Woman looking in mirror

Self-criticism can be both a healthy means of increasing self-awareness and personal growth, and, on the other hand, it can serve as a major obstacle to self-esteem and peace of mind. Self-criticism can stem from childhood experiences, such as being subject to criticism or mixed messages from parents and caretakers, having difficulty getting along with peers, missing out on experiences that would foster a sense of confidence and purpose, or not receiving positive reinforcement for our accomplishments. Self-criticism may also stem from real or perceived failures. To the degree it helps us learn lessons, display humility when we have behaved badly, and improve our mastery over ourselves and our endeavors, it can help us recover from and avoid failures and overcome our weaknesses, unwanted habits, and areas of unconsciousness. However, to the degree it prevents us from taking any risk, asserting opinions, and believing in our own basic ability to think, function and thrive, it can be unhelpful and unhealthful.

How Therapy Can Help with Self-Criticism

Self-criticism may be linked to anxiety disorders, depression, or dependent personality disorder. However, self-criticism is much more common than these conditions and does not necessarily indicate the presence of a disorder. Self-critics are often also critical of others; this can lead to social difficulties. Whether or not they criticize others, highly self-critical people may find it hard to keep friends; some elf-critics think and act as if they don’t deserve friends, and other people may just take their word for it!

Therapists can help people engage in useful self-criticism – which leads to revisions of one’s thinking, and solutions to one’s critiques – and to avoid the trap of the chronic kind of self-criticism – which consists of endless, rigid negativity and never seems to resolve. Therapy can help people to examine false beliefs and unnecessary fears that may lead to self-criticism.

Examples of Critical Thoughts

Self-criticism is typically experienced as negative internal thoughts about one's self. Here are some examples of common self-critical thoughts:

  • "I'm a failure."
  • "I can't do anything right."
  • "I'm not good enough."
  • "I'll never get better."

Everyone has personal doubts and criticisms from time to time, but if these self-criticisms are chronic and excessive they can negatively impact a person's relationship with themselves and others.

Case Example of Self-Criticism

Chronic unhappiness caused by self-criticism: Jane, 42, seems never to feel satisfied. Her large family brings her about equal amounts of stress and joy, her job is fulfilling to a degree but always induces anxiety, and her marriage is comforting at best, frustrating more often. Therapy reveals that none of these external circumstances is really the problem; Jane is relatively happy with her life and generally grateful. Rather, it is her persistent self-criticism, of which she is barely aware but which becomes quickly apparent to the therapist. Not surprisingly, she is also critical of others, but she saves her worst words for herself. Therapy reveals her own unrealistic expectations, which turn out in the end not to be hers at all – but her parents’, whom she had convinced herself were unimportant but turn out to be very powerful figures. Jane’s self-criticism reflects her parents’ critique of her. Therapy begins to enable Jane to remain aligned with her own values and beliefs, leading to enhanced relaxation.


Last updated: 07-03-2015

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