Modifying or Mortifying? Self-Criticism, Shame, and the Possibility of Change

Self-Criticism and Shame.jpg


By Christopher Skeaff, LCSW, PhD

Early in January, I asked patients whether they saw the new year as an occasion to consider afresh what they might want for their lives. I was struck by how many took me to be asking about “resolutions,” which they associated not only with goals and self-discipline but also and more fundamentally with failure and self-deprecation.  

In some of their responses, I heard the sneering voice of the “inner critic” who had already declared questions of desire inadmissible. Why, it’s worth wondering, do we – and I’d wager this is a near-universal “we” – find this voice of inner criticism so compelling, and what is its use?   

The uses and abuses of self-criticism

Intuitively, self-criticism seems to be useful as a learning tool. So, for instance, criticism could entail judging the qualities of experiences I’ve undergone, discerning new aspects of myself, taking responsibility for decisions I’ve made and actions I’ve taken, and correcting course in such a way as to live more congruently with what I believe to matter most. In short, self-criticism can serve as an attempt to revise my existing ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.  

And yet the truly memorable experiences of self-criticism involve something more malign than benign. (Consider all the advice columns devoted to “silencing your inner critic.”) Self-criticism, in this guise, can be harsh, accusatory, humiliating, essentializing (in purporting to know who we really are), omniscient (in purporting to know in advance the consequences of our actions) and lots more besides. At times, when we’ve let someone close to us down, we might hear this critic as the voice of guilt. At other times, when we’ve let ourselves down, we might recognize it as the voice of shame.

We use self-criticism more to intimidate than to develop ourselves, and despite the fact that the inner-critic-as-bully speaks only in distortions. Although the bully’s propaganda is never as sensible as our more ordinary ideas for self-improvement, its power over us seems all the more captivating.

Shame: self-criticism as intimidation

Take the experience of shame. It’s as though shame exposes an essential truth about oneself, delivering a reality check of sorts. Shame says, in effect, “you’ve failed to be the person you should be and really are.” Shame puts you in your place, which is to say, the place of someone who should know (yourself) better. Shame asks derisively who you think you are and simultaneously answers that you’re the person who doesn’t do such shameful things. This maneuver suggests one reason for shame’s allure: even as it demeans, shame offers reassurance that you are a responsible agent, a person of integrity who legitimately suffers when you let yourself down. Shame, in other words, can be a way of holding oneself together.  

Shame also feels inescapably real, “real” in the sense of difficult to translate or transform into something else. At a dinner party, for example, I might find myself filling the silences with awkward banter – an episode that leaves me feeling humiliated for days afterward. My shame alerts me to a significant self-betrayal. I was unable to see myself, or have the other dinner guests see me, as I want to be seen. So I replay the mortifying scenes in my mind, wondering what on earth I was doing. Then I resolve never to take such a risk again.

Shame, in this instance, brings several things to a halt. It stops any thoughts I may have had about the pleasurable aspects of socializing and the possibilities that the experience could have opened up. The truth, that I failed myself, feels painfully self-evident – end of story. So hypnotic is shame’s power that it all but forecloses my ability to consider whether I actually believe in the self-standards I have allegedly violated. And in short-circuiting any inquiry, not to mention conversation, about who I am and who I might become, shame also inhibits my capacity for growth.

Where there is conversation, there might be experimentation

How free are we internally to think about the life we might want? With an active inner-critic-as-bully, the answer is: hardly at all. A key part of the project of psychotherapy is to explore what could happen, in the consulting room and beyond, if a person modifies their internal intimidation system. To the extent that you can suspend self-criticism, what might you then think and feel and want and do?

Psychodynamic therapy proposes, against the omniscience and essentialism of the inner critic, that you don’t know the value of your thoughts, feelings, and desires in advance of talking about them. It permits rather than pre-empts conversation on this score; and where there is conversation, there is the possibility of insight, experimentation, and meaningful change.


You don’t have to go this alone. 

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