I am an advocate for constructive discourse.

This essay is going to point out that some forms of self-criticism are harmful, both to the self-critic and to others. It will also assert that motives for self-criticism are sometimes problematic.

However, to offer criticism to a person who's already criticizing themselves inaccurately or excessively could just add fuel to the fire.

The reason I'm publishing it is that I think it's true and necessary.

The reason I have not gone out of my way to write it in an overtly "kind" tone is because I think it is fairly common for people who are engaged in an act of self-criticism to receive, and discount, kindness as "mere kindness for the sake of being kind."

Other times, as I will assert, self-criticism can have self-serving ends. In such cases, an extra helping of "kindness" may not be called for.

Yet this risks creating a loop of despair for some people who have a low threshold for self-criticism. They may suspect their own motives in the first place. That might also make them more prone to map the idea that self-criticism can be self-serving onto themselves. I do not wish to provoke that reaction.

So I hope that readers will treat this short essay with an extra helping of caution, both intellectual and emotional.

Some people are especially virtuous. They devote their lives to making the world a better place. They do so in a considerate and effective manner to the greatest extent that any reasonable person can. They do so with a humble attitude. All together, they are excellent human beings. It helps our society when their work is appreciated. They are role models for others.

Self-critique can be a necessary and valuable part of shaping oneself into such an exemplar. It helps you identify your own biases and seek to correct them. It helps you to hold yourself accountable for your failings and do better in the future.

Clearly, some people are not exemplars. Some are even downright villains. Examples come readily to mind. They might be public figures. They might be the perpetrators of small but potent injustices who we have to deal with in our personal lives.

Most people are somewhere in between. It can be valuable for an exemplar to assume they're about average, with lots of room to grow. However, perhaps by definition, there is less to criticize about the behavior of exemplary people than of villains. And criticisms, including self-criticisms, have consequences.

If those criticisms are inaccurate, destructive, or easy to misinterpret, then they could be harmful. Even if an exemplary person is using self-criticism to prevent themselves from backsliding, it is possible to write or speak an inaccurate, destructive, and potentially harmful piece of self-criticism.

Such misguided self-criticism can be harmful to the self-critic, by inflicting emotional suffering upon themselves. It might be harmful to other people as well, in several ways. 

  1. It can compromise, misdirect, or sow doubt in the valuable work of the misguided self-critic, meaning that the good they were about to accomplish will be lessened.
  2. Insofar as others look up to the self-critical exemplar as a role model, self-criticism can cause impressionable people to get the wrong impression. If the exemplary person is paying so much attention to the speck in their own eye, while neglecting the beam in their brother's eye, then onlookers might start to get confused about what's a speck and what's a beam.
  3. Self-criticism as an act in itself can come to serve socially nefarious purposes. To criticize oneself can be used as an empty virtue signal, a way to get attention, or a way to compete for status. It can also cause our society to misdirect its capacity for righteous outrage onto people who are being helpful rather than people who are perpetrating injustices, when people take an empty exercise in virtue signaling as a serious call-out not just of the self-critic, but of anyone who pattern-matches onto them.
  4. Self-criticism can be persuasive, yet factually or logically inaccurate, emotionally insensitive, or written in a way that tends to spread confusion. In fact, it seems on its face that the more exemplary a person is, the more they will rely on these negative traits to write a persuasive piece of self-criticism. Of course, they might also be smart and conscientious and wise enough to not only be good at the work they do and the lives they lead, but also at the self-criticism they publish. But it also seems possible that the better a person is, the more likely their self-criticism is to be inaccurate, disproportional, or confusing and unclear.
  5. Problematic self-criticism might be actively destructive toward making necessary and healthy changes. If it causes the self-critic to set the wrong goals, go about them the wrong way, or if it demotivates and exhausts them, then it is probably counterproductive.

I hope that people who suspect that they may have a low threshold for self-criticism, and for whom self-criticism has destructive effects, will reconsider this as far as they are able. I also hope that they have read this essay in a tone of self-compassion.

For those who perceive themselves to be of sound mental health and publish pieces of self-criticism, I simply hope that they will hold themselves to the same epistemic and communicative standards that they bring to their other speech and writing.

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:25 AM

If at all possible, good activities with risks should at the very least be approached with caution and training, not outright avoided.

Taking ideas seriously is potentially harmful as ideas are possibly no good, prompting the general strategy of steering clear of ideas. The urges of asymmetric justice also pull in this direction, as application of norms, with presence of any blamable risks paralizing even when action is manifestly good in expectation.

I maybe agree?  This seems pretty general, in that it can apply any side of the advice to suspect self-reported attributes.  I'd rather focus on what circumstances and actions lead to criticism being effective for what goals.

It can also be good to list the positives (advantages and beautiful things) in self-criticism. It shows honesty, accountability, high standards, ...

On the other hand, we often use a double standard (harder on oneself) which can imply a sense of superiority (it'd okay for others to make mistakes, just not for us). Another downside of self-criticism is that spots that we beat down become sensitive and so we may be less receptive to feedback (being defensive).