5 Signs You're Too Self-Critical

Are you harder on yourself than 40-grit sandpaper? Welcome to the esteemed yet insecure club of the highly self-critical. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 signs it’s time to release the pressure.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #218

Being hard on yourself is double-edged—highly self-critical individuals are often successful achievers. But the road to those achievements isn’t a smooth ride; instead, it’s often riddled with potholes of stress, insecurity, and self-doubt. 

Self-criticism may be overt, such as calling yourself names like "idiot" or "loser" when you don’t meet your own standards, or disparaging your accomplishments to those who try to congratulate you. 

But self-criticism may be covert, too. And it may leak out in sneaky ways, like an eating disorder, social anxiety, or depression. Therefore, this week, we’ll talk about five signs it may be time to trade in your criticism for some kindness.

5 Signs You're Being Too Self-Critical

  1. You're never content.
  2. You feel constantly overwhelmed.
  3. You always feel guilty.
  4. You go it alone.
  5. You’re too humble.

Here are the self-critical signs in more detail. 

Sign #1: You’re never content.

Even if we’ve run out of room on our trophy shelf, made the Dean’s list, or framed the first dollar from our newly launched business, we just don’t feel satisfied. Or perhaps we do, but it’s either fleeting or weighed down by qualifications: “Yeah, I got the promotion, but I don’t think it was unanimous,” or “Meeting the Dalai Lama was amazing, but I got star struck and babbled like an idiot.”

We may feel like a failure, even as others congratulate us on a job well done. We may feel like a loser, even when our life is objectively going well. 

Of course, it’s important to strive, aim high, and even kick our own butts from time to time, but too much time in thumbscrews slows our progress. Why? Our criticism has good intentions: we’re trying to motivate ourselves and accomplish great things. But it backfires. Focusing on all the ways we fall short either takes the wind out of our sails or fixates our attention on unimportant details rather than the big picture. 

Sign #2: You feel constantly overwhelmed.

Self-critical individuals are often responsible and reliable. This personality trait is called conscientiousness. Conscientiousness gets you a long way—it’s a better predictor of success than intelligence. However, it’s also a quality that often comes bundled with self-criticism. 

Conscientiousness on steroids leads to never feeling like things are going well, and that leads to a constant treadmill of duties, obligations, and details to take care of and correct. The result? Always feeling overwhelmed. Plus, we’re between a rock and a hard place: taking a break, taking time off, or otherwise easing up on the pressure feels unnatural and uneasy.

Sign #3: You always feel guilty.

When folks who are highly self-critical step out of line or inadvertently screw things up, they feel bad about it for a long time. If you relate to this, you know what it’s like to stew and dwell and ruminate. Replays of mistakes and conflict take over our brain like a mental screen saver when we’re not otherwise occupied, popping into our head while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at a traffic light. Guilt colors long stretches of time, like a drop of ink colors a beaker of water.

But here’s where it gets more insidious: if someone else steps out of line, we still find a way to take it on. That same sense of conscientiousness morphs into an over-developed sense of responsibility. If a client criticizes our work, we must have screwed up. If someone is rude to us, we must have deserved it. In short, when the external world lines up with our internal critic, we think we must have done something wrong, and we feel guilty for it.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.