25 Sept 2022

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: Why beating yourself up will really get you down

Advice on judgement and criticism from leading Offaly psychologists

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson Offaly psychologists

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson Offaly psychologists

ANYONE who trains in counselling skills or any kind of psychological therapy will learn about the importance of adopting a non-judgemental attitude in their work.

Back in the 1940s, Carl Rogers, an American psychologist who developed the concept of client-centred therapy, wrote a great deal about the difficulties associated with judgementalism. He argued that people could not “grow” their healthiest potential when surrounded by judgemental people.

In his view (which has been a very influential one in psychology), successful therapy requires the therapist to provide a warm, empathic non-judgemental place for the client, which he famously described as “unconditional positive regard”.

Nowadays in psychology, we incorporate the concepts of mindfulness and mindful compassion into therapy and here also, the concept of a non-judgemental attitude is known to be important for positive mental health.

Indeed, for us as psychologists, both the research and our clinical experience on the ground points towards the huge importance of non-judging of self and others for our everyday psychological well being.

Easier said than done? Realistically, most of us are regularly making judgements about situations, people and life in general and this is normal. However, the kind of judgements which are unhelpful for our mental health are those which are harshly critical in a way which causes harm or hurt (see the fingers of judgement being pointed below).

Mindfulness tells us that we will all experience suffering as we journey through life. As psychologists, we see the suffering where people are experiencing depression, anxiety, bereavement, relationship difficulties, trauma, to name but a few.

We also see the added suffering when people feel judged or criticised for their mental health struggles. In our view, the old Cherokee proverb is very relevant: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”.

Research shows that people frequently make judgements about others based on very little real understanding of the other’s situation, personality or background experiences. So judgements are made based on a brief “snapshot” of another person’s life, or on misplaced generalisations such as “Depressed people are...”

In fact, psychologically, very often, the more deeply and empathically we understand another person’s struggle, the less inclined we are to judge.

Self-judgement and self-criticism

Self-judgement and harsh self-criticism are also obstacles to positive mental health. We often see clients who are beating themselves up with guilt about some wrongdoing from many years before.

In judging themselves they are often overlooking their humanness and vulnerability at the time and are being far more judgemental of themselves than they would be of someone else who had had a similar experience.

In everyday situations such as parenting, people often judge and blame themselves undeservedly. For example, when a child performs poorly at school or displays other difficulties we often see parents castigating themselves and feeling guilty.

When the self-judgement is very harsh it may prevent them taking the steps which might actually be helpful such as speaking to teachers or arranging an assessment. In our experience, most parents are doing their best most of the time. The job of parenting is a complex and challenging one, so being the perfect parent is not a possibility for any of us.

The psychological literature is very clear nowadays that self-judgement and self-criticism get in the way of recovery from depression and anxiety as well as from other psychological struggles. In fact, the tendency to be judgemental of self may contribute to the development of depression or anxiety as well as worsening either of these conditions.


Largely for these reasons, the concepts of mindful self-compassion and compassionate thinking are now very important in psychological therapy. Some people may wonder whether self-compassion is actually “letting ourselves off the hook” but it is actually anything but.

A standard definition of compassion is “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it”.

Therefore the challenge of cultivating self-compassion is twofold. We need to learn to understand our suffering with non-judgement and empathy, but we also need the courage to make the changes which will make a difference.

In our experience this often takes considerable time and commitment. However, it is not an overstatement to say that when we work at replacing our tendencies to judge with a little more kindness and gentle understanding, we are moving in the direction of improved mental health for us all.

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland (Find a Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.

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