Why do we judge ourselves so much more harshly than everyone else?

‘Your skin looks gross.’

‘Your body is disgusting.’

‘You sound like an idiot.’

‘Your career is going nowhere.’

So many of us say things like this – and worse – about ourselves on a daily basis.

We talk about our appearances and our personalities so cruelly and flippantly, in ways we wouldn’t dream of talking to anyone else.

In fact, were we to talk to a loved one like that, we’d probably be accused of abuse. So why do we abuse ourselves like it’s nothing?

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott tells us there could be a variety of reasons why we can judge ourselves so harshly.

‘Most commonly,’ he says, ‘it’s because we have had some harsh life experiences that have been internalised as a bad aspect of self.

‘It’s called “egocentric functioning” and is usually associated with children, but can apply to any situation in which we feel unable to manage.

‘A child sees good things in the world or bad things as being an aspect of themselves, they don’t fully make the distinction between self and other.

‘So, for example, if mum is upset, a child becomes upset and will imagine it’s because of them. 

‘This also applies to adults who are functioning from immature aspects of self.

‘An example would be when we are mugged. We most often will blame ourselves, and it takes a little bit of time to reject that reasoning and apply a more adult understanding that we were just unlucky.’ 

Noel goes on to explain that this is also linked to the fact that we’re pre-disposed to try to spot threats that could cause us harm.

He says: ‘An aspect of our mental functioning is what we call our “threat mechanism”.

‘We are pre-programmed to try to spot threats that might harm us.

‘This puts us on alert and means we may have an internal dialogue designed to keep us wary.’ 

Dr Daria J. Kuss, associate professor in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, tells us research has indicated that women are especially prone to judging themselves harshly.

She says: ‘Harsh self-judgment is associated with negative feelings, including those of anxiety, depression, and anger.

‘Engaging in self-judgement may therefore have a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing.’

It’s perhaps unsurprising that low self-esteem also has a part to play when it comes to harsh self-judgement.

Noel says: ‘For some people, they may have developed a sense of low self-esteem from negative life experiences and carry more of a sense of failure and inappropriate responsibility for other people.

‘This is often the case in addiction, for example. The non-addict in the relationship can come to feel they are a failure for not being able to stop their loved one using.’

Avoiding harsh self-judgement is not just about being kind to yourself – it’s also about making sure your mental health is in good shape.

‘Self-compassion is a very useful tool in promoting mental health and wellbeing,’ says Dr Daria, ‘and will allow us to become more resilient, especially when faced with stress.’

So how can we start training ourselves out of such negative self-talk?

Dr Daria recommends listening a little closer to the things we say to ourselves.

‘A good pointer is to think about how we would talk to our family and friends, and the extent, if any, of self-judgement we use when interacting with them,’ she says.

Noel says CBT and mindfulness can help us understand that ‘thoughts and feelings are not facts’ and be curious about our thoughts without going as far as believing or disbelieving them.

He adds: ‘Another major help is using affirmations – replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones.

‘If you are in a particularly bad place maybe, ask friends to suggest some for you or simply search for positive affirmations. They are your thoughts, so you have a choice about which ones to repeat inside your head.

‘Speaking affirmations to yourself in a mirror is a particularly powerful approach.’

There are also actions you can take outside of your own head that can help boost your self-esteem.

‘Improve your esteem by taking estimable actions – actions which you personally find frightening but are the right thing for you,’ Noel recommends.

‘It’s often small things such as making sure you get the coffee you want at the coffee shop, just the way you like it, or learning how to respond assertively to a person who is rude to you.’

Need support for your mental health?

You can contact mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463.

Mind can also be reached by email at [email protected]

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