Stressed woman

Self-Judgement As Protection

“I’m hard on myself….that’s my way of protecting myself.”

My client Melanie had just finished describing how she lived on edge most of the time, worried she was about to do something wrong.

I asked, “Was there ever a time you can remember when you were young that you weren’t cautious? If so, did something bad happen?”

She cut me off before I could finish my second question.

“Oh, yeah. My family still talks about it. We refer to it as the ‘pocket knife incident’.”

Melanie went on to explain that the “pocket knife incident” was when she was punished — spanked repeatedly — for being curious about the pocket knife her dad left on the table when she was about two years old.

She added, “I think my dad was too harsh but I guess he didn’t know any better back then. My mom always talks about how careful I was not to misbehave after that.”

In the silence that followed, I felt a mixture of sadness, anger and nausea.

I was sad for the little girl who was punished because she was curious.

I was angry at the dad who put his little girl in a situation that wasn’t safe, then punished her for displaying an age-appropriate instinct.

And I felt nauseous as I heard the words “…that’s how I protect myself”, because I used that strategy in the past, too.

The use of self judgement as protection is a defense mechanism that has gone haywire, because your brain is using it’s power to attack your self esteem rather than protecting you from outside threats.

It’s a strategy that often emerges from an emotionally traumatizing event in the past.

How The Process Starts

Step 1 Something Bad Happens

The initial event that kicks off the need to be hard on yourself to protect yourself is usually one where you felt blindsided by criticism or punishment.

The more caught off guard you were by the criticism or punishment, the more deeply scarring this event will be.

This event made your brain associate feeling relaxed with being unsafe, and it triggered both a physical and emotional protective response in the body.

Step 2 You Shift Into Protective Mode

Physically, the oldest part of your brain (some refer to this as your reptile brain)  activates the fight or flight response in your body, where chemicals are released to keep your body “on alert”, ready to fight or run away in the face of danger.

Emotionally, the part of your psyche concerned with your safety (often referred to as your ego) goes into protective mode and develops “judgement scripts” to alert you to possible ways someone could attack you.  (Brené Brown calls these shame tapes.)

These judgement scripts sound something like “I am going to sound stupid when I give this presentation” or “Nobody cares about my opinion on this”.  (Or at least, these are what my judgement scripts sound like.)

They keep you focused on all of the ways you could be attacked or hurt again, which perpetuates the release of the fight or flight chemicals and keeps you feeling tense and on edge.

Step 3 Your Brain Proves Itself Right

As these fear-based judgement scripts play in your mind, your mind starts to collect examples that the judgements are true.

The problem here is that the mind finds evidence it was right BECAUSE of the scripts. The scripts told you exactly how to behave, so what you were thinking became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And once you see evidence that your behavior matches the judgement scripts, you mistakenly believe that  the judgements on your tapes are the truth, rather than the voice of fear.

While the specific events that bring on the protective response of self-judgement are different for everyone, here are several common ones I’ve seen for my clients:

  • Harsh punishment as a child that is disproportionate to the behavior
  • Unexpected personal criticism from a teacher or boss, particularly in public
  • Messages from childhood that shut down your voice, like “children should be seen and not heard”
  • Use of language from the punisher or criticizer that has a shame or judgement filled message, like “you are a bad person for what you did”, rather than “your action was wrong”

What happens mentally when the self judgement response is engaged is very similar to what happens in the body when an autoimmune response occurs.

In an autoimmune response, the body’s immune system starts attacking it’s own healthy tissue because it misidentifies the healthy tissue as a threat to the body.

Self judgement is a mental-emotional autoimmune response where your ego mind turns against you and uses your thoughts to attack your self esteem. The ego does because it fears an attack from someone else.

How To Shift Out Of Self-Judgement

Here are the steps I shared with Melanie to help her to shift out of self judgement:

1- Quiet the fear by connecting with your body.

Connecting with your body helps to calm the brain and provide it with other inputs than the jumbled mess of thoughts you have when you are stressed.

Here’s a recording to help you reconnect with your body called “Climb Back Into Your Body”:


2- Identify the triggering event for your judgmental thoughts.

Ask yourself the questions “What are these judgmental thoughts trying to protect me from? What made me feel unsafe in the past?”

Try not to over-think or judge the answers, just write down whatever comes to mind as quickly as you can.

3- Ask yourself : “If it were possible to let go of these judgement scripts, how would I feel?”

When you let go of judgmental thoughts, the goal is to feel lighter and more free in your body.

If you feel uneasy or tense at the idea of giving up these thoughts, you can start by imagining how you think a friend would feel if they were to let go of those types of thoughts.

4- Practice accepting this new feeling for 5 minutes per day.

Put your attention on the feeling of lightness and freedom you have in your body when you let go of these thoughts. Note in particular how you feel in your throat, chest and belly.

Focusing on these feelings allows you to practice feeling relaxed, so your mind learns that it can be safe without needing to be on guard and play the judgement scripts.

Letting go of self-judgement is a practice that takes time because it is a very significant protection strategy. Using these steps can help you take a big step forward in letting go of the need to protect yourself with self-judgement:

1-Quiet the fear by reconnecting with your body

2- Identify the triggering event for your judgemental thoughts

3- Ask yourself “If it were possible to let go of these judgement scripts, how would I feel?”

4-Practice accepting this new feeling for 5 minutes per day.

If you know someone who struggles with self-judgement, would you pass this on to them?