Contemporary definitions of self-criticism are typically characterized by negative evaluations of the self, often as a result of failing to meet expectations and standards. Individuals who are self-critical typically demonstrate greater depressive symptoms. However, historically self-criticism was not attached to a notion of vice and negative functioning but rather conceptualized as adaptive and essential to truly knowing oneself. Therefore, the path through history can view self-criticism as both good and bad. Modern views of self-criticism in sport and exercise psychology (SEP) tend to see it as maladaptive.
Goal Pursuit in Sport
There is evidence that self-criticism is negatively associated with goal pursuit among athletes. It has been proposed that there tends to be hypersensitivity toward potential judgment and criticism for those high in self-criticism; therefore, for self-critics the focus in a performance-related setting becomes one to avoid failure and loss of approval from others, both of which detract from goal pursuit. Because of a tendency to focus on both external and internal pressures in the pursuit of goals, those high in self-criticism might be less motivated by intrinsic regulations (e.g., for fun and enjoyment) than by extrinsic regulations (e.g., to please others or to avoid feelings of guilt). In addition, because of harsh self-criticism, the response to performance failures and not meeting expected performance standards might be associated with more negative emotions for self-critics compared to what is experienced by those who engage in less self-criticism.
Perfectionism in Sport
Based on the link between self-criticism and goal pursuit, it is likely no surprise that self-criticism is often linked to perfectionism. As evidence of its importance to the conceptualization of perfectionism in sport specifically, self-criticism has been identified as a dimension on the Sport Perfectionism Inventory (SPI), which is operationalized by items such as “If I win the competition, I still tend to criticize myself” and “Even when I perform well I think about something I could have done better.” While perfectionism can lead to a healthy pursuit of excellence, debilitative forms of perfectionism (e.g., self-oriented perfectionism) are often characterized by the compulsive pursuit of extremely high personal standards accompanied by harsh self-criticism. When self-criticism is associated with perfectionism there tends to be excessive rumination and a focus on personal and interpersonal inadequacies, resulting in outcomes such as social physique anxiety (SPA), anger, precompetitive anxiety, and debilitating performance anxiety among athletes. Furthermore, it has been proposed that when athletes who experience self-oriented perfectionism engage in harsh self-criticism in response to failing to meet excessively high self-set standards, the pattern of self-criticism can become chronic and contribute to burnout in sport.
In addition, there is evidence to suggest that perfectionism and high levels of self-criticism are associated with heightened eating psychopathology in athletes who strive for sporting perfection. The trans-diagnostic cognitive behavioral model of eating disorders provides a framework for understanding how eating disorders may arise. From a theoretical point of view, athletes who experience more conflict in relationships with an influential parent or coach are often more likely to criticize themselves, which in turn results in low self-esteem and increased depressive symptoms. Both low self-esteem and increased depressive symptoms have been linked to disturbed eating behaviors. Furthermore, self-critical perfectionism has been shown to play a more pivotal role in eating psychopathology than standard personal perfectionism. Thus, an athlete who possesses high self-imposed standards might not necessarily experience eating psychopathology; rather, what may be maladaptive is how the athlete evaluates these standards when they are not met. Overly self-critical evaluation thus substantially accounts for the relationship between perfectionism and eating disorder, leading to an over-evaluation of one’s eating and shape and weight control.
The development of self-compassion, which involves treating oneself with the same type of compassion that we extend to others, might be a particularly useful strategy to help people more effectively manage self-criticism. One aspect of self-compassion—self-kindness—specifically requires the avoidance of harsh judgment and self-criticism. Highly self-compassionate individuals might have more accurate self-evaluations than those low in self-compassion because their self-judgments are less tainted by self-criticism. In addition, researchers focused on body image have shown that self-compassion is uniquely, and negatively, related to eating guilt (e.g., feeling bad for eating unhealthy foods) and that women who are self-critical are more likely to experience body preoccupation (e.g., worry about specific body parts).
Paul Gilbert and his colleagues developed compassionate mind training, which is specifically aimed at fostering self-compassion for people who experience high shame and self-criticism. Both shame and self-criticism rely heavily on self-evaluative processes, including self-directed hostility, contempt, self-loathing, and a lack of self-directed warmth and reassurance. Compassionate mind training focuses on changing someone’s historical pattern of responding to setbacks and failures with a self-attacking style to a new response of care and compassion. Compassionate mind training focuses on learning to be compassionate to the self through activities such as compassion-focused imagery and compassionate letter writing. It has been shown to have potential to reduce depression, anxiety, self-criticism, and shame with clinical samples; however, the efficacy of compassionate mind training for sport and exercise samples has yet to be established.
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