Often, in my clinical work, I hear people say they are far too ‘hard’ on themselves. They tell me that they regularly ‘beat themselves up’ and this ‘causes’ their low self-esteem.
This is frequently reinforced by therapists who tell people they ought to challenge and silence their inner critic and instead love themselves unconditionally.
In contrast, I find in my work that most people are nowhere near hard enough on themselves. My experience is that people demonstrate a multitude of strategies that allow them to evade taking responsibility and calling themselves to account – and this is often why they need assistance.
Also, in contrast, I find that when people do eventually learn to critique themselves more frequently, they actually develop much better self-esteem.
So, why do people resist self-critique? The short answer is because they are deeply frightened that it will make them feel bad, regret and shame about themselves.
When people have come from difficult backgrounds, they are particularly terrified of self-reflection since they believe they cannot tolerate any distress without drowning in it. These people often remain frozen in time, locked into childhood strategies that fail to progress because of a lack of self-critique.
The reality is that once we have our full brains (early-mid 20’s) we can all tolerate enormous distress without the slightest sign of mental collapse.
Nonetheless, this fear makes many people contort themselves into using the ‘global self-condemnation’ strategy which (via a sleight of hand) allows them to never take responsibility or change even though they ‘appear’ to be beating themselves up.
To achieve their desired outcome people ‘globally’ insult themselves. Like ‘Yeah. I’m a stupid idiot’ or ‘I’m the worst mother ever’ or ‘I’m a useless piece of sh*t’ or ‘Yeah, I know I’m a complete loser’ and so on.
These statements are self-condemning, and they are global, in that words like stupid, worst, useless, sh*t or loser, wipe out the entire or global value of the person in one mighty stroke.
This strategy clearly has the appearance of extreme self-abuse, but the reality is very different. What happens is that global self-abuse largely removes the possibility of more sophisticated nuanced thought: things become black and white.
This likely occurs because huge populations of neural synapses ‘devoted’ to childlike, rigid, black and white content are activated by paying attentional focus to the self-abuse agenda.
Then, applying the neuroscientific principle of ‘what fires together, wires together’, once this ‘rigid’ style of thought is activated, our brains readily offer up other downstream populations of synapses with different but highly related content. These downstream populations are likely to be equally rigid in their content and merely the opposite side of the same coin.
As a result, people can then very effectively switch from extreme self-abuse into extreme outward abuse of others.
In other words they can go from ‘I’m such a useless idiot’ and ‘I’m such a f*ck up’ to ‘he/she is such a useless idiot’ and ‘the world is so f*cked up’.
At this point, all their focussed attention is outwards, blaming others and seeing themselves as the victim, and they have managed to evade taking any responsibility and have not changed one iota in the process.
However, what many people fail to realise is the huge price we pay for not taking proper responsibility.
We remain in a perpetual state of angry and resentful victimhood, an extended infantile rage. When we don’t acknowledge our own contribution, we cannot influence outcomes for the better. For example, if we see ourselves as 100% the victim, then we don’t perceive any need to change, reflect on our errors or improve our behaviours. We tend to see ourselves as ‘victims’ of random events whether good and bad.
In contrast, when we properly reflect and admit our mistakes, it makes us active agents in our own lives rather than passive victims. We take responsibility for both our mistakes and for our successes – since both have come about through our own behaviours. As we incrementally learn from our errors over the decades our successes are increasingly reinforced, enabling our self-esteem to dramatically improve.
Also, contrary to the fear that self-critique will make us disappear into an abyss of shame, admitting our errors aids us profoundly in realising that we can, in fact, cope with our mistakes – thereby moving us efficiently through resolution of our regrets and sadness and onwards towards much greater mental resilience.