Emotional Health

Taming Your Internal Critic

If you are a woman who suffers from the widespread and debilitating effects of low self-worth, you are probably prone to self-criticism. One of the most insidious ways you can sabotage yourself is by criticizing and judging yourself too harshly. In evaluating yourself, you are usually much less compassionate than you would be towards a friend. While some people hardly ever take responsibility for themselves, you may rarely give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Often, you may feel even guilty or responsible for things that have little or nothing to do with you.

Conscience and the ability to regulate our behavior according to internal standards develop gradually as we mature. As professor at Harvard, Lawrence Kohlberg, a pioneer in the research in this area, created a scale of levels of moral development. When we are children, we are motivated by the laws of obedience and punishment. We do what we are told to do out of fear of punishment, beginning with the most basic childhood constructs, (“If I do a bad thing I’ll get in trouble.”) A young child’s morality is primitive and transactional; Kohlberg called it the “pre-conventional stage.”

Later, this becomes an internalized wish to be a “good boy or girl,” i.e., an adherence to “Law and Order,” which is called the “conventional stage” of moral development.  The “post-conventional stage” includes the acceptance of a social contract, with a principled conscience. Ideally, we have internalized our own values that we adhere to above but may be beyond the dictates of society. An example is the people who defied legal authority to save persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.

Many women set a much higher bar for their own behavior than necessary. Perfection is seen as a standard, rather than an ideal, and deviations are seen as failures. While for some this has to do with a neurotically strict conscience (what psychologists refer to as the “superego,”) it can also be the result of a low sense of self-worth. If you don’t have enough self-love or self-compassion, the results can be a feeling that you are bad, incompetent, and not worthy of the rights given others to be judged fairly.

Some of this thinking can be traced to the different standards that have been traditionally set for women’s behavior than men’s. Throughout centuries, for example, women have been expected to be strictly faithful to one partner while men’s indiscretions have been seen as less serious, and sometimes were even encouraged.

Even outside the realm of sexuality, however, women are held to a higher bar. Historically, the most prized attribute a woman could aspire to be was “virtuous.” Until relatively recently, words like brave, bold, or even intelligent, when applied to men, were high praise, but seen almost as negatives when describing a female. College was seen by some as something that could actually pervert and distort a woman’s development (or at least her virtue). Men were encouraged to make the most of themselves, and admired for “pluck.” If a few mishaps occurred along the way, boyish enthusiasm could be blamed. A blot on a woman’s record, meanwhile, could never be erased.

Men were judged by some to be actually morally superior to women. Freud saw a difference. Women tended to be loyal to their families and loved ones above all, he said, whereas men could pledge themselves to an abstract ideal such as “love of country.” In hindsight this may have been a cultural byproduct, due to the fact that women were not allowed to involve themselves in affairs beyond the family in Freud’s day.

More recently, psychologist Carol Gilligan refuted both Freud and Kohlberg in her book In a Different Voice. She “explores the paradox that the very traits that have been traditionally associated with women’s goodness, their concern for and sensitivity to the needs of others, are the very qualities that have led psychologists to describe them as morally inferior to men. Gilligan argues that the issue is not one of moral superiority or inferiority, but rather that men and women have ‘two disparate modes of experience’ that affect their values and views of the world.”

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.