Thoughts on Self-Criticism

girl with a mirror

A few weekend readings ago, I mentioned that I’d been struck by this interview with Anneli Rufus, who is the author of a new book entitled “Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself.” I was particularly struck by her description of a condition that she calls “negative narcissim,” which she describes thus:

There’s a certain negative narcissism aspect to having low self-esteem. People who totally adore themselves are hard to love because they only see themselves and it’s hard for them to care about you. But people who hate themselves are also hard to love because they, too, are so self-absorbed that their own needs and miseries obstruct their view of another person. You can’t see into someone else’s heart if you are so wrapped up in yourself. If you’re sitting there, sobbing on the bed and there’s someone beside you saying, “But I love you,” and you reply, “No! I’m so worthless!” you’re basically saying ‘screw you’ to that person. If we can have compassion for ourselves, then we are inviting ourselves to have compassion for others, which makes relationships fairer and more equal.

Boy, did those words resonate. As I mentioned within the weekend reading post, I can’t say that my tendency toward self-loathing has ever blocked my ability to accept love quite so dramatically as it does in the exchange that Rufus describes. But I’m certainly no stranger to self-criticism or self-loathing, and I’m also no stranger to the solipsism they can create: the certainty that you must be correct in your (unflattering) vision of yourself, that everyone else is either deluded or being charitable, and that words of appreciation, while precious, are also futile.

Rufus’ words would have stuck with me no matter what, but they came at a particularly poignant moment. Self-criticism chases at my heels often, and some weeks or months are worse than others. I’ve been feeling particularly self-critical lately, across the board: professionally, personally, and of course with regard to my body. The body stuff, which at various times in my life has ranged from fiery body dysmorphia to plain discontent, isn’t necessarily the deepest or most unsettling kind of self-criticism I experience, but it’s always the most visceral. In my vulnerable state lately I find myself doing things I swore I’d stop doing years ago: making ungenerous comments about my appearance. Putting myself down. Rejecting compliments–if not outright, than with raised eyebrows or eye rolling. Very mature stuff, I know.

I could try to analyze why this stuff is all bubbling up right now, but that’s not really where I wanted to go with this post. What struck me when I read Rufus’ interview, and what seemed to reverberate with my readers most powerfully, was the idea that self-loathing and feelings of unworthiness can serve as a barrier between us and the people we love–the narcissism that Rufus articulates so smartly. To me, this sounded a lot like the isolation and self-centered experience that characterizes EDs. I and many Green Recovery authors have written about this. Emma articulated it perfectly in the comments for that post:

…I’m glad to hear you voicing those thoughts because you are not alone in the self-criticism department and it’s something really tough to deal with–both personally and knowing the effect it’s having on others attitude towards you. When I was very ill my Mum called me “selfish” and that was the worst thing ever for me to hear but in a sense eating disorders ARE very narcissistic, though of course it’s not intentional.

The “selfishness” of EDs is rooted more in self-destructiveness in than in self-celebration, so it doesn’t always come across as narcissism in a traditional sense. But insofar as it warps our perception of ourselves enough to shut other people out, I think it most definitely fits the bill.

One of the worst consequences of this kind of self-loathing is that it causes us to reject the love and admiration that other people feel for us, either because we’re so accustomed to our own criticisms that we no longer know what to do with other people’s high regard, or–even worse–because it has contorted our vision of ourselves so thoroughly that we come to believe that people who love us are just plain wrong. This is obviously hurtful to those who have candidly voiced their affection/admiration to us. Hannah had this to say:

The Rufus quote reminds me of a conversation we had a few months ago, the one about my mind-trick logic of “If this person, whom I think is incredible and radiant and strong and intelligent and awe-inspiring and hilarious and wonderful [i.e. you/a friend/loved one], and whom I trust in all matters, seems to feel the same way about me, then I have to trust them and believe it too to at least some degree, or else I’m contradicting my incontrovertible belief that the sun radiates from their wise soul, which I can’t do, because it does, ergo… I’m not worthless.”

Quite right. There’s an inherent contradiction between admiring and trusting a friend or lover, and also insisting to yourself that his or her judgment about you is just completely wrong. My reader Suzanne delved into this idea in the comments, too:

I remember when I first met my husband … many moons ago… he told me that if I shrugged off or rejected a compliment or expression of love, that it was actually an insult to the other person. That I am saying their opinion is wrong or does not matter. He said ‘you don’t have to agree with it, but you can say thank you and accept that it is how the other person feels’. That really shifted my ability to graciously accept kindness from others…and in doing so , it allows some of those positive thoughts to be absorbed. Unfortunately, despite the fact that that was years ago – I am still too strong on the self criticism and I completely see how it sucks energy away from a vibrant life and truly intimate, fulfilling relationships.

To insist that others are wrong in their appreciation of us is, I think, self-destructive; to me, it echoes the self destructive habits that I remember from my ED. Back then, I starved myself literally. I’ve learned not to deny myself food anymore, but sometimes I struggle to accept other sorts of essential nourishment, and I believe that love is one of those. To reject love, or to reject the admiration and desire it evokes, is a different kind of self-starvation.

So, why persist with the negative remarks or the eye rolling if I know how warped it all is, how harmful and deceptive? Part of it, I guess, isn’t under my control: I’m human, and like most humans, my sense of self-assurance has peaks and valleys. When I’m feeling really low about myself, it’s genuinely hard to believe other people when they express some sort of admiration. But part of it, I know, is that there is a peculiar kind of safety in disliking myself, just as there was a (terrible) sort of safety in having an ED. Anorexia winnowed my existence down to a few key variables, and I controlled (or thought I controlled) them all: what I ate, when I ate, how much I ate, and how thin I was. Nothing could be uncertain and nothing could surprise me if I limited my experience to these concerns. It was awful, but it also felt, at the time, so comforting, so free of unknowns.

And there is certainty–perceived certainty, anyway–to insisting that you know yourself better than anyone else does, and what you know is that you’re unattractive, untalented, unintelligent, and unworthy. Because if you refuse to accept that your lover finds you beautiful, then you’ll never be caught off-guard or wounded if his or her attraction shifts one day. And if you reject his love, then you won’t ever run the risk of being abandoned or hurt. If you refuse to believe that you are powerful or intelligent, then you don’t necessarily have to voice opinions that might be criticized, or accept opportunities in which you might be challenged. And if you refuse to believe that you are worthy of happiness, than you can very often find ways to reject it, rather than embracing it with the poignant awareness that it may shift or dissolve one day.

It’s appropriate that Anneli Rufus’ interviewer in the Atlantic brought up the famous Marianne Williamson quotation: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” To refuse to believe in our own potential is in some ways an act of guarding, a way of shutting out all of the heartbreak and failure that can befall us when we gather up the confidence to take immense risks: falling in love, pursuing professional opportunities we desperately want, fighting for our ideals, putting our hearts in other peoples’ hands.

What I just wrote might make it sound as if I believe that most self-loathing or self-doubt is disingenuous, a calculated act of self-protection. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t think that at all. My own self-criticism, when it’s at its worst, feels absolutely sincere, and I wish it’s something I could change. I yearn for the kinds of self-assurance that I tend to lack, especially self-assurance about my body, and I know that many of my readers feel the same way. But on some level I also understand that my world has expanded, wonderfully, every time I’ve managed to overcome the self-loathing and have faith in my own fundamental worth. It was in these moments–moments when I believed that I was talented, kind, worthy of love–that I made my boldest choices, learned my greatest lessons, loved the most and was loved most in return.

I had to accept that I was worthy of health and sustenance in order to begin overcoming my ED. Nagging feelings of self-criticism or unworthiness probably don’t measure up to the enormity of that experience, but in some ways I recognize that a similar mental shift has to happen even in the small moments when I doubt my own value. And I know that the fairer my self-perceptions become–not blind to flaws or errors, mind you, but honest and forgiving even in spite of them–the more intimately I’ll be able to connect with the people in my life who have given me the gift of their love and admiration.

I wanted to wrap up this train of thought by mentioning that Anneli Rufus actually commented on that Weekend Reading post. Not surprisingly, readers, she has an ED story of her own. She said,

I’m so glad that my comments re: self-loathing (re: my new book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself) were helpful to you. As an eating-disorder survivor myself, I agree with your insights. Self-destructiveness vs. self-celebration is a sadly perfect way of characterizing that process, and oh man is the obsession around eating and not eating a lethal time-sucker. Eating disorders “reward” the afflicted with a sense of victory which feels real at the time (I know) but later is revealed as tragically false. Switching off the inner critic is like training for a marathon, and maybe not 100 percent possible, but we must try & try. Cheers & thanks & all the best to you.

Before I go, I wanted to mention that my friend Melanie St. Ours and I recently collaborated for her fabulous Creative Wellness Podcast. Melanie is a clinical herbalist, a healer, and a really great friend. Her podcast is dedicated to helping people harness the power of herbal medicine and creative energy into the healing process. She’s smart, compassionate, funny, and if you’re curious about TCM or Ayurveda, she’s a fabulous resource. I mention the podcast tonight because we happen to have spoken about all of the things this post touches on: EDs, healing, and perfectionism in particular. It’s long–a whole hour–but it’s rich material, and if you’re curious about these topics, then I invite you to check the podcast out.

Please try to ignore the bit where I meant to say Jack Norris (co-author of Vegan for Life) and said “Mark Morris” instead. Oy.

Night folks.


Top image: “Girl with a mirror (1977)” by Roy Lichtenstein (centralasian/flickr)  



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  1. Gena,

    This post is absolutely beautiful and I feel like everything you wrote mirrors exactly everything I have thought and still often do feel. I read this post in the exact moment I needed to. Thank you so much for you voice . . . such an inspiring, brave and beautiful woman you are 🙂


  2. So fascinating… this post reminds me so much of a post I read about recovery (from addiction) expressions:

    “I’m not much but I’m all I think about.

    This one, and its stepsister, “I’m the piece of crap in the center of the universe,” was another one that stopped me in my tracks. Most of my life, my self-absorption had been off the charts and it was matched only by my self-loathing. And I didn’t have any idea until the day I heard this one and felt how much it resonated. Before recovery, I thought the world revolved around me but I also regularly told myself I was stupid and unlovable. Again, I’m much better now, but I still make some trips to the annex of self-obsession and self-hatred.”

    I can think of so many people that I know or have read about who have struggled with a variety of diseases (for lack of a better word) for which this expression would ring true. It’s when I started to see this pattern that it struck me: these things that isolate us, eating disorders, body image issues, depression, addictions, these conditions that make us feel so disconnected from ourselves and each other, all have these common threads of experience that show just how much of a connection we do have with one another.

    • “I’m not much, but I’m all I think about” — that’s a quotation to remember, Marta. I think you’re quite right that this expression, or the sentiment it reveals, is applicable to a number of mental health struggles. Thanks for your input.


  3. What a beautiful post Gena. Reading this is a memory that will stay with me for a long time. I could literally feel myself becoming more enlightened, more compassionate toward myself as I read it. Also more aware of how those self-loathing thoughts- which I know objectively to be skewed subjectively by my own personal feelings and cognitive patterns, but that FEEL so real and intense that I can’t negative them- actually work. They work by me submitting to them and being so wholeheartedly willing to believe them in yes, a “narcissistic” fashion. I’ve never heard that almost blind plunge into self-doubt and hate so poignantly dubbed as narcissism, but it is, no matter how oxymoronic it may seem. It’s narcissistic because I simply regard my own way of perceive myself without a flicker of doubt or investment into the reflections of others, namely those that love and care about me. Thank you SO much for this truly enlightening and ground breaking post. 🙂

  4. *HUG* I know for me, my emotions can be transferred onto my body image. A negative moment can spiralize into an ugly day. I know you may not want to talk about the rest of your life, but some stressors can be terribly demoralizing (ahem, acceptance to schools, etc) that have nothing to do with how awesome a person you are. [I hope it has nothing to do with that aspect of your life but it is an unfortunate reality for too many bright applicants]

  5. Powerful post. The naked honesty is much appreciated.
    You always seem to eloquently express how I’m feeling (with added wit!). I’m struggling a lot right now with ED and self-criticism, but this is really making me re-shift my vision of things. My husband is always the supportive, caring, unbreaking force in my life. But I always ignore the hurt look in his eyes when I counter-act his compliments about me and my body and basically tell him he is lying. I never really thought about how it affects him and that’s mean. I like Suzanne’s approach by at least thanking people and making a point of accepting how others feel, even if we don’t agree.
    “And there is certainty–perceived certainty, anyway–to insisting that you know yourself better than anyone else does, and what you know is that you’re unattractive, untalented, unintelligent, and unworthy. Because if you refuse to accept that your lover finds you beautiful, then you’ll never be caught off-guard or wounded if his or her attraction shifts one day. And if you reject his love, then you won’t ever run the risk of being abandoned or hurt. If you refuse to believe that you are powerful or intelligent, then you don’t necessarily have to voice opinions that might be criticized, or accept opportunities in which you might be challenged. And if you refuse to believe that you are worthy of happiness, than you can very often find ways to reject it, rather than embracing it with the poignant awareness that it may shift or dissolve one day.”
    This brought me to tears… it makes me want to change. It gives me the strength to do so.

  6. This is such a strong, insightful, articulate, honest, open, and ultimately encouraging essay, my dearest heart. I am honoured that you quoted me, particularly as I most certainly wanted you to take what I said to heart (again), because it is true beyond words that I think you are made of stars.

    I remember, staying with you last year, being astonished that you still find it hard to believe you are beautiful and adorable and sexy as hell and that you stand out. It is so clear to me, to everyone. The older I get (what’s that? Tomorrow a year ago we were having breakfast at Prasad together?), the more I realise we’re all, all of us in some way, faking it til we make it. I wish we could all believe in ourselves more, the way our loved ones see us. Maybe we will. I hope you do, soon. Because, I repeat, you are made of stars. xoxo

  7. your vulnerability and accountability are tremendously inspiring and courageous. thank you.

  8. This is quite amazing! i never came across the term “negative narcissism” but kind of suspected that it existed. Few years ago I terminated few “friendships” with people who were not only incredibly negative, but also self-loathing and self-destructive. At least one of them was “trained” to self-hatred while growing up by her mother and nothing could change her beliefs about herself and the world. When she opened her eyes to see other people, she hated them for being “better” or “having more” than she ever would and for genuinely trying to like her. Her low self esteem had no base in reality, though. She was quite talented, spoke many languages and was rather good looking, but no amount of assurance could change the way she saw herself. She always suspected that people hated her. Interestingly enough she developed vitiligo, a disease that not only began to disfigure her but also kind of confirmed her “deformity:” Before our friendship ended she told me that the author Luise Hay attributed vitiligo to self-hatred. We lost contact but I wish she could read Rufus’ book or at least your post…

    Greetings – Dominique

  9. I definitely have a hard time accepting compliments, too. I think it has something to do with not wanting to come off as arrogant or entitled, but the more I dwell on that, it doesn’t really make sense. Receiving compliments is an act of humility since it involves acknowleging the support of others whereas rejecting them makes it seem like I am angling for praise. Nevertheless, for some reason, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
    Also, I think that self-criticism is a manifestation of the fear of failure within me. I always claim that I’m not competitive, but I’m constantly striving to be the best I can be. By putting myself down, I feel like I am motivating myself to be better, but deep down, I know that’s not the case. It’s a constant battle, that’s for sure. The toughest aspect of negative self-talk to me is that it’s in your head, so it’s not really a tangible thing. It can showcase itself through physical signs, yes, but to combat it, I can’t physically eradicate the thoughts. I have to mentally catch myself, do some internal reflection.
    This brings me to a question for you. Does blogging ever bring on thoughts of self-criticism? Do supportive comments ever trigger thoughts that make you feel otherwise? I was just wondering because it seems to me that with the Internet these days, everyone feels a sort of narcissism, whether it’s self-celebrating or self-deprecating.

  10. Great post Gena. Very insightful. I have a hard time accepting compliments at times. When I realize my behavior, I stop and ask myself why I’m doing this? Why I am not accepting a nice comment that is coming from another’s heart. Sometimes I feel it’s a selfish act to accept these compliments. I’m not worthy. Lately I have been doing better. It actually feels good to look a person in the eye and sincerely thank them for their kind words. It lifts my spirits as well as theirs. It’s a win-win for all.

    Your posts always help me self-reflect. Thank you for opening up and sharing, Gena. It helps us all.

  11. Such a thoughtful post as always, Gena! I too have struggled with self-criticism for years and in many ways I think I used my eating disorder and obsession with perfection as methods to gain more self-worth and thus minimize the critical thoughts in my head. Of course, that doesn’t work out so well because the eating disorder just gets stronger and more relentless. There’s always more weight to be lost and another ‘level of perfection’ to achieve. I never felt satisfied or loved or ok with myself and I just dug myself deeper into a hole of despair. I still struggle with self-criticism, but I don’t hate myself anymore, and that’s a huge thing for me. In my recovery I’ve learned of lots of ways to love myself a little more every day, to be a little more forgiving, and to lower my standards to something that actual humans can achieve. For me, the drive for perfection was never fun or fulfilling, it was just a distraction from all the stuff that was hurting underneath. Recently though, I’ve realized that (along the lines of the Marianne Williamson quote) the most terrifying thing is that I’m actually everything I need to be to have the life I want. Believing that I’m okay means owning up to the lies I’ve believed about myself for years. It’s scary to let go of years of thinking that I needed to improve and change everything about myself in order to exist, be loved and love myself.

  12. Isn’t it frustrating when these self criticisms come up? It happens to literally the best of us, and somehow it is soothing to me to know that so many amazing, incredible, and inspiring women go through the same thing. It’s like, I see you as being not only super smart, creative, and motivating, but also super babely. (I know you’re not fishing for compliments here, but I had to say it. ) whenever I feel down about myself I just think of how crazy it seems to me that someone like you could feel down about yourself. Then it will occur to me that probably someone else is thinking of me in the same light. I think it helps!

    Thank you for your honesty.

  13. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

    Love this. I have been seeing this quote in so many places it’s starting to feel like someone is trying to tell me something! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your honesty and willingness to discuss these topics.

  14. The words – both yours and the article – are timely and poignant for me as well. I think I’ve commented on this here before, but I’ve spent the bulk of my PhD candidature criticising myself for not being smart enough. Despite all of the positive feedback I get, I spend most of my days with the little voice that tells me I am not doing a good enough job.

    I am terrible at dismissing the positive comments of others as well. Just yesterday, my supervisor said “Every time I talk to my other PhD students, I am reminded of how good you are. They just don’t get research like you do.” I basically laughed and dismissed her. My husband came home and told me that when he was asked about me, he said “She’s smarter than me, better educated, and she’s going to save the world.” I just said “That’s not true! That’s ridiculous!”

    Anyway, I missed that link in your weekend reading because I had been in Iceland, but I am glad you re-posted it here. Acknowledging that I am overly critical of myself is one thing, but thinking about it in terms of narcissism is a game changer. I can accept being wrong…I can’t accept it’s okay to be narcissistic without running into some major cognitive dissonance!

    Beautifully written, as always, Gena.

  15. Ah Gena, your posts always get me a little emotional. 100% yes to all of this. You’re so right that it can actually be insulting to reject compliments. I like the idea of considering how we feel about the person making them. Definitely helpful in being able to see them as sincere.
    The reason behind the self-criticism and difficulty accepting kind words, love and friendship is not something I’ve really thought about, I just know it’s there. But your idea of having fixed views about ourselves and the safety that brings makes a lot of sense. I’ve feared “the unknown” for as long as I can remember and embracing uncertainty is something which I often still find hard. It’s ironic that the fact that we are loved by family and friends, and that that love is pretty much limitless, should be the greatest certainty and security but is what we reject….
    Big thanks again to you and Melissa for the very powerful interview. xxx

  16. Wow.. I have been recovering from an eating disorder for almost two years now and I still struggle with all of this. Thank you for lettinng people know that people struggle with some of the same things.

  17. Gena, thank you. This is a beautiful post–the writing soars, both with accuracy and vision, borne from lived and examined experience.

    As a relatively older person, I’d say another “casualty” of entrenched self-criticism is missing or crossing out the kindnesses that we want to extend to others, but telling ourselves they won’t want what we have to offer. Even at my ripe old age, I still do this. Just as it’s important to learn to accept the love and admiration we receive in sincerity from others, it’s also important to trust our own impulses to offer help or give praise or be kind, to believe such perceptions are worthy, and take the risk to make them known.

    I just love your blog. Keep on writing, keep on healing, keep on creating and sharing it all with us.



    • yes, i agree it’s very well written and interesting and honest. well done gena.

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