Why Are We So Self-Critical?

Nathan Miller
3 min readAug 2, 2022

Some brief thoughts on internal judgements.

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

From a very young age, we are taught the art of judgement. As a child, we enter a world of praise or criticism, reward or punishment. If we draw a pretty picture, if we eat our vegetables, if we share our toys, then the people around us will be pleased. If we eat too much chocolate, if we play too rough, if we make a scene, then the people around us will be displeased. As a social animal, from the moment we start to relate to others, we enter a structure of appraisal. Good/bad, kind/unkind, generous/selfish, right/wrong, clever/stupid.

A possible understanding of consciousness is to equate it with self-perception, the awareness of the self. Once we are able to recognise ourselves in the mirror, we begin to tell a story about our behaviour. This story imagines ourselves ‘at the wheel’, navigating the world. This means that internal discussions can take place such as ‘I could have done this, but I did this’. The mapping of those possibilities separates what we did do, from what we could have done. As you stare at the menu you can consider ‘what will I have for dinner?’. You stare at the crossroads and you pick a path: pizza.

These internal discussions, right from the word go, are coloured by society’s value-judgements. Not only do we consider what we ‘can’ or ‘wish’ to do, we begin to consider what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do. An option is proposed and then an internal council begins to debate whether this option is a kind one, a selfish one or a stupid one. We might respond in different ways to the internal council. We might solemnly follow the ‘right’ path that is decreed, or we might angrily or defensively ignore this path. We might do the ‘wrong’ thing but then feel very bad about it. But whoever you are, and whatever you choose, you cannot avoid the chorus of voices inside the mind who have an opinion on the choice.

Plenty has been written about where those voices come from. Parents, siblings, friends, teachers, preachers and even the glances of strangers on the street. It’s a rich tapestry, one that some people find useful to explore later on in life. Some of the most damaging internalised value judgements get to the very heart of who we are, be that race, gender, culture, sexuality or disability. Because of this, gaining separation from these opinions can be truly liberating.

Sitting quietly and observing your thoughts allows you to watch these internal discussions play out. Notice in particular the ‘should’ words: ‘I should have done this’, ‘I need to do this’ and ‘I mustn’t forget to do that’. Ask yourself what is lurking behind that urgent feeling. Which judgement are you trying to avoid? Which judgement have you already handed out? For example, ‘I shouldn’t have said that to her’ might be based on the judgement: ‘I was selfish when I said that’. Picture the internal judge, with a white beard and a loud gavel. Or perhaps a stern council, with frowning faces, shaking their heads slowly.

Then consider that this image is just a story you are telling yourself.

We deeply fear letting go of self-judgement. Without the controlling voice, rating and adjudicating our every move we fear that we will fall into darkness and disrepair. We won’t bother to work hard, to be nice to people, we will become who we secretly believe we are deep down… lazy, selfish or unkind.

And yet, the alternative to self-judgement is not reckless or mindless behaviour. It’s simply a different kind of reflection. A kind one. A compassionate one.

Instead of loudly condemning ourselves, we can try a different approach: a gentle curiosity. ‘When I did that, why did I do that?’, ‘What might be a kinder explanation for why I behaved like that?’ and ‘When they did that, I wonder what was upsetting/bothering/scaring them?’. The less you judge yourself, the less you will judge others.

Rather than straining to change ourselves or others, we can wonder instead why we are the way we are. The less tightly we grip, the more we will understand.

Self-compassion can run counter to some of our deepest instincts about how to protect ourselves. It can feel reckless and leave us feeling exposed.

But it’s worth the risk.

--

--