We’re our own worst critics. It’s a cliche but it became so by being true. Yes, a minority of humans have the opposite problem. They let themselves off the hook too easily. These folks have zero capacity to objectively assess their own behaviour, show remorse when they’ve wronged somebody, or hear any critical feedback without attacking or collapsing. They refuse to learn or grow because they can’t bear any critical feedback. As the writer of Proverbs puts it, “fools despise wisdom and instruction”.
I was one of these people early in my development as a therapist. I went before a board of examiners who were assessing my readiness to be a supervisor of other therapists. It didn’t go well. They turned me down and gave me some feedback about things I should work on. I was humiliated and depressed for three weeks. Then, enraged. I wrote a thirty page challenge to their decision, claiming that I was the victim of an “old boy’s pedagogy”. But guess what? They were right. I was too young and too immature at this stage to be supervising other therapists. But I was clever as hell, and my challenge won the day. I had to be the golden boy—the best at everything I put my hand to, or I was nothing. My first line of defence was to turn on myself in a fit of self-loathing, followed up by blaming and attacking my colleagues.
The capacity for self-critique is essential to our growth as human beings, not just in terms of performing better at whatever we choose to do, but ethically as well. Presumably, we’re aiming at treating others as we’d like to be treated. (Granted, if we’re unconsciously masochistic, and most of us do need to contend with this tendency, this is a real problem). That said, it’s important that standards exist. Otherwise, we don’t know where “we stand”. If we have nothing to measure ourselves against, it’s likely that we’ll never “measure up” to our deepest potential, which is evoked through lifelong challenge. It’s how a universe grows. Through us.
I’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad. Young Jessie is Walter White’s sidekick, cooking meth for the cartel. In a recovery group he tells the story of making a box in a vocational studies course. When he finishes it, his teacher asks, “Is that the best you can do?” Now, because he trusted this teacher, he didn’t hear this as humiliation. He heard it as an invitation to assess whether the completed box represents his best effort. Jessie shares with the group that he made five more of the same boxes until he was satisfied that, yes, this was the best he could do. That kind of self-assessment leads to self-confidence and a sense of personal pride and agency. (For all you Breaking Bad aficionados, yes, I know that Jessie sells the elegant box for a bag of weed. We’re complex creatures.)
But when objective self-critique that serves to motivate and guide us to our next best step degenerates into the merciless self-loathing generated by our inner critic, something is off. Partly, this is caused by our tendency to compare ourselves to others. Jordan Peterson makes a brilliant point with the fourth rule of his book, The 12 Rules for Life. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, he advises to compare ourselves to who we were yesterday. If we’ve taken a single baby step further along the line of becoming a better human being, high fives! Emphasis on “baby-step”. Each day do one thing that brings a little more order to the chaos, a little more kindness into a harsh world, a little more truth to a world lost in deceit. Just a little. If you’re a sculptor you don’t want to compare yourself to Michelangelo. You’ll always be a hack. As the name suggests, you’ll be competing as a mere human with an angel. But you could compare your progress today with how you did with the chunk of marble yesterday. Maybe today you learned something about the angle of your chisel that you didn’t know yesterday. Bravo!
Still, it begs the question, why do we unrealistically compare ourselves to Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, or Garry Kasparov? These are impossible standards, in that they are set by other humans (i.e. not us comparing ourselves today to who we were yesterday) and these humans have the rarest mixture of genius and crazy discipline. And to my earlier observation, we all are vulnerable to masochistic urges – to beat up on ourselves or have somebody else do it for us. Why?
We don’t have a genetic predisposition to beat ourselves up. Chances are, therefore, we’ve been beaten up by others. I’ve seen fathers whose life mission seems to be to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that their sons will never be better than them. It happens. You get 97% on your algebra test and dad wonders what happened to the other 3%. Teachers of course can set us up for this as well. Anything less than perfect is thrown into the failure basket. Many of us learn early that love is not on offer, so we kick into survival mode, feeling like if we can perform well enough, then at least we’ll survive. But that performance is high stakes. Our very being as a legitimate human is on the line, driven by an inner tyrant, an internalization of messages that we received and interpreted as “I’m never enough”. And if I’m not enough in any way the result will be catastrophic punishment, abandonment, and humiliation, now self-inflicted, having learned well the lessons of our childhood. We internalize fantastical standards, set by someone who themselves didn’t measure up to unrealistic standards. These standards are actually meant to put us in our (very lowly) place. When love has gone off line, domination is the only game in town. We learn to dominate ourselves with criticism.
These negative feelings of being a disappointment form the core of our identity. Through perceived failures we get to be plunged right back into them, and strangely, it feels like a homecoming. They are the feelings associated with Core Unconscious Beliefs. The deepest one is “I’m bad”. Out from that epicentre of identity a few other gems tag along such as: there’s something wrong with me; I’ll never be any good; it’s my fault; I should be more; I’m responsible for this other person’s misery; I’m guilty. The feelings associated with these beliefs are unbearable, so we bury them. Because they are unconscious these beliefs and feelings are exploited as the currency of our inner critic. Ever notice that there is a perverse satisfaction in feeling like a waste of space? It feels like the very core of who we are. We wouldn’t know who we are if we did’t have these feelings to return to. We wallow in them and if somebody should try to cheer us up we’ll gladly take them down with us. There’s another cliche: misery loves company. But these beliefs and attendant feelings are not who we are.
What’s to be done? De-commission the tyrant. S/he is trauma’s offspring. Anybody who ever told you that you are less than a gorgeous, evolving being was wrong. End of story. Look for incremental “wins”, the taxes you finally got around to doing, setting up the dental appointment, or being kind to your annoying neighbour. And when you do “fail” remember you are a multifaceted human. You are a parent. And you’re also a professional, a tradesperson, a friend, an amateur musician, a history lover, a gardener. Don’t universalize a mistake you made. Falling short in one area doesn’t need to leak over to your entire life. It’s simply information feedback, a signal to assess how you might do it differently next time.
Replace the inner tyrant with your own version of Buddha or Christ energy. Or maybe just the kindest person you know who wants the best for you. Commission these divine archetypes as your very own inner teacher. You will encourage yourself to take your next, best step. But remember, it is your next best step. And if you don’t get it right, bring compassion to yourself and start again. When your inner teacher is on-line, you can de-commission the (always negative, always self-critical) Core Unconscious Beliefs.
I’ll end by quoting one of those superstars, Michael Jordan, whom I mentioned above:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”