SMaRT Strategies for Surviving Self-Judgment and the Criticism of Others
Read Time: 10 minutes, 8 seconds
Do you know your limits? Do you know your potential? Do you berate yourself for not doing more, better, and more often?
When you look at your life with the eyes of self-judgment, you come up with one set of answers; when you look at your life with the eyes of self-compassion, you very likely come up with a different set. Yet exercising compassion toward yourself is far more difficult than exercising judgment.
Living in a constant state of self-judgment and being judged is stressful. If you are stressed, you may fall into the habit of denigrating even the things you do well: if you can do them well, they aren’t worth doing.
Stress, like depression and anxiety, distorts self-judgment. Sixty people with anxiety and depression were asked to perform a memory task and then judge their own performance. Most of them thought they had performed better on the task than they had. But as anxiety and depression rose, they felt less pleasure in that fact. This attitude is called “discounting positives.” Because their judgment was distorted, they could not enjoy success, even when they met their own measure of success.
How do you react when other people criticize you? Do you immediately absorb their criticism and even expand upon it, berating yourself for your failure to measure up? Do you react with anger and blame?
If you judge yourself harshly, you may also judge others harshly—turning to blame, ridicule, and anger toward others as a way to relieve your stress and anxiety. If it is always someone else’s fault that things never work out as they should, if it is their judgment that is misguided and their inability to see how wrong they are, then nothing is ever your fault.
SMaRT Strategies for Surviving Self-Judgment
Self-judgment causes stress, anxiety, depression, shame, and fear. When you judge yourself, you tend to think in terms of:
- Always and never: “I always goof off,” “I never pay attention,” I always get this wrong,” “I never say the right thing.”
- Should and ought: “I should work harder,” “I should know this,” “I ought to say something,” “I shouldn’t be so fearful.”
- Must and perfect: “I must get this done before 5 pm,” “I must hand in a perfect report,” “I must impress this boss,” “I must have the right answer.”
- Exactly and completely: “There must be an exactly right way to do this, and I should know exactly what it is.” “This is completely wrong, and I’m a complete idiot to think I can fix it.”
When you consider others, you are probably more generous and patient. Other people do the best they can, they try, they have good qualities that you appreciate, and they will likely improve with more help, practice, or time. Only you must be perfect immediately and always.
Even if you have clear reason to berate yourself, dwelling on your failures keeps you trapped in a cycle of negative self-judgment, unable to move forward. By releasing self-judgment, you release yourself to find joy and pleasure, to grow and change, and to build on your strengths.
Here are six SMaRT strategies for surviving self-judgment:
- Ban the negative. If you berate yourself, and particularly if you condemn yourself in words like “stupid,” “ugly,” “worthless,” and “incompetent,” immediately stop and shift your thoughts to a positive. You may find solace in a personal mantra, such as “I am what I am,” “Compassion and peace,” or “I am worthy.”
- Look outward. What is happening around you? Breathe in the scents, look for the beauty, feel the ground beneath your feet, bring your senses back from your endless cycling of the past and into the present with mindfulness.
- Change your vocabulary. Banish “never, always, must, should, and perfect, and exactly” from your vocabulary. When you hear yourself saying those words to yourself (or to others), take a step back, close your eyes, and breathe.
- Practice saying, “thank you.” One study of stressful behavior found that stressed people sought out positive social contact with someone they could trust in order to destress. You have to be willing, however, to accept compliments and encouragement—fake it if you have to. A simple “thank you”—no qualifications or demurs—is all you need to say.
- Change your point of view. Would you show compassion to a friend? Would you judge a friend as harshly as you judge yourself? Would you expect as much from a friend? Remind yourself to give that gift of friendship to yourself.
- Look at the time. Unless you have blown up the entire world and everyone in it—in which case, you won’t be reading this—you have time to forgive yourself and others, apologies (whether or not the apology is accepted), learn and try again. You might also remind yourself that the thing you berate yourself for was one time. Use your SMaRT strategies to improve your skills and ask for help that might prevent or mediate the next time.
SMaRT Strategies for Surviving Criticism
Good criticism is specific and grounded in the present. Bad criticism, like bad self-judgment, is filled with words like “never” and “always” and may contain insults or other personal remarks that leave you feeling terrible without a path to improvement. For example, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” “You never think before you act,” “You should know what to do by now,” or “Do you do this stuff on purpose?”
The problem is: everyone hates to be criticized, the good way or the bad way. Maybe “constructive criticism” exists but at the time it is given, it hardly feels constructive. Scientists have located the response to criticism in the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. Those two spots go on alert during criticism, jogging your memory of past criticisms and inaugurating the “fight or flight” response. Your brain tells you that you are under attack and you have been under attack in the same way before.
A great deal of research has gone into what psychologists call “the negative bias.” Human beings tend to remember other people’s bad actions more vividly than good ones, believe negative information more than positive, and dwell on negative experiences. This bias may be a survival mechanism—lookout for the bad stuff and the good stuff will take care of itself—yet it has a strong influence over our relationships, decision making, and perception of others, and not in a good way.
The following SMaRT strategies will help you toward your goal of surviving criticism:
- Seek more information. When you receive criticism, ask, “What should I do differently in the future,” “What can I do to make this better,” and other open-ended questions. That way, you focus on what the other person expects, not what they think of you personally. When you communicate in this way, you avoid the major sources of conflict that result from criticism.
- Say, thank you. Thanking the person who criticizes you is both disarming for overly harsh critics and appropriate for those who are justifiably and politely asking you to change or recognize the possibility that you are wrong. The act of gratitude counters the stress of criticism and increases your resilience in surviving criticism. Moreover, people who express gratitude—for criticism or any other interaction—receive a 50 percent increase in the amount of help they are offered.
- Work on it. Does the criticism indicate an area where you might improve or change your way of doing things? Most criticisms contain a kernel of truth. Again, agreeing to do better is both disarming for someone who asks you for the impossible and appropriate for those who are justifiably and politely criticizing something in your control. Just be sure you know the difference and follow through as best you can.
- Create a happiness or brag book. To overcome negative bias, list the things about yourself, the experiences and relationships you’ve had, and the information you have learned that brings you happiness. Create a brag book to remind yourself of the accomplishments you deserve to be proud of, both at work and at home.
The judgments we make about ourselves are often harsher than the judgments we make of others. Self-judgment keeps us bound to old errors and prevents us from moving on and accepting criticism gracefully. SMaRT practices such as mantra mindfulness and conflict resolution help to turn self-judgment and criticisms into opportunities for growth and change.