Mental Health

Mental health: do you find it hard to give yourself a break? Try this technique for silencing your inner critic

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Lauren Geall
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Does the idea of making a mistake fill you with dread? Here’s how to get your self-criticism under control, according to a new study.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that ‘perfection’ does not exist, but many of us still spend our lives setting unrealistic standards for our bodies, work and relationships.

It’s a lose-lose situation; not only does trying to be ‘perfect’ set you up for disappointment, but it can also lead you to become incredibly self-critical – especially when your efforts fall short of the result you had hoped for.

And while a little bit of self-criticism can help you to stay grounded and self-aware, too much can be incredibly detrimental for your mental health and end up damaging your self-esteem in the long run. It can also make it harder for you to enjoy success – and leave you feeling less satisfied in general.  

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So, what can you do to rein in your inner critic and give yourself more of a break? According to a new study by scientists from the University of Trier in Germany, the answer could lie in the way you think about your mistakes.

The study, which was published in the Journal Of Affective Disorders earlier this month, surveyed 479 people to find out more about people with a “self-critical personality style” – a type of personality associated with “negative internal thoughts about one’s self-attributes and behaviours”.

The study identified what drives those with a self-critical personality style – looking to please others, rather than themselves. It also unearthed a key trait that contributes to their self-criticism – a sensitivity to negative feelings – and took a closer look at how those who struggle with self-criticism view failure. 

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The study found that those with a self-critical personality type were more likely to have a failure-related action orientation.

To measure this, the researchers asked participants to respond to a series of statements about failure and how they react to it. They found that those with a self-critical personality style were more likely to have a failure-related action orientation – aka, they tended to “get stuck in persisting thoughts about unpleasant experiences”.

They also asked them to reveal how they felt when faced with failure – for example, whether they felt anxious – and outline any psychological symptoms that usually come about as a result, such as anxiety, depression or trouble sleeping.

They found that people with a self-critical personality style were both more likely to feel anxious about failure and experience psychological symptoms as a result – and linked it back to the fact that these people were more likely to get ‘stuck’ thinking about failure compared to their non-critical counterparts.  

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In turn, the study suggests that people who find it hard to give themselves a break should (and are able to) train themselves to change the way they think about failure.

Instead of viewing failure as something permanent and unmovable, the study suggests people who struggle with self-criticism should teach themselves to see failure as a state that’s temporary and possible to move out of – and should also try to take the time to interrogate the idea that failure is a big problem in the first place.

So, next time you’re finding it hard to silence your inner critic, try to remind yourself that one moment of failure doesn’t define you. Mistakes are a natural part of life – and pushing yourself to be perfect 24/7 will only lead to more problems in the long run.  

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.