When self-criticism goes awry
Probably all of us have experienced punitive self-criticism, where we've judged ourselves more harshly and more persistently than we would anyone else. Most of us wish to be better people, which involves recognising wrongdoing, making amends and vowing never to repeat the same moral mistake again.
Unfortunately, many of us think that our moral ambition requires us to be very hard on ourselves lest we give in to a kind of complacency. We don't seem to appreciate readily that punitive self-criticism may undermine our morale, our motivation to change, and that it itself is a moral mistake.
In this article, I want to look at a common form of punitive self-criticism described in some of the literature as 'eternal penance' (this is not to be understood here primarily in a religious sense). This pattern of self-criticism is when someone does something wrong, they then recognise their wrongdoing and feel guilty, they try and make amends and vow never to repeat the mistake again, but all this reparative work nevertheless leads them back to where they started, as they continue to punish themselves with severe self-criticism.
You can see why this pattern is often called 'eternal penance' because the person believes that they are morally required to punish themselves indefinitely.
Perhaps an analogy will highlight how repeated punitive self-criticism is misguided. Say someone is convicted in a court of law for a crime, they serve their time, and during this, they show how penitent they are for their previous actions. The 'eternal penance' scenario is where such a person does the necessary moral work and yet puts themselves in the dock again for the same crime to be tried by the judge again-and again and again.
To treat oneself in this way is a moral mistake, as such criticism becomes a form of condemning oneself overall, which makes it much harder to become a better person (how can you keep on developing morally when your inner critic is telling you that you are to punish yourself indefinitely for any given act?). There has to be some faith, indeed some hope that in the future you can be different enough from the former you if moral progress is to be achieved, and unrelenting punitive self-criticism detracts from this by keeping you stuck in a ceaseless present.
To better understand the error in such forms of self-criticism, it is helpful to examine the function of the inner critic, In essence, the inner critic's main job is to evaluate our actions and related to this, our motivations. From a moral perspective, the inner critic is there to judge the rightness or wrongness of your acts and to respond accordingly.
In the case of where we've done the right thing, your inner critic should be there to acknowledge and affirm how you've acted, and to consider ways, if necessary, to repeat those actions in the future. In the case of actual wrongdoing, your inner critic's task is to determine the nature of the moral mistake, to work out how to make amends and how to show penitence.
While the latter scenario involves some careful evaluating (e.g. determining the extent of the wrongdoing or how much regret one should feel are not always easy judgement calls to make), we can see a clear distinction between constructive and damaging forms of self-criticism: the former is always focused on making actual moral improvements in behaviour, whereas the latter is fixated on punishment irrespective of a change of heart.
So if you find yourself still punishing yourself for a wrong you've committed, even though you've recognised why it's wrong, you've shown remorse, made amends (if possible) and never repeated it, then it is time to halt the harsh self-criticism, try and forgive yourself and move forward. If doing this on your own proves to be a challenge, seeking out a professional counsellor will aid you in tackling your inner critic, achieving self-forgiveness and building a more constructive and kinder inner critic.
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