Self-criticism in the workplace: Understand why it’s there so you can move through it and feel more capable.

man sat at a table with his face in his hands

Written by Kelley Griffiths

Mindfulness-based health coach, in love with Yoga Nidra, movement, currently studying contemplative psychotherapy, currently living in Berlin, Germany.

June 2, 2021

It’s Monday and you’re sitting in a meeting and your friend and coworker has made a huge mistake. They go bright red and walk out of the room. You can tell they’re going to be down for the rest of the day and you desperately don’t want them to feel like that. It’s clear they’re being critical of themselves and you just want to make those thoughts disappear for them because they don’t deserve it. 

Now you’re sitting in a meeting. You make a mistake. You go bright red. The rest of the day is spent ruminating and beating yourself up inside. Do you treat yourself with the same kindness you wanted your friend to treat herself? Probably not.

Welcome to self-criticism and it’s powerful, powerful ways! 

What we really need in these moments is self-compassion, but this can be hard to come by. Especially because most of us have been led to believe that being ‘easy and soft’ on yourself and not practicing hard love will end up is in us never getting better, improving ourselves or our lives. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, self-compassion is MORE motivating than self-criticism and has higher returns, let me tell you why. 

What is Self Criticism

First up, let’s be clear about what self-criticism is and let’s check if you have this personality trait (yes, according to a study by Zuroff et al in 2016 self-criticism is both a personality trait and a personality state). 

You’re at work and you’ve totally forgotten about a presentation you were meant to give. You had the wrong date in your calendar and are completely unprepared. You have to tell your boss you can’t do it today and they’re a little pissed. How do you feel and what do you do?

Do you start putting yourself down? Do you feel disgusting or ashamed of yourself? Do you want to run away and hide in the toilets and have a little cry? Do you call yourself names and spend the rest of the week ruminating and dwelling on it?

Or…

Do you feel warmth and a sense of care towards yourself? Are you able to smile and accept what’s happened and apologise and move forward? Are you able to understand it was a simple mistake and get on with the rest of your day?

So, I think it’s pretty obvious. If you do anything in the first set of examples, you’re engaging in self-criticism. If you’re behaving in the way shown in the second set of examples, then you’re not engaging in self-criticism.

Myself and so many of my clients can relate to that first self-critical space.

Where do we learn to be self-critical?

Before I tell you how you can move beyond the criticism, because it is possible and I’m living proof, let’s ask WHY we even get there in the first place.

Sorry Mama and Papa, but often the way our parents spoke to us and to themselves becomes our own learnt behaviour and narrative. Maybe there’s someone in your family that would shout “oh you stupid stupid STUPID cow!” when they made a mistake or call you lazy if you slept over your alarm. Maybe your parents were super strict and pointed out all of your flaws!


The thing is our parents probably thought they were doing good for us, that it was somehow motivating, and that it would encourage us to act differently. The truth is it more often than results in us learning behaviours of harsh self criticism that can be debilitating, especially at work.

Take a minute to reflect, did you hear any of the words you say to yourself somewhere else growing up? Maybe it was the TV or at school, a strict aunt or a pushy neighbour. Do you recognise this from somewhere else? This process of reflection really helped me break the chain. I realised it wasn’t innately me, but a learned narrative/behaviour that I was sure as HELL going to unlearn.

What is the purpose of being self-critical?

Another piece of the puzzle is that we actually think it’s good for us. Have you ever thought “No, I NEED to be hard on myself or I won’t change”. I honestly used to think looking in the mirror and reminding myself how F.Ugly I was would push me to eat less peanut butter and get to those spin classes. When in fact all it did was make me sad and then self-soothe powering down the entire tub of peanut butter (on biscuits) and left feeling too ashamed to set foot in a fitness studio, let alone get on a spin bike!

Beliefs around being critical

And please, my love if any of this is you and you relate, there’s nothing wrong with you, you might just have your beliefs mixed up. Maybe you think that being hard and not showing care is a good thing and will…

…stop you being lazy, stop you being over confident, force you to concentrate or get things done, maybe you even think it will prevent you from suffering from embarrassments in the future. More often than not these behaviours are serving some purpose. We don’t do them for no reason. But they just aren’t the most skilful and they can leave us feel sad and ashamed and this is not how we want to feel at work.

Reflect

Take a moment to think and reflect on this. What beliefs do you have around your own self-criticism and how do you think it serves you? This is part of the process of moving away from the criticism, understanding what function you believe it performs in your life. And then you can replace the tactic, of self-criticism to perform that function, with a more skilful and effective tactic.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve, grow or push through boundaries, but being your own harshest critic actually isn’t the most effective way of doing that.

The Physiology of Self-Criticism

Self-criticism is associated with a range of problems including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. There is even research looking at what exactly is happening in the brain where they found that “Self-criticism was associated with activity in lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) regions and dorsal anterior cingulate (dAC), therefore linking self-critical thinking to error processing and resolution, and also behavioural inhibition”  Yeah, don’t worry if you don’t understand, I don’t fully, but I try and  I know there are some fellow geeks out there.

If we look at it through the lens of Paul Gilbert’s 3 emotional states system, we can say that self-criticism activates the Threat-Defence-System system. (The two others are  Care-Giver Soothing System and the Drive-Resources Seeking System).

The threat system is all about protection and safety seeking. When we’re being self-critical, we’re literally attacking yourself, and so the threat system is activated, which is also there to ensure our survival and protect us from real threat. But the body doesn’t know the difference between our unkind words and a rhino on the loose in our local park hurtling towards you (do rhino’s hurtle?)

In this state we act out of fear and can become overly activated, stressed, anxious, red hot, sweaty, panicky…sound familiar? We might then experience sadness, hate, disgust… This is not a fun way to feel or a way to go through life. 

So what can we do about self-criticism?

Luckily there is an answer. And it’s all about cultivating self-compassion and activating the Care-Giver Soothing System. Self-compassion is a hot topic right now, but often people don’t know what it really means.

Kristen Neff is the queen of self compassion and I love almost everything she puts out so I recommend looking her up.

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?’ 

Kristen Neff

The antidote to self-criticism is cultivating self-compassion. If you’ve been to any of my Yoga Nidra or even my fitness classes you know I bang on and on about self-compassion. At the end of every session we dedicate time to cultivating some warmth and compassion for ourselves.

The Physiology of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is getting more and more air time in recent years and the amount of research that is being done in this field is incredibly exciting. We are learning so much about the power of developing self compassion.

Recent research indicates that generating feelings of self-compassion actually decreases our cortisol levels which are elevated when our threat system is activated. When we begin to self-soothe by practicing and cultivating self-compassion we access that Care-Giver Soothing System we discussed above. This system is all about warmth, calm and contentment and in this space we can be grateful and enjoy our lives more fully. It’s also been shown that we are more motivated by warmth, love and compassion than we are by harsh words and criticism.

In summary

I have seen this to be true with my coaching clients. The ones who commit to a path of self-compassion without fail make more progress towards their goals and living their values than the ones who don’t. I have never seen a client who berates themselves and uses brute force and violent words to motivate themselves build any meaningful, sustainable and wholesome habits.

That is what the basis of my classes and coaching are all about- mindful awareness and self compassion. (these two come together, but that’s for another article.)

So the next time you’re at work, and you make a mistake or something goes wrong. That’s the time to bring in your compassion training and your best warm, soothing, loving kindness voice. It’s the time to sit on the toilet with a smile on your face, rubbing your arm saying “It’s ok my sweet, we all make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with you. We’ll be fine, you’re doing so well!”

If you want to learn more why not join me for my 4-week online group training on cultivation self-compassion through meditation.

Do you have any questions? Let me know below and I’ll get back to you.

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