Self-Criticism Definition

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.

Managing Self-Criticism

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.


  1. Anshel, M. H., & Sutarso, T. (2010). Conceptualizing maladaptive sport perfectionism as a function of gender. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4,263–281.
  2. Chang, E. C. (Ed.). (2008). Self-criticism and self enhancement: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13,353–379.
  4. Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., Lacaille, N., Kwan, L., & Zuroff, D. C. (2009). Self-criticism, motivation, and goal progress of athletes and musicians: A prospective study. Personality and Individual Differences, 47,279–283.
  5. Shanmugam, V., Jowett, S., & Meyer, C. (2011).Application of the transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral model of eating disorders to the athletic population. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 5, 166–191.

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