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"I'm Unlovable": Changing Your Client's Lifetraps
Life Traps continuing education counselor CEUs

Manual of Articles Sections 12 - 17
Section 12
Pathological Self-Criticism: The Hanging Judge Profile

CEU Question 12 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

Randy, a 22-year-old journalism student, missed his highway turnoff one day on the way to school. The mistake was not a costly one since the next turnoff, an alternative route to his destination, was only a mile down the road, and he was under no time pressure. On recognizing his mistake, however, he had what he later described as a “fit” in which he screamed a long stream of obscenities at himself. So extreme was his self-directed anger that he shook his steering wheel violently and pounded his fist repeatedly on his dashboard.

Jack, a tax accountant, despised his job but felt trapped in it because he could see no alternative means by which he could maintain his excellent standard of living. All external indications such as annual evaluations, raises, and promotions indicated that, despite his disaffection, he did high-quality, conscientious work. In the context of an empty-chair exercise during one session, Jack was asked to adopt a critic stance and verbalize his evaluations of himself. In the role of critic, he angrily and contemptuously offered the following appraisal of himself as a worker: “He has no ambition, never puts in the extra effort. He never studies or reads a damned thing to improve himself. He doesn’t concentrate at work. There’s nothing he’s really good at. His work is never any good. He’s not worth the effort to waste my contempt on. He’s lazy, like a welfare client after a free handout. I have no interest in helping him until he shows me something."

Originated by Ossorio (1976) (see also Driscoll, 1981, 1989), the image of the "hanging judge” is that of the old western frontier judge who, for any offense regardless of how minor, would sentence the defendant to death by hanging. It is the image of someone bent not on seeking justice and seeing to it that the punishment fits the crime but on accomplishing the angry and vindictive destruction of the accused. Let us examine each of the the characteristics that, taken collectively, comprise the hanging judge syndrome: self-hatred, injustice, and lack of compassion for oneself.

Self-Hatred
What distinguishes the hanging judge form of self-criticism (which again may occur empirically in isolation or in conjunction with other patterns) is its overly harsh, vindictive, prosecutorial quality. What is observed here is not the quiet, sinking-sensation quality that may characterize, for example, some persons as they draw negative comparisons between themselves and others. Rather, what is evident are qualities of hatred, rage, and assaultiveness of persons toward themselves, qualities that have led previous authors to describe these persons as “abusive” critics and even as “killer” critics (Stone & Stone, 1993, p. 85; see also Rubin, 1975).

Injustice
The self-critical attacks at issue here seem to the dispassionate observer to be seriously out of proportion to the significance of the alleged offense. The response of Randy, described above, typifies this draconian quality. For something as factually inconsequential as a missed highway turnoff that caused him a five-minute delay, Randy launched an enraged, hateful diatribe against himself that was replete with all manner of self-degradation and obscene name-calling.

Lack of Compassion for Self
Finally, as the example of Jack illustrates, there is little interest in this scenario in helping oneself, only interest in punishing and reviling oneself (Driscoll, 1981; Ossorio, 1976; Stone & Stone, 1993). In persons who exhibit other patterns of destructive self-criticism, one will frequently hear a note struck of, “I criticize myself this way, because I believe that it benefits me.” Although the person might be mistaken in his or her calculations of what is helpful, still there is an intent to act in one’s own best interest that lies behind the criticism. In hanging judge patterns, evidence of such self-beneficial intentions are notably absent. The spirit in which the criticism is rendered seems more one of, “I hate and am furious with myself and wish to punish myself severely by venting my anger and my hatred.” The hanging judge, to return to the metaphor, is a judge whose attitude toward those convicted is: “I don’t give a damn about rehabilitating them; I just want them to pay in spades for what they’ve done.”

Persons who engage heavily in this hanging judge pattern of self-criticism usually encounter two primary consequences. The first of these is depression. In the wake of their angry, abusive attacks upon themselves, such individuals characteristically report being seriously depressed and, in extreme cases, suicidal (Stone & Stone, 1993). Such consequences are consistent with the classical psychoanalytic contention that depression is caused by anger directed against one’s own person (Fenichel, 1945; Freud, 1917/1958; Rado, 1929; Rubin, 1975). The second consequence is a notable absence of corrective action. Again, as in the case of private self-degradation, there is no corrective element (and, as noted above, no corrective motivation) in this self-critical scenario. Typical self-critical attacks, as exemplified by those of Randy and Jack, contain no useful problem diagnoses or prescriptions for how to remedy what has gone wrong. Overall, then, in the aftermath of a critic attack, the individual is left feeling quite depressed, personally savaged, and possessed of few ideas or motivations pertaining to the remediation of his or her alleged mistakes and failings.
(Adapted from Bergner, Raymond M, Pathological Self-Criticism: Assessment and Treatment, Plenum Press, New York, New York. 1995)

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Personal Reflection Exercise Explanation
The Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues. Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience. Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education, occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health, home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be approximately 250 words in length. However, since the content of these “Personal Reflection” Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a “work in progress.” You will not be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.

Personal Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained a profile of the “hanging judge” pathological self-criticism Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 12
What are the three characteristics that comprise the “hanging judge syndrome?” To select and enter your answer go to CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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