Self-assessment is healthy; angrily berating one’s faults is destructive.
Dear Dr. Dan: I am the parent of a fairly impressive 14-year-old. She plays violin and piano, reads three or more books at a time, and writes enthusiastically. Her fault? Self-criticism.
While my husband asserts that criticism helps us grow and achieve, I am suspicious and try to refrain from overly harsh criticism whether or not it is true. My daughter tends to overlook her many strengths and focus on her weaknesses. Sometimes when she practices the piano, her whole body language screams “I STINK.” I am afraid that too much self-criticism can be debilitating.
I would love to hear more on this subject. We need to be critical of ourselves so that we can get the most from life, but not so critical that we make ourselves miserable.
– Concerned Mother
Dear Concerned Mother: Some anxiety actually improves performance (more so for boys than girls). In moderation, it can provide motivation, and help focus the mind. But too much anxiety interferes with performance.
Self-criticism is another thing altogether. The internal voice of self-criticism is generally an angry and judgmental one. Think about how you feel when you experience self-criticism. Now recall the voice of a coach or teacher from your childhood who really believed in you and gave you incentive to perform. Think about how you felt when you heard that voice.
I am hard pressed to imagine self-criticism ever being a good thing. Certainly, self-assessment is important. But the part of your mind doing the assessment could be friend or foe. If you like the person you are, your judge will tend to be more like your supportive teacher. But if you are unhappy with yourself, your judge will be neither objective nor kind – and will vary day by day, depending on your mood. This part of your mind that is passing judgment – I wouldn’t trust it very much.
Recognize that most of us who are self-critical expect too much of ourselves.
Which brings us back to your daughter. When a 14-year-old says “I stink,” it may just be a sign of adolescence or frustration. But if there is a larger pattern of self-deprecation, it could be an early sign of depression. Obsessing on one’s performance could also be an early symptom of an anxiety disorder. The most important factor to watch is whether she seems happy with her life.
Of course, there will be moments and even days when she is frustrated, but if there seems to be an overall pattern of unhappiness, please consult a mental-health professional who specializes in children. Even if you are seeing early symptoms of depression or anxiety, both are treatable, especially with early intervention.
Most parents who witness their children’s self-criticism instinctively try to change their thinking. Many say things such as “you are being too hard on yourself.” This is not helpful. When you challenge her thinking, you are really criticizing her for criticizing herself. Of course, I wouldn’t want you to just agree with her criticisms, either.
Perhaps you could share how you feel when you get angry at yourself. Then try to understand how she feels beneath her frustration. Maybe that way you could help her find different ways to express her feelings without turning it on herself.
Like many people, your daughter may not be aware of her gifts. Most children that age are self-absorbed. And the more they focus on themselves, the more unhappy they become. Try to help her get off the performance merry-go-round. Spend time with her doing things that give you both pleasure.
Also, it is healthy and important for families to get involved in the larger world. Many times people learn what they can do through performance. But they learn who they are from helping others.