Once thought to only be associated with depression, self-criticism is a transdiagnostic risk factor for diverse forms of psychopathology.1,2 However, research has shown that self-compassion is a robust resilience factor when faced with feelings of personal inadequacy.3,4
Self-critical individuals experience feelings of unworthiness, inferiority, failure, and guilt. They engage in constant and harsh self-scrutiny and evaluation, and fear being disapproved and criticized and losing the approval and acceptance of others.5 Self-compassion involves treating oneself with care and concern when confronted with personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations.6,7Although self-criticism is the aspect of perfectionism most associated with maladjustment,8 one can be harshly self-critical without being a perfectionist. Most studies of self-criticism have not measured shame; however, this self-conscious emotion has been implicated in diverse forms of psychopathology.9 In contrast to guilt, which results from acknowledging bad behavior, shame results from seeing oneself as a bad or inadequate person.
Although self-criticism is destructive across clinical disorders and interpersonal relationships, self-compassion is associated with healthy relationships, emotional well-being, and better treatment outcomes.
Recent research shows how clinicians can teach their patients how to be less self-critical and more self-compassionate. Neff6,7 proposes that self-compassion involves treating yourself with care and concern when being confronted with personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations. It consists of 3 interacting components, each of which has a positive and negative pole:
- self-kindness vs self-judgment
- a sense of common humanity vs isolation
- mindfulness vs over-identification.
Self-kindness refers to being caring and understanding with oneself rather than harshly judgmental. Instead of attacking and berating oneself for personal shortcomings, the self is offered warmth and unconditional acceptance.
Humanity involves recognizing that humans are imperfect, that all people fail, make mistakes, and have serious life challenges. By remembering that imperfection is part of life, we feel less isolated when we are in pain.
Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion involves being aware of one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignores and avoids nor exaggerates painful thoughts and emotions.
Self-compassion is more than the absence of self-judgment, although a defining feature of self-compassion is the lack of self-judgment, and self-judgment overlaps with self-criticism. Rather, self-compassion provides several access points for reducing self-criticism. For example, being kind and understanding when confronting personal inadequacies (eg, “it’s okay not to be perfect”) can counter harsh self-talk (eg, “I’m not defective”). Mindfulness of emotional pain (eg, “this is hard”) can facilitate a kind and warm response (eg, “what can I do to take care of myself right now?”) and therefore lessen self-blame (eg, “blaming myself is just causing me more suffering”). Similarly, remembering that failure is part of the human experience (eg, “it’s normal to mess up sometimes”) can lessen egocentric feelings of isolation (eg, “it’s not just me”) and over-identification (eg, “it’s not the end of the world”), resulting in lessened self-criticism (eg, “maybe it’s not just because I’m a bad person”).
Several studies have found that self-criticism predicts depression. In 3 epidemiological studies, “feeling worthless” was among the top 2 symptoms predicting a depression diagnosis and later depressive episodes.10 Self-criticism in fourth-year medical students predicted depression 2 years later, and—in males—10 years later in their medical careers better than a history of depression.11 Self-critical perfectionism also is associated with suicidal ideation and lethality of suicide attempts.12
Self-criticism has been shown to predict depressive relapse and residual self-devaluative symptoms in recovered depressed patients.13 In one study, currently depressed and remitted depressed patients had higher self-criticism and lower self-compassion compared with healthy controls. Both factors were more strongly associated with depression status than higher perfectionistic beliefs and cognitions, rumination, and maladaptive emotional regulation.14
Self-criticism and response to treatment. In the National Institute of Mental Health Treatment of Depression Collaborative Research Program,15 self-critical perfectionism predicted a poorer outcome across all 4 treatments (cognitive-behavioral therapy [CBT], interpersonal psychotherapy [IPT], pharmacotherapy plus clinical management, and placebo plus clinical management). Subsequent studies found that self-criticism predicted poorer response to CBT16 and IPT.17 The authors suggest that self-criticism could interfere with treatment because self-critical patients might have difficulty developing a strong therapeutic alliance.18,19
Self-criticism is common across psychiatric disorders. In a study of 5,877 respondents in the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), self-criticism was associated with social phobia, findings that were significant after controlling for current emotional distress, neuroticism, and lifetime history of mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders.20 Further, in a CBT treatment study, baseline self-criticism was associated with severity of social phobia and changes in self-criticism predicted treatment outcome.21 Self-criticism might be an important core psychological process in the development, maintenance, and course of social phobia. Patients with social anxiety disorder have less self-compassion than healthy controls and greater fear of negative evaluation.