Sunny Side Up: Self-judgement is your worst enemy

  • Living
  • Sunday, 01 Dec 2019

Listening to your negative inner critic will only cause self-doubt. Photo:

My mother taught me how to ride a bicycle, and I can vividly recall falling off time and again, and her constant encouragement as I made steady progress. I have no recollection of her scolding me or telling me how useless I was as she guided me around the square where I honed my shaky skills. The more praise she offered, the more I believed that I could master the art of cycling.

There’s no doubt that I made countless mistakes during the process, but I never heard about them. Instead, I was guided to make corrections. “It’s better to put your hands here”, “Don’t hold on so tightly – that’s what makes you fall. Try to relax.”

In the moments when frustration set in, she would call for a break and ask me what I found most difficult and how I could overcome it, now that I’d had some practice. My mother also motivated me through small visions. “Just imagine, when you start cycling yourself, you can go anywhere you like – a trip to the shops will be 10 times faster!”

I imagine that most of us have had this kind of learning experience growing up. There might have been a few admonishments here and there but, on the whole, as children we acquired skills through positive guidance and reinforcement.

And yet, at some point, one skill we quickly mastered is self-judgement. Perhaps it started at school, where teachers – in their attempts to deal with a roomful of children – felt the need to be authoritarian and critical in order to get their message across.

To this day, I’m convinced that my dislike for maths stems from a primary school teacher who would call us to the front of the class and berate us if we answered our sums incorrectly. Had she taught me how to ride a bicycle, I would have developed a love for walking.

Discussing the topic of self-judgement with a friend recently, he offered the caveat that if he were to stop being harsh on himself, it might impair his drive to learn and improve. It’s as though, were he to let go of his inner critic, he might lose the will to get out of bed in the morning.

The conventional “carrot and stick” approach of reward and punishment has, quite convincingly, been shown to be ineffective. At best, when we follow through on something from a place of self-judgement, we’re being compliant with our own expectations. That’s to say, we do something because of a fear of the consequences, not because we see the value or joy in it.

So many of us have such strong inner critics we feel we have to listen to. We believe it improves who we are, leads us to making fewer mistakes, and enhances our skills and abilities.

When I was learning to ride a bicycle, it seemed obvious that the tighter I held on to the handlebars, the less likely I was to fall. Of course, the opposite is true: you have to be relaxed and flexible as you go along.

Similarly, it feels logical that the harder we are on ourselves, the better we’ll be. This is also a false assumption. The more critical we are towards ourselves, the more demotivated we become.

Self-judgement is an entirely destructive tendency. I’m sure we’ve all been in conversations where we later regretted making a particular comment or joke. When we get home, we might say to ourselves, “Oh, that was a stupid comment to make – how could I have been so foolish?” While everyone will forget what we’ve said, it’s likely that it will still be brewing in our minds weeks or even months later.

Self-reflection is a much more positive and constructive resource. If we swap the self-judging commentary with reflective consideration, we develop a helpful inner guide that replaces the critic.

Rather than judging ourselves based on perfectly normal mistakes that everyone makes, we can tell ourselves, “That comment I mentioned probably wasn’t the most helpful. Next time, I’ll ask the person to clarify what they were saying before I respond.”

Through self-reflection, we don’t ignore where improvements need to be made – what changes is the language we use. Instead of the brutal admonishments of the inner critic, our corrections are guided in a way that shows the value in learning from our mistakes as we develop a desire to improve next around.

Another benefit of shifting from self-judgement is that we are able to let go of our past mistakes and blunders. We see that there’s no utility in self-criticism, which only makes us feel bad about ourselves over trivial mistakes. Even when we mess up in major ways, nothing positive can come from beating ourselves up.

That’s where self-reflection comes into play. Where self-judgement leads us to shrink and withdraw, self-reflection helps us to learn and grow. The former focuses on judging the self; the latter guides us towards enhancing our skills and behaviours. One can be your worst enemy if you allow it, while the other is your best friend that can help you to flourish.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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