Successful people set high expectations for themselves and then plan their lives so they can meet those expectations. 

Self-critical people also have high expectations, but what they demand from themselves is often just beyond their grasp. As a result, they tie themselves up in knots worrying about what they “should have” done instead of celebrating what they actually did.

You may have been engaging in this practice for a long time. Or maybe it’s a habit you’ve only developed recently, in response to a series of disappointments. Perhaps you don’t even recognize what has been happening, which makes it impossible to overcome the self-critical reflex.

Self-awareness is the first step to stopping this self-sabotage. With that in mind, here are eight signs that will let you know if you’ve become too self-critical.

#1 You’ve become a relentless perfectionist

Modest helpings of perfectionism are healthy when they push you to strive for more. But if your perfectionism has become a constant and unwanted companion, leaving you questioning your performance even when others are praising it, that’s a strong indication that your self-critical streak has gotten the best of you.

#2 You’re haunted by a fear of failure

If you constantly worry about failing, it means you doubt your capacity to handle life’s challenges. You’ve likely been classifying relatively small setbacks as terrible failures, instead of seeing them as inevitable parts of life. An exaggerated fear of failure is a consequence of a hyperactive inner voice, which has been telling you that you aren’t good enough and that other people know it.

#3 Your inner self-talk is slanted heavily toward the pessimistic

You should take a few moments each day to closely examine what you’re saying to yourself—and about yourself—in your mind. Are your words hopeful or optimistic, at least part of the time? Or is your inner voice focused overwhelmingly on the negative, offering frustrated, gloomy or fatalistic judgments on your worthiness? If it’s the latter, realize you’ve been feeding the self-critical beast so long that it has turned into a real monster.

#4 You don’t handle criticism well, always taking it to heart

When you’re highly self-critical, you may see criticism from others as proof positive that you were right all along. Alternatively, you might tell yourself that the criticism you’ve gotten at work, at home, or in some random social environment is inaccurate and unfair, but deep down you don’t really believe it. This is what happens when your self-critical voice has run wild and taken control of your emotional reactions.

#5 You accept compliments with a huge grain of salt

When people praise you, rather than triggering a joyful response it often leaves you wondering if they have an agenda, or if they’re somehow trying to manipulate you. When you’re 100 percent sure they’re being sincere, you remain skeptical of their judgment. In your mind you feel like a phony, accepting praise that you don’t really deserve—and this provides a perfect example of how the self-critical inner voice undermines your self-confidence.

#6 You have an easily triggered frustration reflex

You may have been resilient in the past and remained calm when confronted with sudden reversals of fortune. But lately you’ve noticed that even the smallest glitch or mishap can send you tumbling into a fit of frustration. You beat yourself up because you think you somehow caused the problem, or because you didn’t see it coming when you think you should have.

#7 Other people have been noticing how hard you’re being on yourself

Have your loved ones and friends been telling you not to cry over spilled milk when they notice you blaming yourself for some unfortunate (but not catastrophic) development? Have they been asking you why you’re constantly putting yourself down and encouraging you to be more positive? This is a sure sign that your self-critical voice has taken charge of your life. Your family and friends know you best, and if they’re telling you there’s a problem you should probably listen.

#8 Your self-esteem has taken a big hit

Declining self-esteem is the ultimate consequence of too much self-criticism. When you castigate yourself for your perceived failures over and over again, you’re undermining your sense of self-worth and slowly eroding your self-confidence in your own abilities. When your self-esteem drops, your sense of empowerment will decline with it.

Are Some Personality Types More Self-critical Than Others?

Any personality type could be vulnerable to runaway self-criticism. But some types are at heightened risk, and that’s because they demand a lot of themselves and constantly reflect on how close they are to meeting their lofty expectations.

Using the Enneagram system as an example, four of the nine types are prone to excessive self-criticism. They are:

Type 1: The Perfectionist

Enneagram Ones are generally comfortable with their perfectionism. They see the rejection of mediocrity as a positive force in their lives, and they take pride in their ability to organize and get things done. But if a One starts relying on their perfectionism to prop up a shaky self-image, it goes from being a constructive personality trait to a negative trait that pushes them into obsessiveness and chronic dissatisfaction.

Type 3: The Achiever

For the Enneagram Three, success is synonymous with a meaningful life. They expect to rise to the challenge time after time, as they push themselves to get more done and to receive more recognition for their multiple achievements. But they place extraordinary demands on themselves and, as a result, they can easily become disenchanted if their success plummets. They may begin to blame themselves for their disappointments and even begin comparing themselves unfavorably to co-workers or companions who seem to be accomplishing more.

Type 4: The Individualist

Enneagram Fours want to carve out a unique niche for themselves, developing their personality and identity in ways that express their need for individuality and nonconformity. But an unhealthy Four may be plagued by self-doubt and uncertainty. They may feel like they’ve been conforming or seeking approval too much, and therefore living inauthentically. Their self-critical voices can begin to run on overdrive, as they become convinced that they’re wasting their potential for greatness.

Type 9: The Peacemaker

Well-adjusted Enneagram Nines exude both confidence and serenity. But Nines with a less well-developed self-image may feel socially insecure, causing them to defer to the needs and desires of their companions far too often. Dissatisfied with their pace of personal development and feeling shame at their lack of boldness, insecure Nines may begin procrastinating frequently, as if they’re afraid of failure. As their energy and initiative dissipate they can become highly self-critical, convinced that their lack of progress is a sign of their weakness and inadequacy.

Five Tips for Getting Rid of Your Self-Criticizing Habit

The good news is, you can change your destiny and reassert control over your self-image. 

Here are five tips that can help you purge your self-critical habits:

1. Chart a new course with your inner voice. Consciously work to replace your cynical thoughts with positive affirmations, promoting an attitude of hopefulness and self-belief. Doing this may not have a huge immediate impact, but over time your positive focus may silence your inner self-critical voice for good.

2. Ask yourself how you would react to others in your situation. If others were guilty of your supposed screw-ups, you’d be forgiving and understanding, wouldn’t you? Once you think about it in these terms, you can gradually learn to be just as tolerant and compassionate toward yourself.

3. Pursue success in small but uplifting doses. You can take pride in confronting a phobia, improving your exercise habits, making a bold move to put your shyness aside, writing that short story you’ve had running around in your head forever – or whatever else you’ve pushed yourself to accomplish. There are a thousand examples like this, all of which will contradict the self-critical voice that claims you can’t accomplish anything.

4. Talk about your issues with someone you trust. Don’t keep your self-doubts locked up inside. If you confide in a friend or family member about how self-critical you’ve become, they can help you sort it all out and uncover the true sources of your discontent. After some long, intimate conversations, you may start to see yourself more like your loved ones do (as someone talented, worthy and special).  

5. Learn mindfulness techniques and practice them religiously. Mind-body therapies like meditation and yoga can help quiet your inner troublesome voice, and if you practice them regularly you’ll eventually learn how to carry that mental stillness into your daily life. Through meditation and other mindfulness techniques, you’ll become reflective rather than reactive, and that will give you much greater control over your self-critical instincts.

There’s nothing wrong with having high standards. But you need to make sure those standards are realistic and motivating, so they’re pulling you forward instead of holding you back.

Nathan Falde
Nathan Falde has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. His ghostwritten work and bylined articles have appeared in numerous online outlets, and in 2014-2015 he acted as co-creator for a series of eBooks on the personality types. An INFJ and a native of Wisconsin, Nathan currently lives in Bogota, Colombia with his wife Martha and their son Nicholas.