Self-criticism (self-evaluation) and anxiety can serve a useful and productive purpose too!

This morning’s session was a great reminder to me about good anxiety versus bad anxiety and productive self-criticism versus destructive self-criticism.  Many of us might automatically suggest that “good” and “productive” have no place next to words like anxiety and self-criticism.  For the most part it doesn’t feel good to be “anxious” and the term “self-criticism” is usually associated with someone having poor self-worth or struggling with self-esteem issues.

Unhealthy or extreme self-criticism—if left unattended—can limit you from interviewing for jobs that you are well-qualified for, can discourage you from going on dates, and can lead to depression and dysfunctional belief systems.  If you’re constantly telling yourself that you aren’t good enough, you’ll eventually believe it and manifest that negative self-image into everything you do.  Dysfunctional belief systems can take hold and statements such as, “plan for the worst in all things and hope for the best—if you’re lucky,” can begin to dictate your life.  This belief system, recognized or not, draws us toward the worst in all things…(but, that’s for another blog posting).  And, we all know that chronic or acute anxiety can be paralyzing and create social isolation, severe emotional distress, and can eventually lead to physical health problems such as high blood-pressure, migraine headaches, chest pain, and much worse.

But, I want to focus on the useful types of anxiety and self-criticism today.  My first meeting—with a very insightful and magnanimous client—focused on differentiating between good and bad anxiety and productive and unproductive self-criticism with the focus being more on the usefulness of both the conventionally termed “negative” traits.

We’ve all been in situations when self-criticism (let’s use self-evaluation instead) can help us to take a closer look at our behaviors and question what was behind our intentions when we’ve reacted unfavorably to someone when we felt stuck in an anxiety-provoking situation.  For example, have you ever been at a dinner party and someone asked you what you did for a living and instinctively you wanted to or you responded with, “Why is that always the first question at a dinner event?”  Or, the person sitting across from you asked about your relationship status and you sarcastically responded with, “I’m single and I’ll always be single, why?”  No matter how frustrated we were by the questions [we may have felt that they were predictable ice-breakers, shallow attempts to connect, or questions that should be off limits—and they just might have been], the reality of the situation is that our reactions and responses most likely came across as harsh and crass.  If you’re part of a reality TV show this makes for good-selling drama; but, in real-life social situations, it makes for awkwardness.  In many cases, our attempts to make a point or divert from the questions themselves make others feel that we are jaded and unavailable for further conversation, and it pushes them away.

I believe these types of responses serve as ways to reduce our own anxiety about our work or relationship challenges.  Most likely we are struggling with a volatile or challenging partnership.  We may be in the process of trying to work through a miscommunication at home, struggling with difficult news from our partner, or we may be in the process of breaking-up.  We might have lost our job and be on our sixth month of collecting unemployment, and we’re frustrated, embarrassed and uncertain about our career and financial futures.  Our automatic responses yield the exact results that we’re looking—although only temporarily.  We get the attention diverted away from us and it assists us from having to deal with the difficult and challenging questions.

In these situations a good dose of self-evaluation (being more critical of self) can be useful.  It can help us to understand that the questions themselves (as superficial as they might have seemed) were mere attempts to relate to us and connect; and, we might instead see that we reacted from a place of defensiveness in order to cover-up for our own insecurity and present doubts—not because of someone’s poor social skills.  Being a bit more critical of our reactions can help us to begin to do the tough internal work needed to make changes to ourselves in order to make us more available, attractive, approachable and relatable to potential friends, lovers, employers, or simply the person sitting across the table from us at a dinner party.  Furthermore, dealing with our anxiety directly can also serve a huge purpose in helping us to connect to others.  After-all, if the person sitting across the table from you has blood running through their veins, chances are that they too have struggled in a relationship, failed at a relationship, had difficulty on the job or lost a job themselves.  Being more truthful in our responses and reactions and less defensive will actually help lessen our anxiety as we provide for opportunities to relate to others through our shared experiences.  We might just actually stumble upon the much needed support and validation that we needed and deserved at a very challenging and difficult time.


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