Excessive Self-Criticism

The paradox about failure is that we learn more from failure than we learn from success.

Self-criticism is frequently a significant psychological barrier to success, as it undermines self-confidence, lowers motivation, and can lead to embarrassment, guilt, shame, anger, or sadness. The result of these unrecognized feelings is often seen in the person’s behavior, resulting in overtraining, poor communication, self-defeating attitudes, or behaviors that impair performance.

Nevertheless, teaching high-performers how to be less self-critical is often an enormous challenge. After all, high-performers have achieved a great deal by being hard on themselves. The thought that a gentler attitude to oneself can improve performance is counterintuitive at best, and yet, study after study has demonstrated the powerful, performance-enhancing effects that “being kind to yourself” can yield. All psychologists have witnessed an inordinate amount of cases of elite performers who have become unable to perform in their chosen realm due to overwhelming thoughts and emotions.

How can we help the athlete, executive, or student and empower them to return to the task at hand when they are being bombarded by anxiety, harsh thoughts, and psychologically defeated and/or severely debilitated by their own minds?

As an adjunct to mindfulness for the performance, explicit training in the practice of compassion training and distress tolerance is often required to get these high-functioning individuals back to their baseline and out of the acute suffering that can occur with extreme performance anxiety. Moreover, self-criticism is not just about performance anxiety — the state of immobilization and emotional pain that can sometimes entrap individuals is not only painful and immobilizing, but can also sometimes take over their personal lives and wellbeing, leading to anxiety disorders and extreme mood disorders. From this perspective, dealing with self-criticism can sometimes be career-changing and life-sustaining.

Compassion is an intrinsic aspect of mindfulness but it rarely gets addressed directly in a performance situation. Nevertheless, we implicitly ask performers to accept the anxiety and simply focus on the challenge at hand. When faced with harsh self-criticism, self-doubt, or fear, we ask them to focus back on the competition. Yet, we know that some are not able to shift their focus away from the negative emotions and therefore, their performance suffers.
When harsh thoughts emerge, the individual experiences cognitive fusion (when the person acts as though their thoughts are literally true) or experiential avoidance (the attempt to avoid or escape events that are relevant to the individual, such as practices or competitions).

Distress Tolerance:

Distress tolerance is defined as a person’s ability to withstand negative emotional states. How performers handle debilitative emotions is predictive of performance success.

Some elements of Distress Tolerance that can be trained with Compassion Focused Therapy include:

  • Accepting emotional distress.
  • Tolerating negative emotion
  • Accepting negative emotions without avoidance
  • Mitigating the amount of attention absorbed by the negative emotions

“Acceptance and understanding of the performer’s internal suffering may be the key for them to be freed up to engage authentically and fully in the moment to moment experience for best performance and best quality of internal life experience” (Baltzell, A., 2016).