I have this person who follows me about all day, hurling insults. ‘Idiot!’ she exclaims when I delete the wrong email. ‘No will powers,’ she sneers when, under no pressure at all, I order the extra glass of wine or agree to have the dessert I’d told myself I was going to turn down.
‘Lazybones!’ she shrieks, if I turn over for an extra five minutes in bed. It’s very wearing, this constant undermining barrage of put-downs and curses. Oddly enough, even though she is so severe and critical, she doesn’t succeed in making me modify my behaviour and she certainly doesn’t build up my confidence or make me feel good about myself in any way. And yet I find it very hard to shake her off.
Compare her with my real best friends – and luckily I have quite a few. These wonderful men and women appreciate me when I’ve made an effort to look good, and even tell me I look great when this other person has looked in the mirror in scorn. They tell me I’m doing a great job when this other person has despaired of my ever getting it right. They listen to my woes without agreeing with me (or with this other person) that I have every reason to doubt myself. On the contrary, these lovely people tell me to relax, that I’m being too hard on myself. They remind me of things I have done that worked, of places I’ve been that make me happy. I associate them with good times and bright visions, while this other person only ever reminds me of failures and broken dreams.
The thing is, this other person is me. She is an agglomerate of all the negative judgements, midnight terrors and critical harshness that I have ever experienced, and then some. And the really mad thing is that she is the one I pay most attention to. When she has control over my brain I can take the kindest compliment, devalue, dismiss and crush it under foot. ‘Oh, you’re only saying that to cheer me up,’ I think. And what, exactly, is wrong with that?
Most of us, unless we are lucky enough to be fantastically optimistic, carry this dark critic inside us. One of the arts of living well is to notice it and turn down the volume. In order to be happy and successful, we need to replace this corrosive onslaught with the kinder voices that offer us patience and encouragement.
Imagine that you are taking care of a small child. Unless you are some Dickensian villain, you do not attack this small child’s confidence with withering criticism. If she spills something, you laugh and say it’s only an accident. You try to minimize her distress. When he does a drawing you find something to love about it. You don’t tell him that his drawing is rubbish, because you know that’s the way to destroy his joy in painting. When she feels shy or unhappy, you cuddle and tease and coax her. Why can’t we behave in this essentially kind way with our own selves?
The dark side of ourselves, this withering inner voice, can be challenged and replaced with something more merciful, more nurturing. If we pay attention to the way we talk to ourselves in private, we can learn to correct the harshness and become our own best friend. This isn’t New Age twaddle, it’s a way of changing the quality of your life. It doesn’t mean that you cease being self-critical – we need to be self-critical in order to improve – but it does mean that we learn sometimes to give ourselves a pat on the back, and that we hold back on the insults.
Think of the kindest person you know, the most encouraging teacher, the most loving mother. That is the voice you want to encourage in your own head. When you make a mess of a task, don’t shout at yourself and hurl insults. Less of the ‘Idiot!’ Would you address a friend like that? Sit back. Tell yourself, without heat, that you haven’t got it right this time, but congratulate yourself for trying.
Then suggest to yourself that you have another go, maybe trying something differently. Tell yourself that you know you can do it, and gently remind yourself of some past success.
And finally, if you really want to see your inner monster for what it is, take a piece of paper and write down, without pausing to think, all the rude, destructive and negative things you hurl at yourself in your own mind. Would you give houseroom to this person in real life? Of course not. It’s time to get them right out of your head for ever.
Life Lessons – Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier – Lesley Garner