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What Happens To Your Brain When You Are Self-Critical and What You Can Do About It

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Being hard on yourself with your own words is something that your brain does not respond to well. It’s something that keeps women stuck and frozen instead of moving and thriving and living their best lives.


When you are self-critical, or worse, self-punishing, you set off the stress response in your brain. Your amygdala experiences your harsh words as a “threat” and sets off a signal, through the hypothalamus, to the rest of your body that it better fight, fly or flee. This happens instinctively, no time to think. Your body then experiences surges of adrenaline and cortisol and you begin to feel the physiological symptoms: accelerated heart rate, rapid breathing, tension in your body. Because you’re both the attacker AND the one being attacked, your brain is super confused, so it gets more agitated. Phew. That sounds exhausting doesn’t it? Well, this is what we are doing to our body with self-criticism.

The good news? You’re the one watching your brain doing this. You’re the one going, “WTF is happening here? Why am I in this cycle?” The second set of good news, YOU are NOT your brain’s process. Read that line again. This means, you have the power to turn things around.

But first, let’s understand self-criticism for what it actually is, besides a neverending thorn in your side that keeps you feeling stuck, unmotivated, and unhappy. The pattern of self-criticism is often referred to as our “inner critic”. I heard an author refer to it as your inner asshole. Whatever you choose to call it, here’s the lowdown on why it exists.

The inner critic’s main purpose is to protect you. Weird, I know. When a challenging incident occurs, uncomfortable feelings inevitable arrive. that When you experience challenging and uncomfortable feelings, again the survival part of your brain feels threatened. It doesn’t know that feelings won’t kill you. So, in come comes the inner critic to “save the day”. If you focus on yourself and how much you suck, then you don’t have to be with these uncomfortable feelings. The irony (and nuttiness!) in all of this is that it does the opposite of protect you. It makes things worse because the self-criticism makes more uncomfortable feelings come, and more self-criticism comes along with it. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps us stuck, not being able to move forward, and keeps us from experiencing the full range of joy that is possible in this life.


1. Recognize and maintain awareness that the inner critic is just a defense mechanism created by the brain. It’s not rational. It does not speak truth. Don’t listen to it.

2. When something happens that brings on challenging feelings, focus on feeling the feelings. Start by naming it, “I’m sad” and then just feel it. It will move through and you can get back to living again.

3. Practice self-love and compassion. This immensely powerful tool is something that can help rewire your brain. This is what gives you the power to teach your brain a different way to respond to challenging situations and emotions. You want to strive to respond to yourself the way you would a good friend. If your good friend was experiencing challenging emotions, how would you respond to them? Then respond to yourself in the same way. This will release the reward and “love and connection” hormones in your body which feels much better than stress hormones.

Practicing these three steps can help bring more ease and enjoyment into your life by helping you get out of survival mode and into thriving. You have the power to change your brain by practicing daily. Remember, it’s going to take time, so be gentle with yourself as you engage with this new practice. Here’s to using the power of self-love to move past the cycle of self-criticism, and to enjoying life in new way! You deserve it.


Myriam Martinez is a Women's Personal Life Coach, Licensed Psychotherapist, and Registered Art Therapist based out of Northern California. Her calling in this life is to teach women how to find happiness, success, and ease in their lives through the power of self-love, creativity, and compassion. To learn more about Myriam click here:

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