We must take a holistic look at complicated chronic diseases. This includes exploring the connection between our mind and body. When we are critical of ourselves, it has negative consequences for our health and even impacts our immune system. According to Merriam-Webster self criticism is ‘the act of or capacity for criticizing one’s own faults or shortcomings’. We have a complex system designed to monitor our environment for threats. When a threat is identified, we are flooded with stress hormones to help us survive. The trouble is, this system can’t differentiate between threats in our environment and threats inside our head. Criticizing ourselves activates our threat system in the same way anxiety does. Chronic stress happens when this system is constantly engaged.
Chronic stress increases interleukin-6 (IL-6). IL-6 plays an important role in signaling during an active infection. IL-6 increases inflammation and antibody production. Elevated IL-6 actually increases anxiety, alters the immune system and increases neuro-inflammation.
We live in a culture that teaches us to be self critical. We grow up internalizing the ideal that we must push ourselves to achieve greatness. It’s easy to put high expectations on ourselves, which leads to self criticism when we can’t meet those expectations. Some use self criticism as a tool to push themselves harder and harder and even fear that without the inner critic they might become ‘lazy’.
I think one of the core issues is confusing self criticism for self improvement. To be human is to learn and grow. Healthy reflection coming from a place of love and compassion is an important part of the human experience. You don’t need to be critical of yourself to induce positive change. In fact, shaming and harsh self-reproach are counterproductive and lead to resistance.
Consider this scenario with two different internal dialogues. Margaret set her alarm for 6pm instead of 6am and overslept. She rushed to get to work but arrived 30 minutes late and her boss noticed.
Internal dialogue A: “How could you set your alarm wrong? You are so stupid. Now your boss is mad at you. You need to stay late tonight and do extra work to make up. Your boss is going to think you can’t be relied on. How could you let this happen?” This situation stays on Margaret’s mind the rest of the day and impairs her focus.
Internal dialogue B: “It’s ok, accidents happen. I feel really guilty about coming in late, but being late does not mean I am a bad person. I am going to apologize to my boss and let her know I will stay an extra 30 minutes today to make up the work. Let’s take three deep breaths and let this go so I can focus on my work today.” Margaret was able to concentrate on her work. Her boss accepted the apology and was understanding.
Did it hurt to read dialogue A a little bit? It was hard to write dialogue A! Unfortunately, for many people their inner dialogue is quite cruel. A good rule of thumb is to stop and think about whether you would talk to someone you love the way you are talking to yourself. Most people would never speak to another person the way they speak to themselves.
See Part 2 Perfectionism and Autoimmunity and Part 3 Self-Compassion and Autoimmunity for more information on combating self criticism.
Personality traits and the immune system
IL-6 Induced by Social Stress