Identify self-critical thoughts

What’s the first step to solving a problem? Identify it! In order to change a tendency of self-critical thinking, (or negative automatic thoughts as we call them in CBT), we need to be aware of when these thoughts occur and the situations that trigger them. But first, how do self-critical thoughts relate to self-esteem, and why are they so damaging?

Self-criticisms really draw out uncomfortable emotions that relate to the core beliefs we hold about ourselves. For example, if someone holds the belief that they are stupid, these self-critical thoughts may attack the person’s intelligence, making them feel shame and guilt. These really keep the core belief alive and active. Ultimately, this helps develop and maintain a general low self-esteem.

Why is self-critical thinking so problematic?

Identify self-critical thoughts Brighter Life Therapy

The issue is, some may find these criticisms motivating, and that they have truth to them and so deserve this self-bullying. Instead, these self-critical thoughts do more harm than good.

Firstly, they do not lead to a balanced perception of oneself and the world – but a bias, distorted viewpoint. Self-criticism provides this tendency to only look at flaws and mistakes (no matter how small!) and to form general conclusions about yourself.

Furthermore, these thoughts do not encourage growth and learning, as they focus on mistakes and self-punishment rather than how to do better next time. Similarly, knowing what we do well is also important in order to learn from successes and know what behaviours to repeat.

So how do we stop them? Firstly, we catch them!

It’s important to identify these thoughts when they are occurring, and change the response to them.

What can you look out for?

  • Situation in which the thought occurs
  • Particular thought patterns (generalised, declarative statements, ‘should’s and ‘must’s)
  • Mood and emotion changes (feeling low, guilty, shame, lack of confidence)
  • Bodily sensations (physical tension, ‘knots’ in the stomach, tight chest)

Keep a journal or diary to see the links between these factors, like the one below!

Identify self-critical thoughts Brighter Life Therapy

Try to do this as and when these thoughts occur, or near as possible. There is a couple of reasons for this:

  • 1. Our memories are not 100% reliable. To challenge them effectively, we need to know what these thoughts exactly are. This requires accuracy.
  • 2. Gives you the opportunity to reflect and notice any patterns/reoccurring thoughts. This is quite tricky as people may want to avoid thinking about things that upset them in great detail. Be aware of excuses not to do them as they will deprive you of the chance to build a kinder perspective about yourself.
  • 3. Encourages mental distance. Thoughts are difficult to evaluate when in your head, so writing them down provides perspective and therefore an opportunity to challenge them.


Try to do them a couple of times a day for one week, or until you have built an understanding of your self-critical thoughts and the behavioural and emotional impact they have on you. Once you have spent time identifying and seeing links you can then move on to the next technique on the following page.

Top tip

Top tip: don’t rush! In one-to-one therapy sessions, we really do give this step a week to see what kind of thoughts are rearing up for you and in which situations. So take your time before moving on.

If you would like to, you can download the ‘Identifying critical thoughts’ worksheet below to use to do this activity: