The zen of seeing ourselves clearly, and critiquing fairly what we see, is even harder than it sounds. We walk around projecting confidence, attuned to the smallest sign of rejection, disrespect, or lack of interest from others in our encounters with the world; then we go home, left to our own devices, and to the mirror. Often we are our own harshest critics, and we believe every bit of it; sometimes the tougher the perception, the more credible it seems. But is our self-critique trustworthy? Or helpful?
Noticing our own impact on the world on an ordinary Thursday is the beginning of healthy self-criticism. This requires a level of alertness that may not be our daily habit: it requires a bit of discipline, paying attention to the small moments of our day. Noticing ourselves without judging is difficult, and very interesting. What words do we use to show warmth toward our colleagues, respect toward our children and cats, patience toward political adversaries and strangers in line at the register? When we aren’t attentive, we rely on autopilot, which may be taking unapproved liberties. Before we can critique, we must bear silent witness.
Self criticism gets a bad name because for many of us it becomes harsh and constant. We have deeply felt expectations, and see ourselves as falling short in a thousand small ways. The inner critic often seems less like a benign consultant, there to point out opportunities to do better, than a scold who gives us no peace, leaving us bruised and shamed. Healthy self criticism requires making peace with that inner voice. Is it piping up because something really needs our attention? If so, it offers a gift. Or is it just constantly finding fault, replaying the expectations we formed in childhood, of never being quite worthy of affection or a place at the grown up table? Self criticism has many sources. Along the way, some people got a toxic message that they were spiritually defective from birth, launching a project of self improvement that is both endless and doomed. Depression hovers close by, waiting. What evidence would satisfy our inner critic, that we do meaningful work? Our culture has presented standards of beauty and affluence that we often internalize at an early age, and never reconsider. We may critique ourselves with someone else’s voice. It can be interesting to get acquainted with the inner critic, and ask it what it would invite you to do differently today. Have coffee. Make friends.
Our high expectations can be uplifting, reminding us that we are capable and caring, though our work is unfinished. When we know at a deep level that we are worthy of love, even in our current condition, the criticisms we give ourselves may feel helpful. If life did not equip us with that confidence, we can choose friends and associates who will remind us, with their words and by their presence, that we are good to be around. By living fully in the present moment, aware of our small insights and our small kind impulses, we can help ourselves stay resilient, so that our self-criticism really does make us better, without leaving scars. Humility and self esteem go together like coffee and chocolate.