What If I’m My Own Worst Critic?

Arden University MSc Psychology student, Dr Gerhard Niemann, explains why we as humans shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.

Lightbulb on chalk board

At the start of my psychometric internship a couple of years ago, my supervisor gave me some psychometric assessments to complete, including a personality assessment. In my feedback he noted that I’m extremely self-critical.

As psychology students, we face an immense task to climb to the top of a competitive and complex ladder to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming a professional psychologist. As I have been on this journey for almost a decade, I came to recognise something in myself that I was unaware of until my supervisor pointed it out. For most of us we set ourselves extremely high standards to achieve. The unfortunate fact is that we ultimately fear failure that we, from our perspective, simply can’t afford.

As human beings we constantly engage in self-talk. When we meet our own expectations, we praise and motivate ourselves positively. But when we fall short of our own expectations, we start criticising ourselves and seeking the faults that lead to our ‘failures’.

In the book Soul Psychology by Joshua David Stone (1995), Paul Solomon wrote a chapter on ‘Unconditional Self Love and the Inner Child’. He describes what he calls our ‘inner child’, which is directly linked to our self-worth. This inner child must be nurtured to grow into a person with healthy self-worth. But what if we are constantly seeking out failures and blaming this inner child for our misfortune? If a child should hear things like: ‘you’re not good enough’ or ‘you’re a slacker’ or even that ‘you are simply not up to the task’, that child will unmistakably grow up with a negative self-worth. This is why good intra personal awareness is so important when we evaluate our own performance in respect to our expectations.

So, what is intra personal self-awareness and why is this so important for our own mental health? Daniel Goleman (1996) writes in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ that there are two aspects to Emotional Intelligence (EI). The first aspect is the inter personal domain and the second is the intra personal domain; for the purpose of this article we will focus on the intra personal domain.

When we engage in self-talk regarding our own objectives, accomplishments or failures, this aspect of EI is especially important. In the first instance we must become aware of our inner most thoughts and how we describe ourselves. This aspect of EI ultimately revolves around accurate self-assessment (Gill et al., 2015). In other words, do we have an accurate perception of our emotions and capabilities? Bratton (2011) wrote an article on the impact of emotional intelligence on the accuracy of self-awareness and leadership performance wherein he describes self-awareness as a person’s ability to ‘accurately understand themselves, their emotions, motives and goals, to trust their own judgement and to take confident decisions, realistically appraise their skills, aptitudes and abilities and be able to use feedback to improve their performance‘ (pp 127).

This ultimately begs the question: are we doing ourselves justice when we do not take these aspects into account when assessing our failures? Can we simply see our failures as an aspect of misfortune or bad luck? Eventually, we have to accept our own mortality! Yes, we do often underestimate our own judgment, skills and abilities. We simply can’t know and do it all. We do make bad judgments from time to time and we also lack the skills and knowledge to succeed at everything. We are human after all. I appreciate the way Hogan (2013) describes this factor of EI as the ability to recognise the ‘human factor’ when engaging with people. This is applicable to us all, our relationships and prospective clients. Please don’t misunderstand my argument. Fear of failure is ultimately one of the best motivating factors to success (Borquez, 2009), but our fear of failure should not result in poor mental health.

After completing my Master's in Pastoral Counselling and later qualifying as a professional psychometrist, I thought I could face every challenge patients bring through my door - but boy, was I wrong! Even after completing my PhD, I often find myself facing the most mindboggling life experiences people face. There are problems I have never read about in books or journal articles or heard of in class. I still often find myself without words, unable to respond with any confidence with some problems people face.

I quickly realised that I must, at times, confess that I have to do some research to be able to give proper advice and counselling. One of my professors once told us in class: “It is better to say that I don’t know rather to find yourself in a situation where you have to admit you were wrong.” I want to pass this wisdom onto you as my fellow future psychologists. Never overestimate yourself, regardless of your high standards in the quest for knowledge in human behaviour. Utilise self-awareness to accurately assess and develop yourself. When we do this right, we can recognise our development areas and learn from our mistakes and failures.

It is also a case of being humble; just like every other individual we are not immune to make mistakes and to fail. Self-talk enables us to produce the perspectives of ourselves within private conversations and to incorporate these perspectives into our emotional problem-solving, and into our concept of self (Depape et al., 2006). We, however, should create perspectives of ourselves as positively as possible. Therefore, take care of your inner child, not by criticising and blaming yourself, but by learning from your shortcomings. Use your failures to learn about life. This will ultimately evolve to knowledge you otherwise would not have gained.

This article was taken from the Arden Psychology Newsletter. If you’re an Arden student or member of staff and would be interested in writing a topical piece for the newsletter, please contact Holly Stokes on hstokes@arden.ac.uk. You can also contact Holly for a full list of references for this article.