Presenting Issues: Self-Criticism

December 30th 2018

Presenting Issues: Self-Criticism

In Jigsaw, self-criticism is a prominent issue for those in their late teens and early twenties. It is the seventh highest issue for 18-20 year olds and fifth highest issue for 21-25 year olds. Interestingly, it does not emerge in the top ten issues for 12-17 year olds.

The tendency to self-criticise can seem part of human nature. Self-awareness that challenges us to monitor our own behaviours and to question our own beliefs and values is essential for us to move about in society and develop into adults. But when this slides into relentless self-criticism, it can have a detrimental impact on our well-being.

What is self-criticism?

Dr Golan Shahar defines self-criticism as “an intense and persistent relationship with the self, characterized by an uncompromising demand for high standards in performance, and an expression of hostility and derogation toward the self when these high standards are – inevitably – not met”. He is quick to point out that self-criticism goes beyond the quest for self-improvement. 

Sometimes self-criticism is a result of internalising someone else's words or attitudes. An inner critic can sound like a school bully or harsh teacher from the past, or overly critical parent or relative. It is natural that we are influenced by the people around us and those we grew up with. However self-criticism is significantly associated with a decrease in well-being.

Do self-criticism have a purpose?

Self-criticism is sometimes presented as a motivating force; an inner voice that drives us to achieve and try harder. However, some research suggests it has the opposite effect.

In a 2007 study with participants working toward an academic or social goal, it was found that self-criticism had a negative correlation with goal progress. The authors suggested that the focus of the self-critic on potential failure, critical evaluation and the potential erosion of self-esteem leads to rumination and procrastination, which in turn hinders progress toward our goals.  


Self-compassion is a construct drawn from Buddhist psychology, and refers to a way of relating to the self — with kindness. Research suggests that practicing self-compassion promotes greater physical health, optimism, connections with others, and psychological wellbeing, with a distinct lack of self-criticism.

‘’… having self-compassion entails forgiving one’s failings and foibles, respecting oneself as a fully human – and therefore limited and imperfect – being.’’ Kristen Neff, 2003

Everyone is unique and imperfect. Being able to embrace the so-called ‘imperfections’ and value our individual selves can help counter the negative impacts of self-criticism. Across adolescence and into adulthood, learning that 'we are enough’ is invaluable.


This blog post was influenced by the following research:

Arnett, J. (2000). Emerging adulthood. A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480.

Arnett, J., Žukauskienė, R., & Sugimura, K. (2014). The new life stage of emerging adulthood at ages 18-29 years: Implications for mental health. Lancet Psychiatry, 1, 569-576.

Powers, A, Koestner, R & Zuroff, D. C (2007) Self-Criticism, Goal Motivation, and Goal Progress, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol 26

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101.