What to Do When Zoom Triggers Your Inner Critic By Dr. Pamela Rutledge

What to Do When Zoom Triggers Your Inner Critic By Dr. Pamela Rutledge

  • Video calling has added to the high level of stress from COVID and increased self-consciousness
  • Recent polls show measures of self-confidence and self-esteem down over pre-COVID measures
  • Self-esteem can be bolstered by monitoring media content, identifying your inner critic, and adopting physical self-care rituals

The end of the pandemic is in sight.  Why aren’t we all jumping for joy?  The truth is, this is still a stressful and uncertain time.  The journey to normal doesn’t feel normal yet.  The APA’s recent Stress in America Survey 2021 conducted by the Harris Poll found that 84% of adults reported emotions linked with prolonged stress, such as anxiety, sadness, and anger.  All the Zoom meetings in the world can’t fix it.  In fact, video calling can make these feelings worse by amplifying feelings of self-consciousness that can undermine self-esteem.  A solution? Self-care.

Everyone knows screen time has gone up.  On the one hand, technology enabled us to keep working, see friends and family, celebrate events, and check-in with one another.  But the difference between Zoom and F2F is so great that it’s hard to feel grateful when the ability to hug someone is missing. But video calling can cause more insidious effects, undermining our self-confidence by increasing our preoccupation with how we appear on the screen.  A recent Harris poll conducted by CVS as part of their Beauty Mark campaign showed that 75% of women ages 18-35 now spending increased time on video calls, with many spending at least five hours staring at a grid of faces (including their own) in a typical week.

We joke about Zoom fatigue, but the physiological and psychological effects are real.  Video calling, for all its benefits, is an unnatural act.  Because of that, our brains work overtime to manage all the stuff that feels weird so we can pay attention to the reason we’re there in the first place.  We have to adjust our perceptions of space violations.  Even when we’re in a meeting around a table, we aren’t staring relentlessly at each other’s face, much less our own.  To maintain our attention on our boss, family or friends, we have to override our tendency to stare at ourselves.

Seeing ourselves automatically makes something more meaningful and personally relevant.  It’s not selfish or narcissistic.  It’s our reptilian brain.  In an existential way, it confirms our existence.  Cognitively, it allows us to check out our “public self” by judging how we look what we wear and who we’re with.  We gauge how we fit into the our social world—we automatically engage in social comparison.  It’s a normal and instinctive response.

Video calls activate our innate tendency to self-evaluate and compare.  Not only do we have to see ourselves, but we watch others reacting to us in real-time.  As if this weren’t stressful enough, we normally see ourselves in a mirror, so we already look “wrong” on Zoom.  This type of self-surveillance and all the disconnects can make us hyper-focus on how we look and act.  It’s not being selfish or narcissistic.  It’s a normal and instinctive response.  The human drive for social acceptance (also normal) means we are very interested in judging how our “public self” by looks.

Our normal tendencies offline don’t adapt automatically to media environments.  The increased discomfort and preoccupation with our image can escalate and, if unchecked over time, can undermine our self-confidence and self-esteem.  It’s no shock that over a third of the women in the CVS Harris Poll said they feel less confident in their appearance compared to a year ago and nearly half of the women said that they use filters to touch up or alter their appearance.  Filters, selfie lights, and other tricks are the only way to create a sense of distance from the scrutiny without turning off your camera.

Self-esteem is Built Over Time

Self-esteem is not a fixed trait.  Self-esteem is built over time.  It is like a muscle that needs practice and exercise to stay strong.  The training program for self-esteem building is self-care.

Self-care is any intentional action we take to promote our physical, mental, and emotional health.  There are many forms—from getting enough sleep, eating well, learning something new, and exercising to beauty treatments.  I know what you’re thinking.  Seriously? Beauty treatments?  It sounds superficial—we live in a world where self-indulgence is frowned upon, but applying lotion, having a facial, coloring your hair, and putting on lipstick are all signals to ourselves and others that we care about ourselves. Acts of self-care can be small and still remind us that even when life gets tough, we have the power to take action.  In fact, in the CVS Harris poll, 79% said that practicing those beauty routines regularly during the COVID-19 pandemic has given them a sense of control. One of my favorite stories about healthy aging featured a spry 90-year-old who did an hour of yoga a day and put on red lipstick every morning.  That woman knew a thing or two about self-care.

Why is Self-care Important?

We all have inner voices.  Sometimes they are helpful.  Most women I’ve met, however, also have a bitchy, judgmental one who not only delights in pointing out your failings and shortcomings, she loves to turn individual incidents into global traits.  When you make a mistake, she says “you’re stupid;” when your hair won’t cooperate, she says, “you’re ugly.”   She’s the one who berates us when we don’t have a perfect, poreless Instagram face.  Unfortunately, when we hear something a lot, we start to believe it.  Even if we told it to ourselves.  And most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Self-care is tangible proof to our inner voice that we value ourselves.  Even the smallest action that supports our wellbeing tells our critical inner voice “Hey, we’re worth taking care of.”

Other forms of self-care to try include:

  • Identify your critical inner voice and name it so it is no longer part of you.
  • Pay attention to the media content you consume. Identify what makes you feel good and what doesn’t. (I recommend a few days of keeping a media journal or log.  An example of one is here.)
  • If you need to be on video calls for your job, try to set time limits on meetings and don’t hesitate to turn off your camera.
  • Give yourself permission to walk away from, ignore, block, delete or swipe left on anything or anyone on or offline that triggers a negative response in you.
  • Practice physical self-care rituals, such as taking a moment to breathe, flowing rubbing lotion into your hands before bed, or putting on red lipstick.
  • Practice moments of gratitude. Find something about yourself you are grateful for, no matter how small.

As a media psychologist, I was honored to contribute to the CVS Beauty Mark research.  As a woman, I love the idea of the Beauty Mark campaign because it reminds me to tell my inner critic that I am good enough, as is, without ‘retouching.’

Join the Instagram Live unfiltered chat hosted by beauty and wellness influencer Victoria Garrick and me, sponsored by CVS’ Beauty Mark campaign as we tackle self-confidence in a digital world.  See the events page for details.


American Psychological Association (2021, March 11). One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns. Stress in America: January 2021 Stress Snapshothttps://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/one-year-pandemic-stress

CVS. (2021, May 21). CVS Pharmacy announces 100% Beauty Mark compliancy in beauty aisles. https://cvshealth.com/news-and-insights/press-releases/cvs-pharmacy-announces-100-beauty-mark-compliancy-in-beauty-aisles

Reprinted with permission.


Dr. Pamela Rutledge


The articles on Fitnesshacksforlife.org website is provided for reference purposes only, A public resource you can use for free. You should not take them as the sole source of medical direction. Fitnesshacksforlife.org does not accept payments or incentives from any of the individuals or organizations named in the articles, and the articles are not an endorsement of those parties or their products or practices. Do not ever disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in any manner seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on our site or social media. Fitness Hacks For Life is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, eligible to receive donations under the laws of the United States of America.

Related reads.