It has been scientifically proven that self-criticism, perfectionism and self-demandingness (or imposing extremely high standards to ourselves) play an important role in the occurrence and maintenance of mental disorders such as anxiety, mood, and eating disorders.

The psychological treatment of these factors produces a decrease in the number of symptoms in different areas and also reduces some symptoms that have not yet appeared. Many studies exist which have proven the significant reduction of anxiety and depression with the treatment of self-demandingness and perfectionism as the only treatment.

Being demanding with one´s self

Self-criticism and being demanding with one's self

The majority of patients have learnt this mechanism from their parents or during their upbringing. There are healthier ways to accomplish our goals, but the self-demandingness begins as a response to the environment that “helps” people achieve their goals. It appears that in fact, it gives people a leg to succeed, grow and evolve. But distress or intense negative emotions is the best indicator to know that it is time to change these patterns.

When self-criticism and self-demandingness cause distress

Our pattern of thoughts and coping mechanisms are based on our experiences and what worked well in the past. But when the self-criticism and self-demandingness cause distress or intense negative emotions it´s time for change.

Imposing extremely high standards to ourselves means to constantly notice our failures and the need to be perfect, strong, good enough, efficient enough and a wide range of endless non-flexible and self-imposed requirements. It becomes a judging and blaming inner voice that finds errors even when the mistakes are minimal or non-existent. The self-demandingness usually comes together with the self-criticism.

When the desired result is not within our reach but we still impose its achievement to ourselves, that is when we start to feel intense negative emotions such as guilt, anger or sadness. We are then not considering other circumstances or variables that may be influencing on the achievement of that outcome. We can also feel distress when we think we made unpardonable mistakes and there is going to be catastrophic consequences.

For example: It is actually impossible to be 100% focused on your studies and get perfectly good grades during a pandemic, or to be super productive at work when you are looking after your two kids at the same time. In these examples, the self-demandingness is not taking into consideration all the circumstances that have changed and it´s talking from a black and white perspective. How can we run a marathon with a broken leg? How can we be 100% productive at work when we are not feeling well? How can we focus while studying if, social contact is the most important thing for us and we cannot have it?

Self-criticism is the root of a low self-esteem. Self-criticism is our inner voice making subjective judgements and interpretations of ourselves, without taking into consideration objective and reliable data.

Tips for reducing self-demandingness and self-criticism

These are some steps you can follow:

  • The first step is to detect our critical voice, paying attention to the specific situations where it occurs; for example, when we make a mistake, in social interactions, …
  • Second of all it is important to see if there are unhelpful thinking styles within our thoughts (“shoulds”, labels, name-calling, etc.) and try to eliminate them from our internal language. For example: “I shouldn’t have told my colleagues about my problems, I am sure they all must hate me right now, I am very immature”. In this case, we are using the “shoulds and musts” (“I shouldn’t have said that” and “they must hate me”), also “mind reading” (I believe people will not like what I said, even when I don’t have evidences for that thought), “labelling” and “name-calling” (thinking I am immature) and the black and white thinking (now they ALL HATE me). When we eliminate this unhelpful thinking styles from our internal language, the result would be something like: “I would rather not tell my problems to other people, but I cannot tell if they have negative thoughts of what I did, I have no evidences. I am assuming that the vast majority of a group is going to hate me, but it is more possible that only some of them are not going to like my comment. According to my own standards about the world and social interactions, people my age don´t usually communicate their problems to their colleagues, but being immature cannot only be based on a specific behaviour or situation.”
  • It is not about giving ourselves a positive message but to give ourselves a message adjusted to the facts and reducing the risk of biasing our vision.
  • Last but not least, understanding the self-criticism purpose can help us overcome it. Once we are aware of its role, addressing it becomes an easier task. We may ask ourselves: “what does this self-criticism statement invite me to” and then understand where does it come from, or what is its purpose.
  • We can also change the self-criticism for a more compassionate and realistic point of view, challenging the behaviours the criticism invites us to do.

In conclusion, when we start to change the self-criticism, we feel anxious or guilty at first. We need then to remember that the self-criticism has been helping us to survive for a very long time. However, when we persist on challenging it, it ends up being less intense and we can then achieve an even more fulfilling life.

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical and General Health Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
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