Why is Everybody Looking at Me?: Dealing with Self-Criticism

by Denia-Marie Ollerton

Denia-Marie received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and French Studies from Brigham Young University. She recently obtained a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from Boston College, and currently works as a therapist in Boston. Her professional experience spans a broad range of populations, and settings, from schools working with children and teens to hospitals and outpatient settings working with adults and the elderly. Denia-Marie loves her family and her faith.

I am a beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent, and kind woman. I have a great sense of humor, people enjoy being around me and being friends with me, and I have a natural ability to excel at most things I try to do. Unfortunately, most of the time, I don’t really believe any of that. Most of the time, I find myself cowering behind my own shadow, watching opportunities pass me by.

Most people wouldn’t be able to tell from meeting me, but I suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. People with this disorder experience “persistent, intense, chronic fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by one’s own actions. These fears can be triggered by perceived or actual scrutiny from others. While the fear of social interaction may be recognized by the person as excessive or unreasonable, overcoming it can be quite difficult.”[1] I know my fear is mostly unreasonable, but I can’t help it. There have been many times where the discomfort is so intense that I’ll do almost anything to escape.

For example, I remember a time very recently that I was at a conference and was meeting a lot of people. I felt fairly comfortable until they announced breakfast was being served. I got so scared that I’d have to eat in front of other people – “what if I drop food on my clothes or something gets stuck in my teeth?” – that I ended up eating my breakfast in one of the bathroom stalls. Locked. As if someone were going to try to unlock it.

And this is after years of pushing myself to overcome this fear, to the point where I can do things like speak in public and go to conferences and socialize, where I wouldn’t have been able to in the past.

What I’ve come to realize is that I really am my own worst critic. I come up with the most outrageous criticisms about myself, and I attribute them to other people. In a way, believing others looked down on me made it easier to not try. If the world thought I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t have to face the fact that it was really me, myself, that was keeping me back from truly living and taking risks.

You may not lock yourself in a bathroom stall to eat lunch, but my guess is that many of you downplay your abilities with self-criticism.

So why do we do it? Perhaps it is natural to compare ourselves to others. Many of us live in cultures where we congratulate people on their looks and career achievements, ranking value from best looking and highest salary down to plain looking and lowest salary.

And yet, most of these triggers to our self-criticism will not change soon enough. It is our right, our privilege, and even our duty to take responsibility for ending self-criticism. And it is imperative that we do so, for we lose out when we allow self-criticism such a lead role in our lives.

The act of self-criticism robs us of our ability to understand the real value of our talents. When we compare our so-called weaknesses to others’ perceived strengths, it is as if we look at the gift of our own divine value and potential, turn it over a few times, shrug our shoulders, and hand it back to the Giver. “No thanks,” We say. “It’s nice, but it’s not really as nice as I was hoping for.” It is as if we are taking a mallet to our God-given potential and swinging with full force, smashing it into the ground.

I know that it can be hard to believe in what we have to contribute. I know that it is easy to ignore our talents when we also recognize aspects about ourselves we wish were different. But I also know that we can and do have the ability to create our own rules around what sort of criticism we will listen to. We ought not to give equal value to self-criticism as we would give to feedback that could help us grow.

So what do we do? How do we stop self-criticism? I know it is easy to rationalize our own personal brand of criticism, so are there ways we can help each other recognize when we do this, or is it an individual journey? Personally, I have made it a lifetime interest and goal to study human behavior. This is so I can understand the feelings I have when I interact with others. I know that understanding is the first step. After that comes courage. Courage to act in a way different from what I feel. Acting and changing behaviors are permanent items on my checklist. Those are two things I do on a daily basis and while it gets easier with time, it still takes courage to this day. But I’m okay with that, because it makes me feel like I’m conquering something, and I like that.


[1] Wikipedia – Social Anxiety Disorder

19 Comments on “Why is Everybody Looking at Me?: Dealing with Self-Criticism

  1. I love this. I have found that most of the women I know (myself included) are much more generous and forgiving with others than with themselves – we are definitely our own worst enemies. I have been reprimanded before by friends for not accepting a compliment; rather, I tend to unconsciously devalue the compliment with some self-deprecating comment. Having friends correct me for this had caused me to change my behavior, and I now accept compliments with sincere gratitude – not only thanking the person for noticing something nice about me, but also thanking them for drawing my own attention to something nice about myself. I especially love the first paragraph of this post – where you list how amazing you are. We are each so gifted and talented in our own ways, I wish we were all (myself included) more willing to focus on those gifts we do have rather than those we don’t.

    • Jessica,

      thank you so much for your thoughts. I agree, I think we jump too quickly to put ourselves down. For some reason we feel that it is arrogant to accept compliments. I think it’s great you have those supportive friends, keep them around you, and keep seeing the good in yourself!

  2. While I was reading this, I thought about the parable of the talents and how God really has blessed us with so many talents and because we sometimes perceive them to be different than others we decide to hide and not use them. This fear is what might be stopping us from becoming who God truly wants us to be. That idea is empowering to me!

    Denia Marie also wrote an article on one of our blogs last year about how she found Christ. This woman is unbelievable – I recommend reading her other post @ http://www.nextdoormormon.com/2012/07/17/why-im-mormon/.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I can totally relate! For years I thought I wasn’t smart because I wasn’t a very fast reader and not good at taking tests. Once I started into my career, my co-workers and managers would give me compliments and I just thought they were lying to me. After a few years I realized I may just have something to offer at work! It’s so crazy how I made up these thoughts for other people, for so long. I have no control of others opinions or thoughts. I remind myself this frequently. I have to make an effort to turn my crazy brain off and remember how God sees me. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. I love this. I had a friend once tell me how critical she was of her physical appearance, and one day she was walking by some buildings and saw a girl out of the corner of her eye that was tall beautiful, with the perfectly straight hair she always tried to get. She didn’t want to look over at the girl after the walked in sync for a while she finally turned to look at the girl, and realized she had been noticing her own reflection the whole time. If only we could see ourselves as others do, then maybe we would focus on our strengths instead of our weaknesses too. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I appreciate how honestly you have written about yourself. Your story is as comforting as it is inspiring.

  6. Well said, Denia-Marie. It takes quite a bit of courage to write personal anecdotes, but this one is both informative and, as Niyati just said, inspiring. The first step is recognition, right? From there it doesn’t get easy, but it gets started.

  7. Beautifully written, Denia. You say that the first step is understanding. For me, the first step was recognition. Although I thought I understood, there was actually very little understanding until AFTER I had the courage to act differently. (Semantics I’m sure.) You are spot on.

  8. Loved this! I feel a lot of times that I hold back from trying something because I am afraid that I won’t be the best at it. I get so competitive sometimes that my self-critic won’t accept anything but being number one, so much so that I won’t even try if I know I won’t be the best. I’ve had to recognize that and be willing to try new things even if I “fail”.

  9. Wonderful post, Dema. Self-criticism is something I have struggled with for years and can be a daily battle. I know fighting that battle is worth it so thank you for sharing your ideas. 🙂

  10. Thank you for this insightful article and for sharing your personal experiences. We can all assist by appreciating the beauty and talents of others.

  11. First of all, congratulations on your degree and your career. And Thank You! Even though I don’t live in Boston, I am sure there are people there who are very thankful that you are willing to work with them. I have had a difficult time finding a therapist to work with children where I live, so Thanks!

    I love your plain speaking. I think many people feel like they are struggling and everyone else is perfect. But I think if most people were watching a movie of (for example) my life, they would be much less critical of me than I am. How realistic are the criticisms I give myself? Would I ever judge anyone as harshly as I judge myself?

    Again, thank you!

    • Valerie,

      I really like that idea of someone else watching our lives. As I’ve written, we often times walk about in fear that others are watching and criticizing. In reality, I believe most people are loads kinder about our situations than we are to ourselves. Great imagery, thank you!

  12. We’ve discussed this before, but I have to say that I am so proud of you for writing about it in such an honest and intelligent way. I have similar problems, of course, and I was thinking tonight about the ways I am slowly figuring out work best for me in overcoming them. Hearing similar stories from wonderful people like you absolutely helps.

  13. “Lock yourself in a bathroom stall to eat lunch” is my new euphemism for failing to be bold when boldness is called for. Brava, Denia-Marie, for taking the courage to write about this. Clearly a positive step to unlocking that door!

    • 🙂 I’m glad it could be useful to you!

  14. I read this quote by Hilary Weeks this week. Maybe you’ve heard it before, but I loved it and made me think: “Don’t worry about what others think of you. Worry about what they think of themselves when they are with you.”

    She goes on to say that she needed to make sure the people she was with felt they were important and valuable. She is now quick to compliment, quick to smile, quick to ask questions, and she doesn’t worry about how they may perceive her.

    “Believe that as you look for the good in others, you’ll find it in yourself.”

    Good food for thought. Thanx for the article!

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