Taken too far, self scrutiny ceases to be a route to becoming a better person and turns into something else — bullying — which can be every bit as damaging when we do it to ourselves as when we do it to others.
Many years ago while walking down one of the corridors of a psychiatric hospital that mainly treated emotionally disturbed children and adolescents, I was stunned by the words I heard emanating from the open door of one of the rooms: “What in the hell is the matter with you?! You’re an idiot!”. There was a lot of cursing. Concerned that the outburst I was hearing might represent the beginning of an altercation between two roommates, I investigated further. But to my surprise, I did not find one person berating or taunting another. Rather, one of the residents was pacing anxiously around the room all by himself and chastising himself for something he’d done that created a socially embarrassing moment for him. I had long studied and was very familiar with the behaviors of bullies at the time, but I had never witnessed a person bullying himself in this manner, so it left a real impression on me. Recently, some research has emerged indicating that the same kind of emotional damage bully victims sustain at the hands of their tormentors can be experienced by overzealous self criticizers. The research, which has been published in Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), validates much of what my earlier experiences had already taught me. It’s one thing to scrutinize oneself in a conscientious effort to become a better person. But it’s quite another thing to be so viciously self critical or condemning that it impedes the process of developing a positive self image. Bullying, it seems, is something we’re capable of doing even to ourselves, and unfortunately with the same damaging results.
For several years, Golan Shahar at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel, has studied self criticizers. Along the way, he’s discovered certain characteristics which overly harsh self criticizers appear to possess. These folks tend to set unrealistically high standards for themselves — standards that almost anyone would find extremely difficult if not impossible to meet. Harsh self criticizers also appear overly quick to become angry and engage in “punitive” and demeaning internal rhetoric when they fail to measure up to the unrealistic standards they’ve imposed. As a result of the brutality and demeaning behavior they experience — much like what happens in the case of being bullied by another person — they suffer from anxiety, feelings of insecurity and inferiority, and a damaged self image. Also, like victims of bullying and other forms of abuse, they can easily develop eating disorders, substance abuse problems, problems with anger expression and self harm ideation. Such problems sometimes invite harsh self criticizers to feel even worse about themselves and to engage in even more self condemnation, fueling a vicious cycle of sorts. Bullying always has a destructive impact, no matter who does it.
Many of the brutal self criticizers I have encountered in my professional career have had longstanding aggressive tendencies that affected many aspects of their personality and character development. In some cases, they had “over learned” aggressive solutions to problems from their primary role models. In other cases, they seemed to be naturally inclined to “fight” as opposed to “flee” when faced with life’s challenges. They simply hadn’t yet learned the many other possible alternatives to dealing with stress or acquired the more sophisticated communication and emotional coping skills necessary to solve problems in a non-aggressive manner. (I discuss the many “pathways” to various types of aggressive personality development in Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?).) They tended to be just as uncompromising and demanding with themselves as they were with others. It was their inability to ease up a bit and cut themselves and others a break that led to many contentious moments in their relationships. So, addressing their aggressive response predisposition and encouraging its replacement with healthier alternatives was always a primary focus of therapeutic intervention. Therapy, therefore, was largely a matter of benignly confronting the bullying behavior and inviting the person doing it to try out different, more constructive approaches to building a healthy self-image.
Confronting those who bully in a manner that’s direct yet benign is a very delicate art. It’s an even more delicate and challenging enterprise when your client is a self bullier. I believe I was greatly aided in developing this art by a clinical supervisor I once had, one whom I still regard as one of the most constructive criticizers I have ever encountered. In fact, I actually couldn’t wait for the next supervision session to receive his critique of my work. I myself had long tended to be a more aggressive self criticizer, and I came to realize later what a negative impact that was having on my personal development. But here was a person not afraid to address the necessary issues but able to do so in the most benign, caring, and constructive way. This taught me a lot, and I like to think it helped me considerably in my preparation for the work I’ve done with individuals with aggressive personality predispositions.
We can all benefit from constructive criticism. It’s one of the ways we can become a better person. But when criticism is unnecessarily brutal or demeaning — regardless of the source — it always does damage. Loving scrutiny can help build character. Brutality arrests character development, both for the person engaging in it and the person on the receiving end of it. By contrast, benign confrontation is best whether we’re trying to get a message through to someone else in our lives or just to ourselves.
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