Function of Self-Criticism

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) was initially developed to work with people with high levels of self-criticism. Although doing this work involves nuanced steps, an important part of the process in understanding someone’s self-critic is to assess what function or role it’s playing in their life

To do this, we explore the common function of self-criticism, in part through looking at the fears and threats someone would experience if their self-critic disappeared

Take a look at the below guide (which you can also download here) for more information 

function of self-criticism

Exploring the function of self-criticism

A useful way of learning about your self-critic is thinking about the function that it has, or plays, for you.

Although it might seem a little strange at first to consider your self-criticism having some sort of use or role, this can be helpful sometimes. For example, maybe you’re self-critical because you want to keep up your standards, or to ensure you don’t make any mistakes.   Some people are self-critical to stop themselves becoming overconfident, or to prevent embarrassment in the future, or to gain reassurance from other people.

One way to explore what the function(s) of your self-critic is to think about the following:

Exercise: Function of Self-Criticism 

Take a moment to bring to mind your self-critic. Maybe you can hold in mind a time recently that you were critical of yourself, remembering what triggered this, and what you said to yourself as part of this self-criticism.

With this in mind, imagine now that somehow, your self-critic could be removed so that you were never self-critical again in your life.

Notice what feelings emerge imagining living your life with no self-criticism. In particular, notice if there are any fears or concerns that start to emerge about what might happen in life without your self-critics presence

Reflections: Often, although not always, people notice that if they imagine giving up their self-criticism, there will be an unpleasant, threat-system based response. This can include some of the following fears:

  • that i’ll become lazy
  • that i’ll never achieve anything in life
  • that i’ll make mistakes
  • that I won’t learn from my mistakes
  • that’s i’ll become arrogant and overconfident
  • that I won’t notice or care if I hurt someone 
  • that i’ll get angry with other people

To help you think more about this, take a look at this scale (called the Function of Self-Criticism Scale) that was developed by Paul Gilbert and colleagues (including one of Balanced Minds’ founders, Dr Chris Irons), which helps people to think about the function of their self-criticism. The questionnaire measures two different functions of self-criticism: to self-correct/improve or to persecute and punish. 

I get critical and angry with myself to:

YES

NO

  • To make sure I keep up my standards.
  • To stop myself being happy.
  • To show I care about my mistakes.
  • Because, if I punish myself I feel better.
  • To stop me being lazy.
  • To harm part of myself.
  • To keep myself in check.
  • To punish myself for my mistakes.
  • To stop me getting overconfident.
  • To stop me being angry with others
  • To make me concentrate.
  • To gain reassurance from others
  • To prevent future embarrassments.
  

Learning:  what sometimes emerges from learning about the function of the self-critic is an appreciation that although how the self-critic does it’s criticism can be unpleasant and distressing (see the exercise here), it’s often trying to help us in some way. That although it’s clumsy in how it does what it does, it’s trying to prevent you from something painful happening (like making mistakes, becoming lazy or getting angry at others)

And why is it important to try and protect us from these things? Well, underneath all of these concerns are often existential worries about being disliked, rejected and failing – all things that, if we can tap in to our wise, compassionate self, we might be able to bring empathy and concern about but from a non-critical perspective

If you’re interested in how we can bring our compassionate mind to some of the concerns that sit behind the self-critic, take a look at this exercise

If you’d like to explore more about the function of self-criticism, take a look at one of our self-help books or self-compassion courses 

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