it can be a first step towards challenging the stigma that surrounds depression and mental health.
However, at least on a personal level, I feel that it is just as damaging to tell someone who is self-critical to just be kinder to themselves. Not only can self-criticism be a symptom of other difficulties but it can also be a coping mechanism that actually helps someone manage their life and retain some control through the chaos.
I have always been very self-critical and almost everyone I know has, at some point, told me to just “stop it”, to not “overreact so much” and to “be kinder to myself” and it is generally followed by a comment regarding how “doing that just makes everything worse” …
Now, I know that those words are often said out of frustration and that those around me simply wanted me to feel better, to see what they see, but what they did not realize was how those words affected me. They had no idea why I was so negative towards myself and how it had actually helped and supported me throughout my life.
When I was a child I was living, in what I now regard as, a total chaos. There were arguments, compulsions and numerous other factors in my life that I could not affect, control or cope with on my own. There has not been a day since that I have not wished I could have but I have to accept that I did not have the cognitive capacities at the time and, even if I did, I cannot control or change anyone but myself.
As a result of this, I created a highly self-critical approach towards myself. By being self-critical, I was able to gain what little control I could in my life and I was able to monitor and modify my own behaviours in a way that kept me out of trouble or kept me away from the most chaotic moments. As negative and damaging that self-criticism can be, and has been for me many a time, in that part of my life it was a supportive mechanism which helped me to survive and progress through life. It was a critical part of my own behaviour…, of my own approach to life.
So, to have someone tell me that “I’m just making things worse for myself” has been both hurtful and confusing to me. It has often made me feel incredibly shameful and guilty. I mean… I have never wanted to do the wrong things in life… I have never wanted to make things worse for myself… and because self-criticism is not something you can just “snap out of” those comments triggered me to be even more critical towards myself.
I have finally been able to reach a point in life where I can challenge that criticism and try to only utilize it in a beneficial way but it is still a struggle. An internal war which I have not yet been able to win.
So, for me the battle continues and I am sure that some of you will be fighting your own monsters beside me and whether you are a highly self-critical individual yourself or not I simply want to leave you with this message;
PLEASE, do not ever tell someone who is self-critical that they just need to “snap out of it” and “stop making things worse for themselves” because even if it is said in love it can be incredibly hurtful and can actually create the opposite response than what you intended. You will never know exactly why someone is self-critical, and whether it is on a beneficial level or not, so just support and love those around you and recognise their struggle and the progress they are making. That is what can truly make a difference.