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How Critical Parents Hurt Their Children

Most, if not all, of my eating dysregulated clients had at least one parent who was highly critical of them. The majority often don’t make the connection between how critical a parent was and their negative self put downs. In some cases, grandparents and aunts and uncles, too, frequently criticized one another or other people, so, for my clients, this type of behavior was simply the norm, that is, what people do.
They’ll say, “Yeah, Dad was hard on me but I know he loved me” or “Mom always expected so much of me because she loved me so much.” These statements may hold truth, but they’re hardly the entire story. Loving a child leads to wanting the best for them and wanting them to succeed and be happy (whatever happiness means to the parent or caregiver). However, it’s confusing for a child to feel hurt or stung by a constant stream of negatives about them from someone who asserts their love, and they often grow up believing that showing love equals coming down hard on someone.
Moreover, clients frequently have no idea how a steady diet of criticism has impacted them for the worse. When our parents criticize us harshly—without showing compassion and without mincing words—we feel badly and as if we are bad. We know we’ve disappointed them and are unlikely to think that their expectations are too high or that their approach to helping us grow is inappropriate. Instead what we pair together is that the way to change is to tell yourself how bad you are or how you could have done better. Most of my clients are so used to giving themselves tough love that they truly have no idea that they are harming themselves in the process.
If your parents or caretakers frequently pointed out your shortcomings, especially with anger, contempt or to shame you, this is likely a major cause of your low self-esteem and why you’re so highly judgmental of yourself. This experience may play out by you:
  • feeling defective and as if there’s something intrinsically wrong with you that is unfixable.
  • believing you’re never good enough no matter how hard you try or fearing that you won’t be able to maintain success when you reach it.
  • noticing more of the negatives about yourself than the positives.
  • speaking to yourself using words and a tone that are judgmental and pejorative.
  • being highly competitive and frequently measuring yourself against others.
  • excessively fearing making mistakes and failing.
The first step in being kinder to yourself is to realize that you’ve internalized your parents’ or caretakers’ perceptions and ways of expressing them. The second is to contemplate and consider how you wish to speak to yourself. The third is to listen closely to all your thoughts and what you say aloud about and to yourself in the way of negative self-talk. The fourth is to only say kind, compassionate things to yourself in a non-judgmental, loving tone, even when you’ve made mistakes, disappointed yourself, or have failed. Do all this and you will think and feel better about yourself over time and treat yourself far better than you do now.
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