How to Help Your Clients Reframe Self-Criticism

By Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW

Self-criticism, or being overly hard on yourself, is usually based on cognitive distortions—rigid, all-or-nothing, perfectionist thinking. And it isn’t helpful or healthy.

We can assist our clients when they make self-critical statements in session by pointing out cognitive distortions, inviting them to explore whether their self-criticism is accurate, and helping them say something more accurate and compassionate to themselves.

Here’s an example of what this might sound like with a fictional client who, after many months, left her emotionally abusive boyfriend.

Client: I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I texted him. I’m so stupid. And I immediately regretted it. I’m weak and I caved in.

Therapist: It sounds like you’re pretty upset with yourself. I heard a lot of self-blame and self-criticism in what you said, and I wonder how accurate those thoughts are. Would you be willing to explore that a bit with me?

Client: I guess.

Therapist: Despite the setback of texting him, can you see some progress this week in detaching from Derek? Can you think of some ways that you used your strengths?

Client: Well, I only texted him once, even though I thought about it every day. And I didn’t get pulled back in. I immediately blocked his number.

Therapist: Does it seem fair or accurate to call yourself stupid and weak, given what you’ve just told me?

Client: Not really.

Therapist: Exactly. So, what could you say to yourself that would be more accurate and more compassionate?

Client: I had a moment of weakness and I made a mistake. I was actually quite strong.

Therapist: Yes, and making mistakes is part of the process. We can learn more from them when we aren’t stuck in self-blame and self-criticism.

Book Titles: The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism

Upside down pencils against a white backgroundSharon Martin, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. Her psychotherapy practice in San Jose, CA, specializes in helping individuals overcome codependency and perfectionism, and learn to accept and love themselves.

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