Best Life Now

Your Guide to Positive Thinking

Learn the art of self-kindness and feel happier—and more fulfilled—every day.

What our brain has to do with it
It's at least some comfort that we're biologically programmed to do this. Louann Brizendine, MD, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco and author of The Female Brain, says there is a part of our brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which she dubs the "worrywart center."

It's wired to remember negative moments most keenly, which is your brain's way of teaching you not to do something potentially harmful again. As it happens, it's larger in women than in men.

Of course, guys are self-critical, too. "But I think men can 'feel the fear and do it anyway,'" says Amy Johnson, PhD, a psychologist and life coach, "whereas women hear that critical voice and believe it." This practice is so pervasive among women that cutting ourselves down has actually become the way we bond. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University found that 90 percent of the college-age women they studied engaged in "fat talk"—going on with friends about how "fat" they were, regardless of their actual size.

Valerie Young, EdD, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, offers a few reasons why we're such relentless perfectionists with ourselves. "On some level, we know that we're being held to a higher standard in the workplace," she says. "And most of us grew up thinking it's our job to please everyone; so if someone isn't happy, it must be something that you've done, or haven't done."

She points to research by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, PhD, that found that boys receive eight times more criticism than girls. "Boys grow up more resilient to criticism because they heard more of it—they tend to razz each other more too." Meanwhile, she adds, girls tend to internalize criticism. "So if someone isn't happy, it must be something that you've done. This can set up a pattern of self-blame."

Not that a little self-criticism is all bad: It can be a reality check and may fire us up to perform better (which can make us more successful) or strive to be better people (which makes us happier). But there is a vast difference between "I need to work out more," which sparks your motivation, and "I'm a jiggly blob"—which just makes you want to sit on the couch.

The problem with cranking up the self-criticism, says Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, a Philadelphia psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety, "is that it gets us worked up about the wrong things. If we weren't so distracted about how we'd ruined everything, we might see that there are some small ways that we could have improved."

And the longer self trash-talk goes unchecked, the worse the implications can be. Multiple studies have shown that having a nitpicky inner voice can cause your stress levels to skyrocket and even lead to depression. Happily, there are many ways to muzzle that inner critic for good.

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Jancee Dunn
Last Updated: March 16, 2012

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