The Role of Self-Criticism And How it Negatively Impacts Relationships.

Dear Friends and Readers,

The other day I read an article that said that studies have found that there was link between people who were traumatized as children and difficulties in relationships. The article went on to describe how the tests were conducted and the size of the study groups. This was frustrating. I wanted to know why. Of course, I researched the issue and I discovered the missing link: self-criticism. Who knew?

We already know that the earliest bonds between primary care givers and children can have a profound effect, and that they have a significant effect on  a person’s future relationship with themselves and others.  Studies say that when parents give children autonomy, encourage them to attempt things for themselves, and allow them to make mistakes without censure, children are likely to develop self-confidence and grow up with a sense of security regarding their own choices. Authoritarian parenting styles meaning parenting that is marked by rigidity and control may have the effect of fostering negative self-perceptions and a low sense of self-worth in children. “When children feel rejected by  their parents, are not treated with warmth and compassion, or are frequently criticized they may be more likely to grow up overly critical of themselves and others.”

This in itself is a significant finding and resonates deeply for me. I cannot ever recall either of my parents complimenting me on anything. I  have always felt rejected particularly by my mother and by my father who later sexually abused me. Mistakes were treated with harsh punishments far exceeding the mistake. For instance, once my sister and I broke a bottle of shaving tonic. The aftershave might have cost three dollars, maybe less. We were punished by having to work to pay for a new bottle. Our rate of pay was a penny a hour. Our work was hard labor- literally moving buckets of rock from our basement which had been jack hammered leaving huge blocks of rock with mud connected to them. We worked an entire summer to make up that three dollars. Given this harsh example which occurred often in my childhood,  it is  not surprising that I am ever watchful, ever anxious of making mistakes. I fear that the wrath of the universe will come upon my head as it did when I was a child.

Mental health professionals say occasional self-doubt is generally considered a normal part of life, but chronic or excessive self-criticism may contribute to depression, social anxiety, body image issues and a sense of worthlessness. Self-criticism can also be linked with perfectionism, self harm and eating and food issues.  (To some extent, I am haunted by all of these issues.)

The significant element about self-criticism and how it relates to relationships is this: In some cases, a tendency towards self-criticism may lead one to project negative beliefs onto other people, which may lead to the expectation of outside criticism or negative feed back. When negativity and censure is expected interpersonal relationships maybe impacted. Therefore fearing this criticism from others may lead a self-critical individual to withdraw and isolate. More importantly, an individual who is self critical may also find it difficult to assert personal needs  and desires and may be more likely to exhibit submissiveness in relationships with others, out of fear that voicing an opinion will lead to criticism. Believe it or not, this is how I operate in relationships! 

I never saw this cycle because it was so deeply ingrained in my way of being. If you grow up in a harsh critical environment where little or no love was expressed between any one, it’s not hard to see why I would become the harsh critical person that I am. For those of you, who aren’t swimming or seeped in the fear of criticism, this may seem unbelievable. But combine feelings of worthlessness and depression and anxiety and fear and you can start to see how someone with these types of feelings won’t ask for or express their true feelings. This is so especially if they believe their significant other sees them the way they see themselves. What one also has to remember, often times these self-critical people like myself, don’t see ourselves as other people see us. We see ourselves as losers, not good enough, inadequate and undeserving of love. We don’t ask for what we want because we feel that we won’t get it or worse that we don’t deserve it. We are impervious to reality. We believe we are  monsters hiding beneath our exteriors and at some point we will be revealed and exposed.

Let’s carry this scenario out further. The undeserving, subservient, self -critical person who feels that they have to over-give, over-compensate eventually gets tired of over-giving.  At some point they lash out after months or years of suppressing their feelings. They have given hoping that their partners will automatically reciprocate, although they are never asked to do so. Our partners are confused and stunned by our pent up rage and oftentimes remove themselves from it. This is so because it occurs to them that our rage is coming from nowhere and is undeserved. In fact, it often is because we the self-critical have never expressed our desires or wants. This is what has happened to me in relationships. I hope, as I did as a child, that my “parents” would notice that I needed something. They never did.

As adult I project all the nasty unkind things that I think and believe about myself onto the other person. In this mad cycle I have ended many relationships. I feel relieved because I don’t have to try so hard. I end up alone to live with my own harsh self-critic who I actually believe.

What there is to do about this is first realize that this is happening. This is hard to do especially in isolation. Becoming aware is the first step. Notice the negative self-thoughts. Ask yourself who is that voice? If I answer truthfully it is my mother’s voice. Then once, I recognize the self-critical voice I can “talk my self down.” Meaning I can use my analytical skills. I ask myself is this true? Often times I answer “no.”  If my self criticism is true or valid to any extent, I ask myself “Is it helpful?” If it’s not helpful I can simply notice it and let it go by.

Over the next few days I am going to keep a record of my bad thoughts. When do they happen? What do these bad thoughts say? What feelings and thoughts do they generate? This work is the work that I will have to do to begin to notice and re-direct my self-criticism. I may have to do this for quite some time, but that’s ok. All those negative self-critical thoughts live within in me. I project them out and then I believe that other people see me the way I see myself. I must learn to accept compliments and to let them really permeate inside of my soul instead of  discarding them as worthless because the person who has complimented me  does not meet my ridiculous standards.

If you see yourself in any of this, use some of these tools to fight back the years of self-criticism and lack of self-worth. The sooner you start the better you will feel about yourself. I know that since I began to look at my thoughts and to analyze them instead of accepting them or pushing them away that I am happier and more at peace and less depressed and anxious. It’s a journey, but it’s worth it.


Brianna S. Clark
The Addict Writes

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