Where does self-judgment come from?


If you struggle with self-judgment, you’ve probably wondered where it comes from, and how you can find relief from it. In my experience and training as a therapist, and in my own personal process, I’ve seen that self-judgment can have a variety of causes.

One of the most common ways of understanding the inner critic is to see it as the internalized voice of a judgmental parent, caregiver or authority figure. This explanation makes a lot of sense: If you grew up hearing that whatever you did was wrong or never good enough, it’s likely that you would develop an inner critic who echoed that same story. And it’s likely that you would think that that story was true.

The environment you grew up in has a lasting impact on how you understand the world, and how you understand yourself. The most important thing to remember about your experience as a small child is that belonging was the most important thing. You came into the world completely dependent on others. Without your connection to your caregivers, you would not have made it. Your very survival depended on maintaining a sense of connection with the people around you. You may have learned to sacrifice your connection with yourself, to preserve your bond with those you depended on.

For example, if you grew up being rewarded for being (or even just appearing to be) happy, strong and capable, it might be difficult or even impossible for you to accept yourself if you feel sad or vulnerable, or if you make a mistake. In fact, the sense of being vulnerable or sad may be so intolerable that you don’t even realize you experience those feelings. Instead, you may experience a relentless stream of self-judgment. And you may not understand why you are criticizing yourself so strongly.

It might sound strange to think that you would choose to criticize yourself rather than to feel sad or vulnerable. However, if you learned that sadness or vulnerability were not acceptable, criticism would actually be less threatening than experiencing or expressing those specific feelings. Expressing sadness or vulnerability might mean that the people who care about you would reject you. That would be a major risk; not one you would be likely to take. And, if you began criticizing yourself at an early age, it could seem so familiar that it might not even register as criticism. It might just seem “normal.”

There are other, less obvious ways that an inner critic can develop. It can also spring from early experiences of not being seen, heard or understood. When you were young, you didn’t yet have the experience, cognitive ability or emotional maturity to fully understand what happened in your life. So, you did the best you could. If you tried to communicate with a parent to get a need met, and you were not understood or responded to, you would likely feel “bad”, i.e. hurt, angry, lonely, and/or sad.

At that age (until about age 7 or so), it’s nearly impossible for a child to tell the difference between feeling “bad” and being “bad.” In other words, in the situation described above, you would most likely conclude that you didn’t get the attention you needed because you had done something wrong, or because there was something wrong with you.

Here, an inner critic develops because of what doesn’t happen (attuned-enough attention from a caregiver), rather than because of what does happen (overt criticism). If you struggle with self-criticism due to this sort of early experience, it can be very difficult to understand why you are so critical of yourself. Missing experiences are much harder to name, because if you didn’t really get the attention you needed, you might not know how to articulate what was missing; it was just the way things were.

The inner critic can continue to operate and grow stronger during adulthood when you find it difficult to compassionately relate to your experience – particularly when you do not meet certain expectations about how your life is supposed to look.

The inner critic claims such authority within you because it expresses a black-and-white certainty about what is happening. It always knows why you are suffering, and the explanation is always that there is something wrong with you; it’s your fault. This rigidity is stifling, but part of why it is so compelling is that it offers the illusion of control: if only you could “fix” all the things about you that are “broken”, then you could be happy, for example.

Understanding how your inner critic developed can help you come into a more compassionate relationship with it and with your whole self. You start to realize that your inner critic does not see accurately, but rather it sees you and your actions through a particular lens. That lens has a narrow focus, and it likely formed when you were young, and had no idea about other ways of understanding yourself and your life.

When I teach about self-compassion I often talk about how curiosity is a potent form of kindness. You can think of curiosity as an antidote to self-criticism because it opens up a sense of possibility for understanding your experience, and of understanding why you do the things you do, or struggle with the things you struggle with.

For example, I’ve long been curious about how certain emotional and behavioral traits are passed down from generation to generation. Certain mental health issues tend to run in families, although it’s not always clear why. Is there an inherited, biological component? Or are certain issues passed on through the ways that the older generation relates to the younger generation?

Last year I learned about findings from a 2013 research study which suggests that our ancestors’ traumatic experiences are transmitted to us through an alteration in our genetic material. That alteration can cause us to react to stimuli as if we ourselves had experienced those traumas first-hand. In other words, if your grandmother had been traumatized by being bitten by a dog, you might be born fearing dogs.

When I learned about this study, I thought about the profound implications it has for understanding our experience. Maybe some of the things that challenge us can be traced back to struggles or traumas that our ancestors had.

What if the inner critic’s go-to explanation for our suffering and struggles (you’re suffering because there’s something wrong with you) isn’t the only view? To take it one step further, perhaps the inner critic itself is somehow an inheritance from a traumatized ancestor. Just having another way of understanding your experience opens up a sense of possibility and a wider perspective.

This sense of possibility is, itself, an expression of compassion that offers relief here-and-now for your adult self. It also reaches back in time to your younger self, and forward in time to whoever comes after you, because those wounds from your childhood are being acknowledged and healed, and they will not be unconsciously passed down to the generations after you.

And, in a way, the impact reaches even further back in time, before you were born, to your parents, grandparents, and beyond. If you are able to relate more compassionately to the legacy of intergenerational traumas, you also are healing your ancestors and creating a new ending to the narrative of their struggles.

Having this perspective can also help you to understand that you are not alone in your experience. We all are working with the blueprints and maps that we learned and inherited as children, but we can choose to revise and re-interpret them.