There’s a definite way people who suffer from depression tend to be self-critical. If you suffer from depression and can tune into your inner dialogue, you might become aware that you see life through the lens of self-criticism. But I’ve noticed that this inner dialogue is usually subtle and goes without recognition. You might just assume that the things you tell yourself are simply true.
Of course, the reason your friend hasn’t texted you back is because you did something to upset her. You just assume you aren’t performing as well as you should at work and it’s a matter of time before your supervisor discovers it. Of course your boyfriend is interested in someone else because you don’t have very much to offer. If you get into a fight with your partner, you might feel frustrated but at the end of the day you believe you’re the one to blame.
It takes some time to become of aware of this way of thinking about yourself and to allow yourself to question it. It just feels so true.
Self-criticism and depression go hand in hand. And it’s one of the things that keeps depression locked in place. But why would anyone do this to themselves?
Where does self-criticism come from?
The tendency towards self-criticism develops within early relationships with caregivers, and it also has to do with a person’s natural temperament. We find that certain temperaments in children tend towards self-criticism. These are children who are naturally sensitive, empathic, perhaps introverted, and are drawn towards depth and self-reflection. They may easily empathize with other people, they might be easily affected by the emotional climate of their environment, they may have sensitive nervous systems, and feel deeply. You might notice that there are gifts as well as liabilities that come with this type of temperament. Individuals of this kind are deep thinkers, natural healers, and might be gifted in body movement. You already know some of the liabilities, especially the tendency towards taking in too much from the environment and self-criticism. If you’re someone like this, you might experience more somatic concerns or environmental sensitivities.
Chronic self-criticism also takes shape from the relational environment with early caregivers. Not all children with this kind of temperament end up stuck in chronic depression when they are supported in their natural gifts. But what if you are a child like this who grows up with parents who don’t take responsibility for their feelings and instead need you to take care of their emotional needs? Without even being aware of it, you might take on your parents’ feelings of shame as if they were your own. You would then keep the relationship in tact, which also indirectly takes care of your own needs. For example, a parent lashes out in anger against her child because she had a bad day and just doesn’t feel good about herself. Her child might have done something annoying to provoke her, but nothing out of the ordinary for a child. Mom can’t acknowledge her own feelings or the fact that she hurt her child. Instead, she blames her daughter for what happened. A sensitive child tends to absorb the blame rather than questioning or fighting back. She needs to stay connected to her mother so she can remain emotionally safe.
So self-criticism becomes an ingrained way of perceiving and navigating the world.
What’s the effect of self-criticism?
Depression. Self-criticism is associated with other issues too but it holds depression in place.
It also leads to a distorted view of the world and of relationships. People with depression can spin situations to fit their view of the world in the most creative of ways. It takes a lot of mental acrobats to make situations in life always your fault. But the fact is that this lens of viewing yourself as always at fault is skewed and keeps you trapped within self-limiting work situations, repetitive relationship patterns, and in depressive symptoms. It keeps you from taking risks because you believe that if you don’t succeed, you are at fault. Wouldn’t it be different if risk-taking that did not lead to a desired outcome instead led to resilience and greater creativity in moving forward? When there are roadblocks in life, as there always are, self-criticism leads to a lack of resilience.
Relationships look distorted too. If you’re always at fault, it’s hard to have relationships based on equality and creativity.
Of course these patterns are not easily transformed. In this blog post, my intention is to give you some understanding of this way of relating to yourself and the world. In my next post, I’ll talk about some ways to begin to transform self-criticism. Please know that it is a process, however, that takes time and gradual awareness.
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