The phenomenology of self-critical thinking in people with depression, eating disorders and in healthy individuals

Graham R. Thew, James Gregory, Kate Roberts, Katharine Rimes

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To explore the phenomenology of self-criticism, and the relationship with constructs such as rumination and perfectionism.
The study followed a three-group (Depression, n = 26; Eating Disorder, n = 26; Non-clinical, n = 26) mixed methods design.

Participants completed a set of questionnaires and were interviewed about the occurrence, impact, and content of self-critical thinking, along with their beliefs about self-criticism.

Both clinical groups reported more frequent, persistent, and less controllable self-criticism compared to controls, present on average 50–60% of the time. They reported a negative impact on mood, and a moderately severe impact on daily activities. They indicated greater desire to change self-criticism whilst judging it more difficult to reduce. Habitual self-criticism was highly correlated with lower self-esteem, lower self-compassion, greater rumination, and greater negative perfectionism. Compared to those with depression, the eating disorder group reported harsher self-criticism, felt it was more part of their personality, and was more beneficial.

The findings highlight the importance of exploring people's beliefs about their self-criticism, and imply that treatment for self-criticism may be more challenging with people with eating disorders than people with depression.

Practitioner points
*  This study highlights that self-criticism is common in depression and eating disorders and that some people find this a significant problem in its own right.
*  Careful assessment of self-criticism is recommended when working with these clinical presentations, which should include the perceived positive consequences and desire to change.
Original languageEnglish
Article number12137
Pages (from-to)751-769
JournalPsychology and Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice
Issue number4
Early online date31 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


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