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Everyone’s a critic, but more often than not, it’s of themselves rather than others. This self-evaluation is far from fair, yet we still find ourselves listening to that voice, becoming more and more critical of who we are and what we do. 

So, what is self-criticism, and why do we get stuck in it? Recent research has found that it has an evolutionary purpose: due to the need to outcompete others for survival and creating offspring, social competition and who we are relative to others arose. This social competition led to social comparison, as early humans looked at each other to see where they stood on the social ladder. This comparison led to self-criticism, as it was necessary to better oneself to compete during this early time.

But the days of basic survival are far behind us, and while bettering oneself is crucial, it shouldn’t be at the cost of how you see yourself. It is for this reason that I have created three tips to help reduce the negative impact of self-criticism:

  1. Examine what you’re telling yourself.  What does your inner voice tell you? Is it helpful? Is it kind? Think about all the things we say to ourselves. Notice when you are saying these things and how you are saying them. There are two major types of negative thoughts: 1. Rumination, or rolling around the same negative thoughts of: why did I do that? They would have been better off with a different doctor, with another person. 2. Worry or angst-ridden concern over or future events and the constant catastrophizing of what might happen. Persistent and unabated negative self-talk impacts self-esteem, mood, confidence, blame, outlook, and how you experience the world.  
  2. Pivot Your Thinking. If you find your thoughts to be mostly criticism and catastrophizing, reflect on how you might replace that thinking. Ask yourself, what facts support what I am saying to myself? Am I jumping to negative conclusions? Is what I am saying to myself helping me to achieve my goals? What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What is most likely to happen? Becoming aware of negative self-talk allows you to shift your thinking to a rational, grounded, and helpful voice.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Despite what your voice is saying to you, many of you are extraordinary people, hard-working, ethical, and dedicated to purpose in a profession that is incredibly challenging. Remember who you are, what you have done, and what you’re capable of, and allow those to fuel your internal narrative. “I can do this…I have done this before…I will do this now and learn…” Enable your voice to encourage and have compassion for you. You deserve it. When we extend kindness to ourselves through self-compassion, it becomes easier to extend that same compassion to the people and the patients in our lives.

The most important tip may just be the last one: you’ve made it this far, why be so hard on yourself? Enjoy your success, and continue to grow without taking yourself down in the process. So how do you handle self-criticism? Let us know in the comments below or on Linkedin or Twitter.

STEFANIE SIMMONS, MD

Dr. Stef Simmons is a board-certified emergency medicine physician and lead faculty for the Clinician Experience Project’s well-being program.  She serves clinicians as vice president of clinician engagement for Envision Physician Services and on the board of directors of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation. She is a mother of three, an avid kayaker, and enjoys blowing off steam at the gym.