Why It’s Easier to Believe Criticism About Ourselves Than Compliments
The more we care what others think of us, the harder it is to know ourselves. But self-compassion can help.
Depending on who you listen to, I’m a “try-hard,” an imposter, no fun at parties, and could be improving at, well, just about everything, from the way I dress, to the job I do, to wrangling my eyebrows.
All of these are things that have been said about me or to me, but that isn’t the part that sent off alarm bells in my head. What struck me is how often my brain repeats these things back to itself, like it’s studying flashcards for an exam we’re likely to fail. I’m swifter to internalize the bad stuff than the good stuff; quicker to understand the negatives about me than acknowledge any positives.
I started hearing other people’s versions of this, in conversations with friends and interviews with people for my book. Why are the bad things about ourselves so much easier to believe than the good ones?
In a study published in Self and Identity, researchers wrote: “Following failure, humiliation, rejection, and other negative experiences, people often compound the negative emotions produced by the initial event by chastising and denigrating themselves, and imagining the worst possible consequences of the event.” Researchers added that, ironically, “people sometimes treat themselves far worse than they would treat other people who experience similar circumstances.”
It’s hardly a question — or a habit — unique to me. Lora Park, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at University at Buffalo, SUNY, explains that research in social psychology suggests that “bad is stronger than good,” or that people are more influenced by negative information than positive information. From an evolutionary perspective, Park says, “we are attentive to threats in our environment, whether that be aspects of our physical or social environment that convey the possibility of danger or loss, because we want to survive and thrive.” Through that lens, it seems reasonable that we’d focus on negative feedback or cues from our environment, including failures or what people say about us. “They alert us to the possibility of loss or threat, which…