Lucas arrives for his weekly therapy session in an agitated and unhappy state. It’s confusing, hee tells me, because his life is going great. It’s been just two weeks since he succeeded in getting a big promotion at his job, the culmination of a year’s work of effort on his part. Just one week earlier he’d shown up elated at my office to tell me the news. But now he’s down in the dumps.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he says. “I’m so frustrated and angry at myself. Why can’t I ever be content with anything I have? I should be happy, but now I’m scared I won’t be able to do the work. I’ve always been such a coward.” In addition, he reports that he still wakes up every morning longing for his boyfriend, who broke up with him six months ago. “I should be over this by now,” he says. “Why am I so addicted to feeling sorry for myself?” He goes on berating himself for his perceived inadequacies for fifteen solid minutes.
The cause of Lucas’ agitation is not external circumstances, but his self-critic, an inner voice which constantly tells him that he isn’t who he’s supposed to be and isn’t feeling what he’s supposed to feel. He has no right to be apprehensive about his new job; that’s cowardice. He has exceeded his allowable allotment of mourning time for his ex-boyfriend; that’s self-pity. His self-critic berates him for everything he does and feels, and then judges him for not feeling contented.
He is intrigued when I describe the self-critic and identify it as the cause of his suffering, but when I try to move on to talk about strategies for neutralizing it, he rises to its defense. “If I don’t have some part of me kicking my butt when I’m not living up to my potential, I’m never going to get anywhere in life,’ he tells me. “I need the self-critic to motivate me to achieve my goals.” The notion that we need to be constantly shaming ourselves in order to become better people is a strange idea, but a common one.
If we want to overcome the power of the self-critic in our lives, the first thing we need to do is to stop being loyal to it. We also need to stop letting it intimidate us, by seeing it for what it actually is. The critic is not the voice of conscience, and it’s far from being any kind of trustworthy guide to success. It makes sweeping and crackpot judgments, such as “If you don’t always succeed, then you’re a failure,” or “If you feel any fear, then you’re a coward.” Its judgments are unreliable because, in reality, the critic is really a very immature voice. While it postures as the voice of parental authority, it’s actually a part of us that develops when we’re very young, usually between about five and seven years old. It’s a child’s imitation of what a parent sounds like. That’s why its judgments are harsh, absolutist, and uninformed by any real understanding of how life actually works.
So what do we do about it? The first step is always to become more conscious of it. Every time you suddenly feel a sudden feeling of depression or anxiety, for instance, recall what you were thinking just before that happened. You’ll often find that your self-critic was berating you just before your mood changed. You can make a list of the messages your critic speaks to you, and instead of unquestioningly cringing like a child who is being lectured by a parent, you can evaluate them with your adult mind.
In my experience, once you’re aware of the destructive nature of the self-critic, the most effective way to counteract it is to incline your mind in the direction of its opposite, which is self-compassion. Recent psychological research suggests that self-compassion is actually a learned skill, and that it can be taught and practiced using specific methods. This will be the subject of my next three columns, in which I’ll describe the three major components of self-compassion, and actions you can take to strengthen each of them.
Next Time: Self-judgment vs. Self-kindness