I’m in the midst of reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Sections of the book take place during the Cultural Revolution in China when citizens were forced to participate in self-criticism sessions. During these session they publicly declared all the things that were wrong with them and all the things they had done wrong or had neglected to do. In the section of the book I’m reading now a fifteen year old girl has just participated in such a session at her school. I found those pages very difficult to read. I kept thinking about what kind of effect such repeated and harsh self-criticism could have on a young person. If you repeatedly denigrate yourself it must lead to depression and self-loathing and a feeling of hopelessness about your ability to change yourself or improve your life.
We aren’t forced by the powers that be to criticize ourselves but so many of us do it anyway. We focus on the way our appearance doesn’t measure up to society standards, instead of appreciating our own individual marks of beauty. We think our talents and skills aren’t nearly as developed as another person’s instead of recognizing the areas where we are uniquely gifted. We compare our life choices to what we wished we’d chosen and feel dissatisfied with ourselves. This kind of self-criticism although voluntary can be almost as damaging as the imposed self-criticism that happened during the Cultural Revolution.
During the Cultural Revolution self-criticism was meant to improve the quality of life for the collective. I know sometimes it is good for me to think critically about myself. How are my decisions negatively impacting my relationships with others? How do my ways of thinking hurt society? How are my life style choices creating hardships for others now and in the future? Some self-criticism can be helpful.
I’m glad I live in a time and place where I get to decide whether self-criticism is good or bad thing and where I have the freedom to try to exercise self-criticism as wisely as possible.