Global Self-Condemnation versus Specific Self-Critique

Just a reminder: please go back and read previous posts in order, so that all these topics make sense and fit into a consistent paradigm for achieving recovery.

Today I want to talk, not just about what else to take off your mental repertoire as part of improving mental discipline, but also what to add to it.

Often when people are distressed they think that they are overly self-critical. Many therapists reinforce this notion by repeatedly telling people that they ‘just need to learn to love themselves more’. But this instruction is so broad that it is difficult to know exactly what you need to do in order to ‘love yourself more’. For example, do you say positive affirmations everyday, or do you treat yourself to more lollies and chocolate, or do you go easy on yourself whenever you exercise or have to do some study because you deserve a bit of a rest, or do you not bother to reflect on yourself and improve when you have made a mistake, because you think you ought not be so hard on yourself? All of these, are everyday dilemmas that people face and it is necessary to examine what is going on here in order to find a consistent, rational and effective response to resolve these issues.

From my clinical experience, it is true that following an upset, distressed and anxious people often metaphorically curl-up in the foetal position telling themselves that they are ‘unloveable’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘useless’, ‘stupid’, ‘idiotic’,’hopeless’, ‘bad’, ‘dumb’, ‘ugly’, ‘boring’ or ‘a loser’. Words like these are what I mean by my title of global self-condemnation. They are terms that dismiss yourself (or another person) in one single, global or all-encompassing word. The words suggest that you are irredeemable, beyond help and a waste of space.

It is important to realise though, that these global condemnation terms represent sloppy thinking. This is because they are necessarily inaccurate – in that no person is just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘energetic’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘clever’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. There are many other factors involved in making complex judgements (such as if you love someone enough they will look beautiful to you even if other people don’t agree, and, sometimes the most conventionally ‘ugly’ things in nature are the most spectacularly ‘beautiful’ like a tiny, spindly, misshappen, deformed-looking tree that has survived against all odds to grow out of a barren, desolate landscape). Also, each of us responds overwhelmingly to context and we can, for example, be very, very smart in some situations and very, very dumb in other situations (depending on what we have practised). So it is inaccurate and misleading to use these global descriptions towards yourself or towards other people.

But then we need to ask ourselves why might people use them? What purpose does it serve to use these terms?

What I have found in my clinical work is that people use these terms because they incorrectly believe they cannot tolerate the distress (see last blog) of rigorous self-examination. Now this might sound quite contradictory because if you call yourself stupid, ugly, unloveable, bad, useless or terrible – aren’t you subjecting yourself to the most rigorous self-critique?

Well no, you’re not – and this is why.

Even though people call themselves all these hateful global terms and they feel as though they are really beating themselves up badly – this is actually a strategy that lets them off the hook and allows them to avoid having to take responsibility and reflect upon themselves and make small, effective, incremental behavioural changes and improvements. Whenever we curl up in the foetal position like a victim saying how bad we are, whether we know it or not, we are using global self-insults precisely because they are global. When the insult is global – it is by definition all encompassing – in other words, it is too big to change.

The thinking goes along the lines of ‘I’m so useless, I’m so hopeless, I’m so bad, I’m irredeemable, what’s the point, it’s too hard to change, I might as well give up, this is too painful, I wish I was dead’. At this point in the thinking process if the person is sufficiently demoralised they could harm themselves. More often though, what people do to get themselves out of this pit of despair is they utilise the anger strategy. Anger is a very motivating strategy that allows a person who might otherwise feel completely powerless, to activate into taking action on their own behalf by accessing anger thoughts towards others so that their focus is diverted externally and away from their internal self-loathing. So generally the person turns from ‘I’m so hopeless/useless/bad/irredeemable and I wish I was dead’ to ‘this world is stuffed, other people are horrible, why do I bother even trying, I’m too good for this world, I deserve better, stuff them all I’m just going to look out for myself from now on’ etc. etc.

At the conclusion of this process the person has motivated themselves sufficiently to keep going with life, but, there has been no proper reflection and no specific self-critique and therefore there has been no change and no improvement. When there is the next crisis the same global self-condemnation strategy will be employed and the same exit strategy of anger will be applied for motivation. At this point the person has, yet again, avoided having to specifically examine their own role in the original crisis.

So the self-condemnation strategy has served its purpose. The person who believes they cannot tolerate the distress of examining and improving their own behaviour has managed yet again to escape proper self-reflection.

By the way, with lots of practise people get good at taking short-cuts in their thinking. They may no longer be explicitly aware of the self-loathing aspect when they are challenged or when a crisis happens and their thinking processes often skip straight to the motivation part, of anger/blame thoughts with an external focus such as ‘other people are horrible/awful/mean/aggressive/insensitive therefore I’m not going to bother talking or arguing or engaging – I’ll just withdraw – I’ll take my bat and go home’. Notice that even though the thought process skips the self-loathing aspect the outcome is the same in that there has been no change, and no improvement because there has been no proper self-reflection or taking of responsibility. There has been a type of exiting from life without actually physically killing the body.

As you can probably see, employing the self-condemnation strategy has a huge price. It keeps distressed people thinking either that they are hopeless, useless, bad, stupid, unloveable OR that others are horrible/awful/insensitive/greedy/mean/nasty/power-hungry/unprincipled and so on. This is a victim-world that is frozen in time – where nothing changes. It is a strategy that has usually been employed since childhood or teenage years so it has the same didactic, black and white, good and evil quality of childhood thinking.

Using the global self-condemnation strategy in order to avoid specific self-critique will keep you locked into this bleak, self-loathing, powerless prison for a lifetime if you let it, and no amount of fatuous positive affirmations will change that.

On the other hand you can learn to specifically and constructively critique your own behaviour at every opportunity, which will free you from this didactic bind. Even though it might seem counter-intuitive, frequent and specific self-critique and the constant incremental improvements that come from it – enable you to actually learn to genuinely respect yourself and enable you to build strong self-esteem and confidence. This is the key to getting out of that desolate prison.

When we specifically critique ourselves we are demonstrating to our own brain that we can tolerate acknowledging our own mistakes and we can then properly take responsibility for making them and we can then make amends and improvements that will lead to better outcomes in the future. If we avoid doing this we are constantly teaching our brain that we cannot bear the distress of acknowledging mistakes (because we are too mentally puny and weak to deal with that knowledge) and that we cannot take responsibility (because we are too victim/child like to be able to cope with that adult responsiblity) and we teach ourselves that we are incapable of making changes in our behaviour. All of which is nonsense.

Specific self-critique looks something like the following example:

Yesterday when I was over-tired I behaved badly. I was impatient and abrupt with Susan. That was unfair and unkind of me and it must have hurt her. It is also unlikely to give me a good outcome since she may no longer want to be my friend. To correct this situation I need to 1. Apologise to Susan and 2. In future try not to get so over-tired and 3. If I inadvertantly do become over-tired (as will happen from time to time) then instead of going hard and rigid and trying to push myself through the tiredness I will instead slow down a bit and become softer. I’ll see if that works and gets me a better outcome next time, otherwise I will re-think it.

Some points to notice about this example:

I identify specifically when I behaved badly – it was yesterday (not everyday). I reflect on the probable cause (over-tiredness) which will help me identify future situations that I need to be aware of. I say I behaved badly – not I am ‘bad’. We all behave badly at times, that doesn’t matter since none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes – the important thing is being willing to acknowledge the mistake and correct it. I identify the specific behaviour (I was impatient and abrupt). I take proper responsibility for the problematic behaviour by acknowledging the harm done to both parties by my behaviour (it was unfair, unkind, and it would have hurt Susan, and, as a result she may quite reasonably no longer want to be friends – which gives me a bad outcome also). Then I problem-solve what action I have to take to try to correct the situation (Apologise, try in future not to get over-tired, and if I do get over-tired then slow down and go soft rather than harden up to push through it). Then I plan for a re-evaluation (I’ll see if this new behaviour works better, if not, I’ll think of something else and try that).

This specific self-critique is crucial for making progress in life – it is crucial for self-improvement. The more you do it the better. At least several times a week ask yourself how you could have done things better. Acknowledge your errors, but do it constructively by being specific (not global). So many people are trapped in the prison of self-loathing or hatred or distrust of others as a means of avoiding self-critique. Global insults have often been used by parents (like you’re so ‘selfish’ ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’) so that the children, as adults, have internalised these global terms and used them against themselves. Forget the global terms – they are inaccurate and sloppy – instead critique yourself often so you can achieve hundreds and hundreds of small incremental improvements that make all the difference over a lifetime.