Ask a Therapist: Letting Go of Self-Criticism During a Pandemic

by Roy Fisher, MA LMFT

Question: I’m having a really hard time believing that I’m successful at anything right now. As a parent, I feel like I’m dropping the ball. As an employee, working from home is difficult because I’m always distracted by something going on that takes me away from getting tasks accomplished. As a partner, I don’t think I have a lot to give to my relationship because I don’t feel good about myself. I have always seen myself as competent, so this is all new and I’m not handling it very well at all. I’m cranky and lash out but want to find a new way of dealing with everything — help! 

Dear Reader,

I can feel your pain in your story. I have heard this theme play out many times from the people I work with. When reflecting on their lives it is easy to identify areas where they believe they are falling short. The theme of “falling short” resonates because as human beings, we set high expectations for ourselves. We measure against who we were at a different point in time, then beat ourselves up because, in our opinion, we should be doing something different. We should have accomplished more. We should have made more money. We should be a better partner, parent, employee, etc. 

There is a different strategy, but it takes some effort.

As you work through this process, there are a few questions to consider: 1. How do you know when you are successful at something — and specifically, how is it measured? 2. What are some of the things you say to yourself when you do not believe you’ve fallen short? 3. How might you shift the narrative?

Right now, we are measuring ourselves against our pre-pandemic selves. We look at our lives now and identify multiple areas where we are falling short. I do not believe I am as good a therapist in the virtual world as I am face-to-face. If I judge myself against a prior version of my clinical self while maintaining the same assessment tool, I can’t help but not measure up. I will fall short because what I am measuring against no longer exists. This is not to suggest that we lower the standard, but to reevaluate the way in which we look at the standard.

Few things in life are either/or. How we think matters, and we can be our harshest critics. Negative self-talk gets in the way of our ability to see possibilities. Once we lock into “I’m not a good parent” or “I’m not a good worker” or “I’m not a good partner,” those things become our reality. In the either/or space, if I am not a good therapist, then I must be a bad therapist. Unfortunately, we don’t typically stop there. We take this a little further and believe that things will not change. Without hope, there is little incentive to believe anything will be different.

The human experience exists in shades of gray. Rather than seeing our world through the lens of either/or, try looking for both/and. Recognizing that many things can and are true at the same time gives us flexibility. If you allow space to expand how you judge your success, you will likely find counter narratives. You can then choose what to focus on. You are both a capable parent and a parent trying to keep things afloat. You are both a hardworking employee and an employee who has had to take a little more time to complete a task because the Wi-Fi went out at home. This isn’t just about being positive; it is about acknowledging where you may be struggling and taking the mental exercise a little further. 

I sometimes tell my clients to look at themselves in the mirror. To look into their eyes and talk to their reflection. To tell themselves what they’d tell a friend who was struggling. What would you say? Would you remind yourself of the ways that you continue to show up for your children? Would you be able to recognize the hard work you put in to complete the project on time? Would you remember that your partner told you how much they appreciate you? Would you tell yourself to not be so hard on yourself? Identifying the both/and allows space for hope, and sometimes that’s enough to keep us going.

I hope you have found this helpful.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

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Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. View a copy of this license here.