Self-Criticism vs Self-Discipline

Chase Ruzek

My own brand of self-criticism can be sneaky.

“I should be more disciplined.”
“I’m wasting my time.”
“I’m not organized enough.”

It’s easy to write these thoughts off as “just facts” and convince myself they are helpful reminders that push me to be better.

But that’s a lie.

The belief that we need to be hard on ourselves in order to reach our full potential is like caffeine. We know it’s not good for us, but nobody really cares because they rely on it to be productive.

We practice self-criticism in the name of self-discipline, but those are two very different things. True self-discipline means ruthlessly filtering any negative self-talk that doesn’t support our well-being so that we can enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Self-criticism is too personal

Our inner dialogue becomes self-criticism when we are no longer making an observation and move into blame and judgment. It’s the act of passing judgment on who we are, not just what we do.

Let’s take another look at the three examples I started with:

“I should be more disciplined.”
“I’m wasting my time.”
“I’m not organized enough.”

Implicit in all of these thoughts is the idea that it’s me who is lazy, wasteful, or unorganized. It suggests that I need to be a different way in order to be OK, validated, or worthy. Self-criticism makes us wrong.

But… I should be better…

Sometimes my clients openly admit how self-critical they are, especially when their behaviors are not aligned with their long-term goals.

“But I should be doing better!” they argue.

They are downright convinced this mantra is the way to hold themselves accountable for pushing their limits and accomplishing more. It’s understandable. Our mind insists that if we stop being critical of our behavior (and ourselves), we’ll become apathetic and miss the opportunity to live up to our full potential. It will mean we settle, and what a shitty life that would be.

But there’s a huge difference between “I should be better” and “I could be better.”

Telling ourselves we should be better is a catalyst for feelings of guilt and shame. It substitutes ridicule for possibility.

Even if we are driven to action by these feelings, what is the cost? By using self-criticism as fuel to accomplish a particular set of results, we inadvertently train our brain to never feel satisfied by those results. It’s a vicious cycle, and there’s even research to show that criticizing ourselves is the psychological equivalent of being bullied. It causes low-grade chronic stress and leads to the burnout talked about by all kinds of high performers.

In order to be better, we have to practice taking actions from positive emotions.

Self-discipline is thought-discipline

We all know it’s easier to “work hard” at things we enjoy. Since feelings are created by what we think, exercising thought-discipline is how we tap into our full potential while feeling good.

Here are three ways we can practice thought-discipline:

1. Practice making observations

Take the subjectivity out of thoughts by removing words like “slow, wasting, lazy, or productive” and stick to the facts.

I could start scheduling my calendar a different way.
I am not following through on my commitment to work on ‘X’ when I schedule time for it.

Notice when your mind is going in circles over that thing you’re not doing. Pause, and reflect on what’s happening in specific, concrete terms.

2. Ask better questions

Once we’ve made our way to a neutral observation, the questions we ask can determine whether we move forward with ease or grind away at our well-being.

In “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life”, Marilee Adams writes,

“At nearly every moment of our lives, we’re faced with choosing between taking the Learner or Judger path.”

The Learner mindset (similar to a growth mindset) is solution-focused and moves us toward what we want without blame or judgment. Some questions we might ask from a Learner mindset:

“What is getting in the way of staying focused on my tasks during the workday?”
“What would help me to feel more motivated?”
“What are my choices?”

Developing better questions is an art and skill that takes practice, but it’s a simple and powerful action we can take in any moment.

3. Commit, or don’t

Making specific observations and asking learner questions will often lead to an awareness from which solutions naturally arise. Sometimes, after a new awareness, we need to make a commitment.

What’s important is that we don’t get stuck in the gray zone, where we push the thought to the back of our mind and feel weighted down by what’s undone. This leads to stray thoughts pinging around, slowly chipping away at our self-worth.

Making a conscious choice to NOT do something is another tenet of thought-discipline. We can acknowledge that our day is not unfolding how we planned, but we are choosing to scrap it and commit to a new plan. We can feel the disappointment, and then give ourselves grace. This is how we avoid repressing thoughts and emotions.


True self-discipline is self-discipleship; it’s about staying devoted to and honoring our Highest Self. If we want to treat the body as a temple, it would make sense to treat our emotional and mental bodies with the same respect.

Self-discipleship means we are following our own doctrine. It involves checking in with our long-term goals and values while asking, “What do I need in this moment?”

The challenge is staying devoted to ourselves even when we do things that are not aligned with what we know to be good for us. Because this is the human condition. We have the ability to see our untapped potential at all times, but it serves us to be conscious of when, why, and how long we choose to focus on this.

In the end, the highest potential in every moment is practicing the discipline to extend ourselves compassion instead of criticism.

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