Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips, argues that self-criticism stems from our ambivalence towards ourselves. We all have mixed feelings about ourselves, but ambivalence goes beyond that. It’s about having opposing feelings that are dependent on each other. We might criticize ourselves because we’re frustrated with ourselves for not achieving something, but that frustration stems from a desire to succeed, which is a form of self-love.

I summarise here the lecture published on YouTube.

“Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself, because actually people hate themselves.”

Christ’s Injunction and Self-Hate: Jacques Lacan observed the irony in Christ’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” since people fundamentally struggle with self-love. This highlights the complex nature of our relationship with ourselves.

 Adam Phillips argues that self-criticism stems from ambivalence – holding opposing feelings about ourselves that are intertwined. For example, criticizing ourselves for not achieving something might be fueled by an underlying desire for success (a form of self-love).

What is Ambivalence?

Ambivalence goes beyond simply liking some things about yourself and disliking others. It’s the experience of holding two strongly opposing feelings or attitudes towards a single object, situation, or even yourself. These feelings are not merely mixed; they coexist simultaneously and can feel conflicting.

A classic example is the love-hate relationship. You might love someone deeply, yet at times experience strong feelings of dislike or frustration towards them. Ambivalence makes these seemingly contradictory emotions both exist at the same time

The Paradox of Self-Criticism

“Self-criticism can be our most sadomasochistic way of loving ourselves.”

Self-criticism can be harsh and unrelenting, preventing us from moving forward from our mistakes. The lecture uses the super-ego concept from Freudian psychoanalysis to illustrate this point. The super-ego acts as our moral conscience, and it can be very critical and judgmental. This constant criticism from the super-ego is excessive.

What is the Superego?

In Freudian psychoanalysis, the superego is one of three parts of the personality (along with the id and the ego). The superego represents our internalized sense of morality, social rules, and ideals. It houses our conscience.

The superego develops during childhood as we internalize the rules, values, and expectations of our parents and society. It acts as a kind of watchful eye, constantly monitoring our behavior and thoughts against those ideals.

The Superego and Our Inner Critic

The superego, our internalized moral compass, is often the source of unrelenting self-criticism. Its constant judgments and unrealistic expectations fuel negativity.

“The super-ego is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.” The self-critical part of ourselves is incredibly narrowminded, with an impoverished vocabulary, and cruelly intimidating. It is the stuck record from the past, unimaginative.

  • Freudian Breakdown: In psychoanalysis, the superego has two parts:
    • The Ego Ideal: Our aspirations and positive self-image.
    • The Conscience: Source of guilt and shame when we violate internalized rules.
  • Unrealistic Critic: The superego’s ideals are often unattainable, leading to perpetual self-criticism. “The super-ego is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.”
  • Source of Our Inner Critic: Recognizing this helps us see our self-critical thoughts not as objective reality, but as the superego’s exaggerations.
  • The Never-Satisfied Voice: The superego is rarely satisfied, even when we achieve our goals. It constantly moves the goalpost, fueling an endless sense of inadequacy and the need for further self-critique.

Hamlet: A Case Study in Self-Doubt

  • Paralysis of Conscience: Phillips analyzes Hamlet’s relentless self-scrutiny and struggle with revenge to illustrate the destructive power of the inner critic. Hamlet’s conscience, fear, and desire for honor become obstacles to action.
  • “Conscience Does Make Cowards of Us All”: This famous line showcases how internal conflict can hinder decisive action, even when morally motivated.
  • The Superego at Work: Hamlet’s harsh self-judgment mirrors the superego’s exaggerated demands and constant punishment.

Limits of Being & Unforbidden Pleasures

Self-criticism is nothing if it does not define and over define the limits of being (Brian Cummings).

“Self-criticism is not a reliable way to understand ourselves.” While self-criticism may be negative, it also stems from a kind of self-love. Our critiques arise from the standards of conduct we have internalised, showing a twisted desire to improve ourselves.

Conscience makes something out of us. The superego claims to know the consequences of our actions.

“Self-criticism is an unforbidden pleasure.” Unlike many pleasures which are explicitly condemned by society (like certain desires or indulgences), self-criticism is readily available and even encouraged in some contexts. We are told to be humble, to always strive for improvement, and not to be overly self-satisfied.

While seemingly negative, Phillips suggests that self-criticism carries a perverse sort of pleasure. It can make us feel morally superior and provides a false sense of control over our shortcomings. There’s a satisfaction in wallowing in self-critique.

Our ambivalence towards ourselves can make even painful emotions feel familiar and comforting in their own way. Self-criticism, because it’s often a long-standing habit, can offer a distorted sense of safety.

While painful, our superego’s harsh pronouncements become intertwined with our sense of self. We might derive a strange pleasure from its constant critiques, even while wishing to silence them.

  • Self-Criticism Misleads: “Self-criticism is not a reliable way to understand ourselves.”
  • Twisted Self-Love: Ironically, our negativity stems from internalized standards, showing a desire to improve ourselves.
  • Pleasure in Pain: “Self-criticism is an unforbidden pleasure.” It’s readily available, morally acceptable, and offers a false sense of control and superiority.
  • The Superego as Narcissist: Our inner critic, with its repetitive critiques, focuses narrowly on our flaws, ignoring the bigger picture.


Hamlet, while contemplating suicide in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, asks the pivotal question:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing, end them?”

In essence, Hamlet is questioning whether it is braver to endure the pain and suffering life inevitably brings or to end his own life.

Cowardice as a Theme

  • Fear of the Unknown: Hamlet’s fear isn’t physical pain but a deeper fear of the unknown – of death and potential suffering in the afterlife. This fear of what lies beyond life leads to inaction, which he associates with cowardice.
  • Conscience and Moral Cowardice: Hamlet’s conscience weighs heavily upon him. He sees inaction against his father’s murderer as a moral failing, a different kind of cowardice. His conscience, fueled by his desire to uphold his father’s memory and ideals, prevents him from rash action but also tortures him.
  • The Cowardice of Overthinking: Phillips might also suggest that Hamlet is trapped in a paralysis of excessive contemplation. Overthinking, questioning every motivation and potential outcome, becomes another form of cowardice, preventing him from taking decisive action.

“Conscience makes cowards of us all.” The cowardly part of ourselves is like a person who must not have a new experience.\

Self-criticism is a judgment without a jury. The self-criticism, if it weren’t useful for self correcting, is self-hypnosis. It is an order not a recommendation.

The superego is the supreme narcissist; it is a boring soliloquist with an audience of one.

What is self-criticism for?

  • Alternatives to self-criticism: The lecture suggests self-praise as an alternative to self-criticism. Instead of dwelling on our shortcomings, we should focus on celebrating our accomplishments. This can help us develop a more positive self-image. By praising ourselves, we challenge the negative judgments of our super-ego and cultivate a more compassionate inner voice.
  • Lacan’s view on self-criticism: The lecture also mentions Jacques Lacan, a Freudian psychoanalyst, who believed that people misunderstand Freud’s concept of love. According to Lacan, Freud saw stories about love, like the story of Christ, as a way to cover up our ambivalence. This ambivalence can manifest as self-criticism; we criticize ourselves out of a complex mix of love and hate for ourselves.
  • Befriending Our Conscience: He proposes: “If only we could catch our conscience like a fish or a criminal, and then befriend that part of ourselves…”
  • Alternative Selves within Us: He suggests psychoanalysis can help us realize, “…that fragmented, fragmentary repository of alternative selves that are like a troupe of actors. Not so much to get rid of any of them, but to see them for who they possibly are.”
  • The Limits of Traditional Psychoanalysis: Phillips acknowledges that not all psychoanalytic approaches are suitable. He critiques forms of psychoanalysis focused solely on uncovering a singular, hidden truth about ourselves, as this can sometimes reinforce a self-critical narrative.


Phillips’s viewpoint on psychoanalysis in addressing self-criticism:

  1. Understanding, not Eradicating, Our Inner Critic: Phillips advocates understanding the origin and function of our harsh inner critic rather than trying to simply eliminate it. By “befriending” our conscience, we can lessen its power over us.
  2. Discovering Inner Complexity: Central to his argument is that we are not a monolith. Psychoanalysis should help us discover multiple “selves” within us with varying motivations. This challenges the relentless narrative of our inner critic, leading to a more nuanced self-understanding.
  3. The Importance of Approach: Phillips highlights that choosing the right type of psychoanalysis matters. He favors approaches that value multiplicity and interpretation over uncovering a singular “real” self which the superego might latch onto in its critiques.

How This Connects to Self-Criticism

Phillips suggests psychoanalysis can help us:

  • Gain Agency: By understanding the origins of our inner critic, we realize it’s not an objective truth but a construct influenced by our past and unconscious dynamics. This knowledge gives us power to choose whether to listen to it or not.
  • Develop Self-Compassion: Recognizing the complexity of our inner world, including both positive and negative aspects, allows us to be gentler towards ourselves. We no longer see ourselves purely through the lens of the critical superego.
  • Shift Our Narrative: Psychoanalysis, when done well, offers alternative interpretations of our actions and motivations. This helps us develop a new, less self-critical story about ourselves.

What Is Self-Criticism For?

  • Alternatives Exist: Phillips promotes self-praise to counter negativity, cultivating a kinder inner voice.
  • Lacan on Love: Lacan saw stories of love as masking deeper ambivalence, which can manifest as self-criticism.
  • Psychoanalytic Solutions
    • Befriending the Critic: “If only we could catch our conscience like a fish or a criminal, and then befriend that part of ourselves…” Understanding the origins of our inner critic lessens its power.
    • Inner Complexity: “…that fragmented, fragmentary repository of alternative selves…” Psychoanalysis helps us see the multiple facets of ourselves, not just the flaws.
    • Choosing Wisely: Not all psychoanalytic approaches are helpful. Look for those that emphasize multiple perspectives rather than uncovering a singular negative truth.

My Comments

Maybe it’s my self-critic, and I am taking a bit of time to digest the contents of this lecture, before adding my input. I love Phillips’ writing and thoughts on the topic of self-criticism. The self-critic is a phenomenon in the therapy room that has got me feeling oftentimes stuck as a practitioner… What with two punishing super-egos in the therapeutic dyad! Listening to his lecture is like untangling a bunch of wires. I do, however, have evolving thoughts on this, and will write more in time… watch this space.


Phillips, A. (2014, May 13). Against self-criticism [Video]. YouTube.