Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Last night, I was a big ol’ no-show at our spring neighborhood book club gathering. I had sent excited emails indicating I’d be there. I had promised to bring chai brownies. And then I didn’t show up. Why? Because I’d marked the wrong date in my calendar. By the time I noticed my mistake, I was in my jammies, putting my son to bed, and it was way too late.

Plus, the brownies weren’t even made.

Here are just a few of the thoughts that flooded my brain immediately:

  • Ugh! I’m such a disorganized dunce!
  • People are going to think I don’t care.
  • I’ll never be a good neighbor.

This is Your Brain on Self-Criticism

Interestingly, there’s a particular part of the human brain that’s implicated in all the things I was feeling. It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain processes pain sensations, error detection, cognitive conflict monitoring, social rejection, fear, anxiety, and relationship loss. If someone would’ve scanned my brain as I lay in bed last night, trying to get to sleep, I’m sure my anterior cingulate would have been on fire.

The anterior cingulate, along with the amygdala, are part of the human threat detection system. This system is activated whenever we sense peril – including social peril like rejection, judgement, or attack.

But here’s the thing: our nervous systems don’t clearly distinguish between inner and outer social threats. As far as our brains are concerned, criticism, wherever it’s coming from (even our own selves), feels like assault. So stress hormones like cortisol get pumped into our body, preparing us to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn.

Harsh self-criticality, especially when it’s chronic, means we’re imperiling ourselves with inner violence and rejection. Our nervous systems stay stuck in “threat mode,” and this does damage over time.

Is Your Inner Critic Wrecking Your Health?

Research shows that a chronically activated threat detection system can wreak havoc on both physical and emotional health.

Overexposure to cortisol and other stress chemicals puts us at increased risk for:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Memory and focus problems
  • Weight gain
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Sleep problems

For the sake of our wellbeing, we all need to learn better ways of coping with mistakes and shortfalls than with self-castigation.

Try This Instead

Emerging research shows that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to the stress of self-criticism.

Self-compassion means:

(1) Simply observing that we’re having a tough moment.

(2) Reminding ourselves that pain and mistakes are part of being human.

(3) Choosing kind thoughts and actions toward ourselves.

(4) Persisting in that kindness, even when it doesn’t come naturally.

When we can interrupt an inward self-attack with self-compassion, it has a strong, soothing effect on our brain. You see, self-compassion activates the human care system (or attachment system), which, in turn, deactivates the threat defense system. Cortisol levels start to fall, and oxytocin levels start to swell.

Think of how it feels to relax into a hug from someone you know, trust, and love. If you’re feeling upset or scared, you start to calm a bit, right? Similarly, turning compassionately toward your own self in the midst of self-criticism can start to snuff out the damaging flames of self-reproach.

Are You Beating Yourself Up Today?

If you’re knocking yourself today over a mistake of any kind, know this. Much more good will come of you choosing self-compassion than remaining stuck in self-reproach.

Your “mistake” is a data point on the matrix of your life. You deserve to learn from it and move on.

Only you can give yourself that permission, and I really hope you do!

It’s certainly what I’m endeavoring to do today. (It helps, by the way, to have compassionate neighbors who text you first thing in the morning, let you know you were missed, and assure you that they’ve made many a calendar flub, too.)

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.