Anxiety, Criticism, and Conquering Self-Doubt
Thursday, March 3 2016 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
The words "anxiety," "criticism," and "self-doubt" can be synonyms, closely knit word triplets. Those mere words indicate that anxiety has many effects that tend to make life difficult. One particularly annoying effect of anxiety is sensitivity to criticism. Feeling crushed by criticism is an effect of anxiety, in general, and social anxiety, in particular, where the fear of being judged or of embarrassment can be immense. When anxiety and criticism are overpowering and lead to self-doubt, take heart. There are ways to conquer self-doubt. with with anxiety and criticism
Anxiety and Criticism Cause Self-Doubt
My own self-doubt started when I was in kindergarten. I completed an assignment incorrectly (gasp). All the students around me did it right. I did it wrong. They earned smiley faces. I got a frown. That caused me such angst that I clearly remember every detail of the situation, and I know that this was the source of my social anxiety, perfectionism, fear of criticism, and self-doubt.
Is this not a bit of an overreaction to a kindergarten assignment? Probably. Okay, yes. That's the thing, though, with anxiety and criticism. For someone living with social anxiety, almost everything, even the most innocent statement, can be perceived as criticism. (Friend: "Cute socks. I have an outfit they'd go great with." Friend with anxiety and sensitivity to criticism: "Thanks." To self thinks, "Don't my socks go with my outfit? What are people thinking about the way I'm dressed?") Anxiety and criticism cause self-doubt.
Where Do Anxiety, Sensitivity to Criticism, and Self-Doubt Come From?
According to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the criticism isn't the problem. Many people shrug off even harsh criticism as the other person's problem, and they take constructive criticism for what it is: feedback designed to help build someone up.
CBT theory tells us that the criticism isn't the source of our discomfort. Anxiety and self-doubt arise because of how we interpret the criticism. It's our thoughts about criticism that can lead to anxiety and self-doubt, which means that we can conquer the awful self-doubt that makes us miserable.
Our thoughts aren't always trustworthy. Cognitive behavioral theorists explain that many thoughts are irrational or faulty, and these contribute to anxiety and other mental health challenges. These thought patterns, in particular, contribute to anxiety and self-doubt that stem from criticism:
- All-or-nothing thinking: Also called black-or-white thinking; this thinking pattern contributes to perfectionism and thus anxiety and self-doubt. With this, if performance isn't perfect, it's worthless.
- Overgeneralization: People with social anxiety and fear of criticism often take one critical comment and equate it with complete and total failure. Self-doubt comes from not separating criticism from positive feedback.
- Jumping to conclusions/mind reading: Social anxiety makes us, consciously or subconsciously, watch people for nonverbal communication of critical opinions. We mind-read, assuming that someone is inwardly critical of us.
- Discounting the positive This is "yes-butting." Someone might be giving us positive feedback, but we dismiss it with self-doubt, believing we're really not worthy of the praise. Or we ignore all positive comments and instead dwell on that one criticism we received.
Even with Anxiety and Criticism, You Can Conquer Self-Doubt
It's possible to overcome the self-doubt and anxiety that come with criticism. The first step is to be aware that criticism is leading to anxiety and self-doubt. That's probably easy; because, if you live with social anxiety, chances are you are well aware of this connection.
Next, catch yourself engaging in one of the above negative thinking patterns. Become aware of how often you do it. Once your awareness is honed, you can begin to challenge your anxiety and self-doubt. Are your thoughts about criticism accurate? Look for evidence to counter your anxious thoughts, your anxiety-based overthinking. Focus on that evidence to realistically and powerfully reduce anxiety and self-doubt. Criticism will always happen, but it won't always lead to anxiety and self-doubt.