Emotional Health

Taming Your Internal Critic

A byproduct of women’s sensitivity to others is that they feel responsible for others’ happiness. The physical, psychological, and social aspects of motherhood all encourage and support this. As a woman, you may have a harder time taking a directly adversarial point of view than a man. It is not just a matter of being less assertive, but also a natural corollary to our tendency to consider others’ feelings and viewpoints. But in many situations, this can lead you to being less able to defend yourself against criticism, both external and internal.

In our justice system, for example, as a defendant, your rights entitle you to be tried only for the current offense for which you are being charged. “Prior” bad acts are usually not admissible—the jury cannot hear what you did last year, last week, etc. The prosecution needs to prove that you committed this specific crime and nothing else is relevant.

You may see everything you do as an indication and/or indictment of your entire character. Always including prior actions in your judgment of yourself, you are like a jury that has access to your entire record, with nothing off limits. When you look at a failure, for example, you remember all of your others. And you see it as part of a general character trait rather than a specific action during a specific situation.

Even worse, the “defense” does not get equal time. Your successes and strengths are not brought into evidence, nor are they given equal weight. I have known people who behave kindly almost all the time, but who dwell on the few instances they have not. When you do this, you see the bad actions as evidence of the “real you,” while the good ones are the exceptions—even if they are much more numerous.

This is example of what is called “poisoned soup” thinking: a perfectly good soup can be ruined by only one or two drops of poison. Life is not like that, however, and rarely (with notable exceptions) do a few failures or bad actions ruin everything. Even soup is not like that—the worst that usually happens is a little too much or too little of some ingredient makes it less palatable than usual.

You certainly don’t judge your friends like this. Sometimes stresses and tensions make them crankier or less available but you take it as a temporary state rather than a general problem. Again, there are notable exceptions, when friends’ mood changes indicate real trouble, but even then, the solution is rarely to throw them away like poisoned soup, but rather to step in and help.

If you apply the same friendly compassion to yourself, failures and missteps can be openings for improvement and growth. If you look at things less critically, rather than seeing your mistakes as evidence of character flaws, you can take a more objective, situational view and see what you can do differently in the future. A critical point of view increases shame, rarely leading to introspection. Shame and guilt tend to make you shut down and avoid dealing directly with issues.

The point is not to stop looking altogether at your problems, but to create conditions that make constructive, reasonable self-reflection possible. You may have been judging yourself too harshly for so long, that it may require vigilant effort to change your thinking. A three step may process help:

  1. When you criticize yourself, instead of accepting your thoughts as valid, ring a bell in your head to challenge them.
  2. Stop and evaluate whether or not you are applying overly negative or distorted thinking, such as:
  • Using perfection or near perfection as a standard (perfectionism)
  • Assuming any behavior indicates general traits and tendencies (generalization)
  • Judging yourself by examining all faults and failures rather than focusing on the present situation (historical thinking)
  • Using faulty logic such as poison soup thinking that increases shame and helplessness (contamination theories)

Instead, use positive metaphors to view your issues. For example, instead of soup, look at your life as a tapestry. Though the whole is connected, there can be many different areas in the whole. Some are woven early-some later. Some you come back to over and over, adding or improving the area. There may be some parts that are more successfully done than others, and yet the whole is so big that it hard to see all at once.

Everyone’s “life” tapestry is an amateur effort—you only get one chance to go through the whole process. It will not look like an expert job in every area, but that won’t “ruin” it either. If you learn from mistakes as you go along, improving your technique as you go, you will find that your entire effort has been worthy, and best of all, unique.

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