self ceriticismDo you give yourself a hard time…?

What you do when you slip up?

When you make a mistake, forget something, screw up, open your mouth and (metaphorically) put your foot in it, do something embarrassing, etc.

Well, if you’re like most of us you probably do give yourself a hard time about it.

You pile on the guilt.

Harangue yourself.

Resort to endless self-criticism.

Relive the awkward or embarrassing or failure moment over and over again.

All of this accompanied by the self talk: why can’t you ever get anything right! You stupid, stupid person! How can you be so foolish/silly/careless/short-sighted/… (plus anything else you’d like to add).

A learned habit

This self criticism isn’t a tried and tested method for improving our performance, by the way.

It’s simply an old, and quite outdated, habit that we pick up along the way. A habit that doesn’t even work.

How do we acquire the habit? When we’re very young we model the behaviour of people around us. People whose approach was, perhaps, more stick than carrot – more punishment-oriented than reward-oriented.

In NLP we call this an ‘away from’ motivational style – it focuses on moving away from pain or discomfort.

Self-criticism creates a downward spiral

The more you beat yourself up about something the more you lower your emotional buoyancy. Your self-criticism undermines both your confidence and your self-esteem.

This means that the next time you approach a similar situation you are less emotionally buoyant, you have less confidence in how you handle it, and you have a lowered opinion of yourself.

Which means that next time you’re likely to perform even less effectively!

“But we need criticism, don’t we?”

But, according to some people, a good telling off never did anyone any harm – and if we’re not reminded of our failures we’ll repeat them.

There is some truth in this. Having our failures pointed out to us can be useful – and is especially useful if this is accompanied by coaching in how to do things better next time.

But endless self-criticism is quite different: that undermining inner voice operates just like a hypnotist. In traditional hypnosis, unlike Ericksonian hypnosis, the hypnotist’s the first job is to inhibit the person’s Critical Factor i.e. their ability to think rationally and critically. They do this so that the person’s unconscious mind will unquestioningly accepts the hypnotist’s suggestions.

Ongoing self-criticism and works like self hypnosis

On-going self criticism operates subliminally and quietly. It runs continually in the background. we become so used to it that what we are saying to ourselves is rarely challenged by the Critical Factor. So we accept our own negative suggestions unquestioningly! Which is, or should be, quite scary thought…

What’s the alternative?

  1. Giving yourself permission to be imperfect would be a great start. Accept that you won’t always get it right or do the right thing and in the right way.
  2. When a setback occurs put it right.
  3. Next identify what you can do to lessen the likelihood of a recurrence – and then do this.
  4. Move on. With a lighter load rather than the burden of guilt and self criticism.

As the golfer Chip Beck suggested “pain and suffering are inevitable in our lives — but misery is an option”.


  1. Clare on 23rd August 2010 at 3:34 PM

    On-going self criticism operates subliminally and quietly. key (for me) is to notice when I am in self-critical mode rather than allow it to remain low level and subliminal, that way I can take it out, look at it and decide in what way I am being too hard on myself and what I can learn from it. I find the sooner I inspect it, the easier it is to take any action I need to put things right!

  2. Kate Gladstone on 27th August 2010 at 11:40 PM

    I’m stuck on Step /1/. The advice “Give yourself permission to be imperfect” is not new to me — but, in 44 years of trying to use this advice (I’m 47 years old), I have never been able to do it. Nothing I do (such as saying “I give myself permission to be imperfect” or any of the other images/words/feelings I have used to give myself this message) actually gives me this message so that the message actually *is* given. What do you recommend?

  3. Reg on 28th August 2010 at 8:14 AM

    Hi Clare: becoming aware of our self-critical inner commentary is a great way of appropaching the matter. As long as the commentary remains subliminal (which is how it is for most people) it carries on the process of ‘negative self hypnosis’.

    And, of course, the negative self commentary is not really an “it” or a thing, either. We are criticising ourselves in a manner that is so familiar that we no longer notice ourselves doing it.

  4. Reg on 28th August 2010 at 8:28 AM

    Hi Kate: yes, I agree – it’s easier said than done. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you compare how long you’ve been self criticising yourself with the previous period when you just were self accepting.

    There’s no quick-and-easy answer, either. The habit is usually based on an established belief e.g. I must be perfect, I must make my parents proud of me, I must not attract criticism from teachers, and so on.

    Beliefs get stronger the more we struggle with them through self criticism. Yes, I know this is a bit of a ‘Catch 22’ conundrum.

    So, as a start, simply notice the process – like Clare mentioned in a previous comment. And, when you find yourself self-criticising, comment in a non-serious ho-hum tonality e.g. “That’s interesting – I’m at it again, aren’t I!”

    That’s it. It’s not a quick fix but doing this for a month or two will change things somewhat. And maybe comment back here after the month??

  5. Kate Gladstone on 29th August 2010 at 3:29 AM

    Before I embark on your recommendation, I’d like some idea of how I can increase my odds of having better results with it than I got a few years ago when someone else gave me the same piece of advice, asked me to follow it for a couple of months, and it made matters very much worse. What could I have been doing wrong the first time that I should take care to avoid doing wrong this second time around?

  6. Reg on 29th August 2010 at 7:57 AM

    Hi Kate: you’ll notice I said in my last comment “It’s not a quick fix but doing this for a month or two will change things somewhat.”

    Finding the right solution for a personal issue is something we have to do for ourselves. Hence my blog post of 27 July 2010:

    The best form of solution is through face-to-face interaction where the coach can guide the person in exploring what might work best for them. Next comes telephone coaching – quite a bit behind face-to-face, incidentally. A long way behind that is email coaching. And even further behind this is blog coaching 🙂

    What I have suggested isn’t aimed as a solution but as a way beginning to discover, for yourself, what works best for you.

    It ‘could’ help by bringing what is quite out of awareness into awareness – that’s what I mean by “it will change things somewhat”.

    At least then you have the opportunity of doing something further about it. While it is out of awareness it is out of your control.

  7. Greg on 26th September 2010 at 8:09 PM

    I have been trying this approach when I lose a tournament in brazilian jiu jitsu or have a bad training session on the mat. I used to harp over the loss for days and days and it spread to other aspects of my life. Now, when I have a bad train or a bad loss it is easier to accept and move on. If anyone is into sports, you can check out my blog where I am trying incorporate NLP into jiu jitsu and grappling.
    And if anyone wants to add to or give me some ideas how I could incorporate NLP into the grappling arts.

  8. David Howells on 27th October 2010 at 9:47 AM

    “People whose approach was more carrot than stick”. Did you mean, “People whose approach was more stick than carrot”?