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
Sharon 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.