7 signs you were overly criticized as a child, according to psychology

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The parental criticism you endured as a kid may have ended ages ago but it’s a gift that keeps on giving, in many cases for your entire life. 

All of the disapproving sighs and critical comments, no matter how well-meaning, warped your self-esteem. And that little kid trapped inside your heart is still doubting their abilities and worthiness decades later.     

According to psychology, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve still got defense mechanisms in place to protect yourself from more of the same.

You didn’t have the intellectual ability to challenge the validity of the criticism you got at home. Like with all children, your parents were your entire universe and what they said was etched in stone as truth.

So you internalize their opinion of your identity and capabilities. You believe that you’re not good enough and you can’t do anything right.

As a former precocious child, it’s a life sentence I know all too well. 

Here are seven signs that may indicate you were overly criticized in your youth.

1) Prone to rebellion

According to Psychology Today, when parents constantly show their child disapproval, it’s common for the child to act out and express their hurt through rebellion. 

I can back this up. Once I hit my teens I figured if I was going to be accused of shenanigans I might as well live up to the hype. 

I figured if I was already being punished for stuff I hadn’t even thought of doing yet, I might as well make all the lectures and groundings worth everyone’s time.

I was afforded so little control over my own life that I had to grab any chance to assert my independence when I could. 

Was I flipping my parents the proverbial bird? You bet your bippy I was.

Aside from damaging the crucial parent/child attachment bond and negatively impacting the child’s self-esteem, there are also other serious repercussions to excessive parental criticism. 

Since they don’t feel unconditionally loved, the rebellious child might not recognize love or trust when it’s offered to them later in life.

Many of these kids end up suffering from behavioral issues or substance addictions: such as alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, gambling, shopping as a competitive sport, or sex.

2) Type A perfectionist

If a parent’s love always has strings attached, the adult child is always hustling because they feel they’re only as good as their latest A+ grade.

Decades later, they’re still pushing themselves to become someone that their parents would approve of, and maybe even love.

It’s true that this compulsion may drive a highly criticized child towards incredible achievements. But it can also leave them chronically unsatisfied as an adult, forever trying to reach an unreachable standard.

Over time this can cause you to be relentlessly critical of yourself, and you’ll fixate on your mistakes instead of celebrating your achievements. 

Just what you need. Another voice in the Greek chorus of criticism.

While making mistakes is just a part of life, it’s catastrophic to a perfectionist. And the fear of screwing up prevents you from taking chances. You have a deeply entrenched aversion to risk because the fear of missing the mark paralyzes you. 

3) You avoid trying new things

Avoiding new experiences is connected to the risk aversion we just talked about.

A 2013 study by Madjar, Voltsis & Weinstock explains that “… self doubt & low confidence make it hard to trust your ability to rise to the occasion for a new endeavor. You often wind up playing it safe & choosing not to try rather than risk failing.” 

So while you’re “protecting” yourself, you’re missing out on opportunities that could further your goals and bolster your self-esteem

It’s a difficult mindset to shake. Start small by trying something new that isn’t completely out of your comfort zone. Every little step you take is one step closer to broadening your horizons.

4) You’re an overthinker

Growing up with critical parenting often equates to the adult habit of overthinking and second-guessing every choice you make. 

If you find yourself paralyzed in front of an open pantry door panicking about what to make for dinner, come sit by me, bestie.

It’s not the decision making itself that’s the issue, it’s the anxiety over making the wrong one and getting raked over the coals for it.

This ancient self-doubt is so deeply internalized that it causes you to question your own judgment over the most trivial matters.

5) Emotional repression

When you have hypercritical parents, you learn early in life that expressing how you feel can open you up to more criticism or even ridicule. 

To avoid that, you probably began bottling up your emotions before the training wheels were off your bike.

The self-protective habits we learn as children help us to navigate growing up with critical parents, but when we reach adulthood these behaviors no longer serve us.

Repressing our emotions as a child can mean difficulty expressing your feelings as an adult. 

You could find it difficult connecting with others. You’re hesitant to share your successes or your true feelings for fear that you’ll be misconstrued or judged.

This reticence is often mistaken by others as “aloofness,” even though your feelings run as deep as anyone else’s.

6) Craves external validation

If you grew up subjected to constant criticism it may result in a lifelong search for external validation and people-pleasing behavior.

Your injured inner child is still trying to earn the coveted gold star you rarely received when you were young, so you’ll always go the extra mile to be kind and helpful just for a few crumbs like a dismissive “thanks.”

And some people will misinterpret this behavior as attention-seeking, so you can’t win. They don’t understand that it’s not about neediness – it’s about the need for validation

We all crave recognition from other humans. It’s part of being social animals. But never forget that your value doesn’t hinge on outside approval. 

Your own approval is more than enough.  

7) Low tolerance for criticism 

When you’ve grown up as the target of your parents’ constant criticism, it’s understandable that any critique at all can hit like a personal attack.

Before taking offense or getting hurt, consider the source. Is this person’s opinion of me more important than my own?

No. No, it’s not. 

Is it helpful to my personal growth in any way? When you objectively analyze the comment, you can decide if it has merit or if it’s just malicious nonsense.

In any case, let me reiterate that the only opinion of you that has any validity is your own. 

Final thoughts

Our childhood experiences shape most of who we become as adults. 

A supportive parenting style produces emotionally healthy children while a negative one usually results in kids with low self-esteem and behavioral problems.

We obviously can’t go back in time and change our upbringing. But we can resolve to acknowledge our legacy as children of critical parents and do our best to heal our own wounds as adults. 

Kathleen Padden

Kathy Copeland Padden lives in a New England forest paradise with her cats, kid, and trusty laptop. She has been writing since age 8 and is such a pack rat she can back that up with physical evidence. Music is her solace and words are her drug, so her house is strewn with records and books. Watch your step.

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