by Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner
The name of the bar was Juicy John Pinks, outside of DeKalb, and the year was sometime in the late 1970s. Nick had made the seventy mile drive from Chicago in forty minutes, not because he loved speed but because the only way to get any heat out of his Volkswagen beetle's heater was to keep the gas pedal to the floor. "I had started this band with a few of my buddies, all of us working our way through college. Finally we scored this gig, forty dollars a man and free drinks."
Nick strapped on his guitar and sailed into the opening lick of "Friend of the Devil." Mid-song, he looked out at the audience. "A group of people were joking and laughing at the bar. They're laughing at my singing, I thought. They think I sound lousy. I started to sweat. When the end of the song came I was sure everyone was thinking, What a jerk. He can't sing."
So intent was he on these thoughts that for the rest of the night he hardly heard the applause. He was dumbfounded when the manager invited them to play the following weekend. "I thought they hated us. I mean those guys by the bar laughed at us the whole night.""Oh come on," the manager said. "Those guys were so drunk they didn't even know a band was playing."
Nick has been playing music off and on now for twenty years. He's come a long way from Juicy John Pinks. "Still I've never become less self-conscious. People tell me I'm too hard on myself. When people tell me I'm a good singer, I think they're handing me a line."
It's a strange business. People like Nick want to succeed. They often spend more time and energy honing their skills and perfecting their abilities than others. When the compliments come, they don't even hear them. This may sound like self-defeating behavior, but there are excellent reasons why.
One cause is something psychologists call projection. Much like a camera projects its images onto a screen, people like Nick project their own negative, self-critical thoughts onto people in their lives.
Another reason is superstitious fears of reprisal. Some of us believe that if we relish success or enjoy it, something terrible will happen. "I've always thought that when something good happens, something bad is around the corner," confides one woman. For her, self criticism becomes a means to an end rather than a result of anything negative that happens in her life. It's protective. It's her way of saying, "I'm already suffering as anyone can see; I get no joy out of my life, so there's no need to hit me again with bad news, thank you." But the costs for the illusion that you are warding off evil through self-criticism are enormous.
Finally, the most common reason for self-criticism is lack of self-acceptance. Marsha, for example, sought therapy because her low opinion of herself caused her to be so insecure about her work and ask so many questions of her supervisor that she was overlooked for promotions and excluded from major projects where she might have had a chance to prove herself.
Marsha was asked to compile separate lists of how she saw herself, and how she believed she should be. Marsha's list follows:
- a little overweight
I SHOULD BE
- thin and fit
- outgoing and funny
- married to a doctor
- always happy
In every category, Marsha "falls short." From these lists, it's not hard to understand why Marsha never felt that she was good enough.
But a further question remains: Whose expectations were these really? In the process of counseling, Marsha realized that she was living out the values and expectations of her parents and society, rather than her own. She recalls her childhood and says, "My parents loved me, but they were always telling me how I could do more. Even their compliments were things like, 'This is really great, and I know if you try harder, you'll do even better next time.'"
Why didn't these compliments about her potential motivate Marsha and make her feel better about herself? "I was always hearing that I had great potential. To me, it always meant that I wasn't enough the way I was."
Worse, Marsha had discovered some unconscious pay-offs for her self-criticism. She often hooked in people who wanted to rescue her, make her feel better. But the praise she received through this kind of maneuver didn't boost her self esteem. In fact, when she continued to put herself down, those who cared for her became frustrated. They began to tune her out or avoid her. When Marsha learned to set realistic goals, and accept herself as she was, she stopped wandering through life, looking to others for direction, and became much less critical of herself.
None of us need to hang on to a self-critical attitude which carries so high a personal cost. Fortunately, there are several ways to combat your inner critic and end its control over your life.
Identify how your self-criticism serves you. You aren't a negative person. You are a person who thinks negatively because you believe it will help you achieve a positive goal. What's the goal of all of these put downs?
"I don't want to set myself up for disappointment," one client told us, as an explanation for why he was so hard on himself. "I want to see things coming, be on top of possible problems. I also think it motivates me."
When he analyzed how well this strategy was working, reality stared him in the face. "Sure I avoid big surprises. But I also think I see things coming that never happen, and worry about a lot of stuff that never occurs. For five minutes of panic, I'm trading hours of worry. And if this was really motivating me, I'd be doing something else besides watching TV every weekend, too depressed and tired to go out."
Break the superstitious connection. Your current unhappiness won't pay people back for the past. Self-criticism is not a lucky charm that protects you from bad luck. You deserve to feel good about yourself. If you relish your success and enjoy it, you'll have the energy to create more of it.
Reach out to others who can help. To change patterns that are making you miserable you may need support. Support groups are often potent resources for overcoming self-criticism. Groups of people working together toward change meet in an environment that spotlights the interplay between people. It re-creates a "family" and with it, the style of relating to others that was shaped for us in childhood.
In an effective group, we'll replay whatever role we played in our families--the quiet one, the helper, the achiever, the clown. But these groups have new rules: honesty, support and constructive feedback. Everyone is encouraged to take off masks of defense and experience more of who they truly are. You'll work through generalized feelings of shame that result from feeling that you're "bad" because you were never good enough to meet your parents' high expectations. You'll learn that you can still love yourself, without loving everything you do.
Practice self-acceptance. The most important thing we can learn to do is to validate and accept ourselves. We all have goals and desires that seem out of our reach at times. We are all occasionally disappointed in ourselves. People who are able to ease up on themselves have learned to say, "It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be angry. It's okay to be depressed. It's okay to feel stuck. This is only one part of me."
You have a right to be happy. You don't need the anxious energy of fear and self-doubt.
Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner
Laurie Ashner has authored numerous books. Among the newest, she has co-authored with Alan Altman, M.D., Making Love The Way We Used To: The Secrets of Midlife Sexuality