The way we criticise ourselves can take many forms but the result is usually the same - we feel we aren’t good enough, that other people are better than us or we can never achieve or reach perfection despite feeling driven to. The resulting feelings can be pretty negative - we can feel down, sad, angry, depressed, anxious etc.
According to TA theory, the Parent ego state is integrated in our earlier life - see previous blog - we integrate values, judgements, messages and so on from our parents and parental figures - e.g. older siblings, relatives, teachers etc. If our parents are critical then we will integrate this into our own Parent ego state and become internally critical towards ourselves.
It often works like this: If a parent is critical towards a child then the child will normally believe them - if they weren’t to believe them then this would make the parent wrong in their eyes and therefore flawed and not OK. Now for a child to realise his parents are wrong and not OK can be disastrous - if a child’s primary care givers are flawed then where does that leave the child? Not in a very good or safe place and the child’s chances of happiness and indeed survival are diminished. The child looks up to the parent and wants to keep them in a good place - therefore they believe the parent but to do so must mean that they themselves are the problem, that there is something wrong with them and they are no good. Further for the child, to believe that there is something wrong with themselves saves the parent from doing so - something which is more catastrophic for the child.
Now obviously this doesn't sit well with the child and so to try to compensate they may start to believe that 'to be OK around here then I have to make sure that I get things right, don’t mess up, be perfect' etc.
Many people who have a critical Parent are sensitive to criticism - it can be very hurtful for them and they’ll try to prevent it at all costs (eg by being perfect). Remember such a person is down on themselves enough as it is, striving to get things right - if someone else criticises them then this means that they are failing at this.
For some, being critical of themselves can be a form of protection - if they believe they are bad then they will ‘get there first before anyone else’ - therefore this lessens the impact of other negative reactions towards them. If they are their own worst enemy then anyone else can only do minimal damage.
Many people believe that being critical of themselves is good for them - it pushes them and makes them become a better human being, they don’t want to lose this part of themselves as they worry that if they do so their standards might drop. They think they are doing themselves a favour by being more productive, not taking their eye off the ball etc but the result is actually that they are stifled, they feel down, hurt, in the doldrums.
Further they may feel that they don't deserve to be kind to themselves (or deserve kindness from others) - it feels alien to them - this is because inside they feel not ok. Instead, being critical of themselves keeps them in a familiar and comfortable place despite it being a pretty horrible place!
When such people do have success and ‘get it right’, the feel good factor is usually short lived (if lived at all). The old familiar drive soon kicks back in and they are back on the treadmill towards perfection.
So how can you ameliorate this part of yourself you may be wondering?
A good trick is to imagine saying what you say to yourself to someone else - and ask yourself: would I do that? The chances are you wouldn’t say such things to someone else so why say them to yourself.
Another thing to try can be to try imagining saying those things to yourself as a small child.
A question that is useful to ask yourself is - ‘How does this help me?” - you may think it does help but ultimately does it? Do the ‘positive’ results in your life outweigh the bad feelings and further, is being self critical the only way to get those ‘good results’? In my experience this is not the case and being supportive and kind to yourself is much more effective. Further, an important challenge to yourself can be changing what actually constitutes ‘good and positive results’ in your own world view.
A good exercise can be to sit and think about your good points - if you cant do this then its a good idea to talk to someone else - someone close or your therapist if you have one, and get them to tell your good points. The chances are that you find it hard to take compliments so a good exercise to try when someone does pay you a complement is to just sit with it, let it wash over you - see how that feels and be mindful of it - explore what happens to you inside. This may be uncomfortable but the exploration may throw up some realisations for you.
Being in such a way may feel so ingrained that it may feel almost impossible to shift. The first step is awareness which I’m guessing you may have if you’re reading this article. It also takes time and practice but most importantly of all it takes support - so try sharing this with a good friend or partner or if this is difficult then this is where therapy can really help.