Does Self-Criticism help us learn?

We have two armchairs in our living room. They have been around for 25 years. We also host two weekly Nonviolent Communication classes and a monthly workshop in our living room. People come in clean or not so clean and sit on these chairs.

I am a big fan of cleanliness and talk with my husband about washing the cushion covers. We agree to run an experiment and machine wash one set carefully in cold water on delicate setting.

With some excitement, I undress the covers of the chair cushions. I put them in the washing machine and take them out an hour later. As soon as I see them, I feel anxious. Like very anxious.

I know my husband really likes these chairs and he has taken good care of them for more years than he has known me. Except for some wear and tear, they were in excellent shape.


Now with my washing, the covers are shrunken and shredded. With all my might I barely succeed in pulling the covers back over the cushions. They are seven inches short.

I sit down deflated. With lots, lots, lots of self-critical thoughts. “You stupid, stupid, stupid idiot! IDIOT! What a complete moron you are for not checking the settings on the washing machine!” I feel pained and upset, and angry with myself.

Finally I decide to get up and walk mindfully for three minutes. Then another 20 minutes around the block. The physical movement helps me shift my self-criticism to self-compassion.

A friend asked if I think self-criticism is essential for growth and learning. I don’t believe it is. After reading and listening to people I respect (Thich Nhat Hanh, Marshall Rosenberg, Rick Hanson, Kristin Neff, Martin Seligman) I’ve come to the conclusion that criticism is not only not needed for learning, it is likely detrimental.

Criticism targets who we are, not what we do. Criticism conveys something is fundamentally wrong with us, as if we are unworthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. As social animals, these needs are essential to our survival. When we hear criticism of who we are, we fear that our emotional, social, and physical safety is in jeopardy. Our reptilian brain is activated and we react with fight, flight, or freeze. We lose access to the part of our brain that helps us find creative, collaborative solutions to the problems we face.

That’s not to say that we can’t regret and mourn what we did. When we approach our regret with self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, we can redirect our energy to thinking what we could do differently in the future. When we acknowledge our flaws, we can try to make amends, learn from the experience, and restore connection. We see that making mistakes (even irreversible ones) is part of our shared humanity. Humans are fallible and that doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of love and belonging.

With self-compassion, we don’t have to hide our mistakes to protect our emotional, social, and physical safety. We can more clearly see the needs that we tried to meet, even when our actions failed. We can think of better ways to meet our needs while caring for the needs of others.

Rather than shame and expulsion, we are empowered to ask for support and learn.

How do you nurture self-compassion? Let me know, I would love to read from you.

4 Replies to “Does Self-Criticism help us learn?”

  1. Dear Elly, I really like your column again. We have Christmasvacation over here. Hilbrand is right now warming the ‘erwtensoep’ (traditional Dutch pie soup, a special treat in wintertime) that I made a couple of days ago. We made a lovely hike through the dunes this afternoon. Too bad you were not here during the first ‘Dictee bij Hanneke Thuis’, December 8th. It was great fun!!! Bye bye. xxx

    1. Lieve Hanneke, erwtensoep op een koude winterdag na een wandeling door de duinen: dat klinkt helemaal Nederlands. Dat mis ik wel af en toe, hoewel het hier inmiddels ook een paar dagen achter elkaar heeft gevroren. Geen erwtensoep, wel wandeling met honden door een groot stadspark hier. Ook fijn. En jammer inderdaad dat ik het Dictee bij Hanneke Thuis heb gemist: papa en mama waren er laaiend enthousiast over.

      Dank je voor het lezen van mijn blog, ik voel me vereerd. Liefs en tot bellens!

  2. Thank you, Elly, I loved this text.

    > Humans are fallible and that doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of love and belonging. >

    I wish you a good « end of the year » and a very Happy New one. And thank you for your constant work of research and communication, helping people to understand themselves better and so to expand their abilities of relationship care taking (and there might be much more that you do and offer at your place …)

    Love and greetings from France –

    > Frédéric PJIE > Tel : 07181 – 202 202 6 > Handy : 0157 789 22 44 6 > Mobil-FR : 0033 6 85 34 45 63 > Skype : belairfrance


    1. Thank you Frederic, I feel touched to read your appreciation and well-wishes, and honored that you keep reading my blog. Yes, I hope to continue to expand my reach to help more people find self-compassion and tools for positive relationships. How have you been doing?

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