Saturday, 17 November 2012

Silencing my inner critic

It might be fair to say that my mind is my own worst enemy. I constantly think that I'm not good enough, not a good enough friend, not smart enough, not a good enough writer, a bit of a failure at life in general. When things go well, I'm always first to ascribe responsibility to others or minimise my own role in things. When things go badly, it's no one's fault but my own and I chastise and chastise myself.

I live - perhaps have always lived - under the rule that being hard on myself will make me better. Perhaps it was inculcated into me in a school that focused intensely on academic achievement (my favourite teacher never giving me a full A in English, for example, until the very last essay I handed in - despite me coming first in the year pretty much every term). Who knows - I'm not psychoanalysing myself here. Whatever the reason, it's how I operate. With cooking - with work - with friends - with family. In every area of my life, I measure myself. I measure myself - and I never quite measure up.

In my mind, there's always a litany of "you shoulds", "you musts" and "why did/didn't yous" going on. My therapist put it interestingly last week - that I never actually live in - let alone enjoy - the present. I'm flitting between the past (assessing what I did wrong) and the future (what I should do differently next time),

Ironically, writing so extensively and quite critically about my own brain means I'm still doing that. I'm trying to fix my mind in order to be better. So how on earth do I silence this critical voice that's always haunting me?

One CBT technique that has been helping me a lot has been to try to think of myself, and address myself, with an affectionate, kind voice, rather than the cold, self-accusatory tone I usually think in. They suggest to use a nickname - a name that's only been used about you affectionately. It sounds bizarre and rather American doesn't it? But switching mental registers in this way made me realise that we are always engaged in an unspoken conversation with ourselves, but that it's not always necessarily the kindest, most helpful conversation we could be having. Surely to be healthy and happy, we have to be good to ourselves? It seems self-evident and should come easily but it really does not, at least for me, at least not yet.

Another technique that I adopted on my own has been to keep a diary of things I do every day I should be proud of. When I first started CBT, my therapist asked me to list all the good things about me. I was at a low point, but even now I do struggle to list them. Even the positive attributes I can recognise - being a caring friend, being wise, writing articulately, building connections - I always feel could be improved. Sometimes days and days will go by without me feeling like I've accomplished anything of any worth. So I started logging the tiniest things I could be proud of - talking to an elderly neighbour, texting a friend I hadn't spoke to for a while, sorting out a cupboard - so that after a while I could see how every day I live is good in some way.

But it is an ongoing battle. My inner critic is so embedded in my thinking - facilitated by the peer-review culture of academia, no doubt - that I rarely even realise I'm doing it. I suppose that's the "cognitive" bit of the CBT I ought to be working on (again - "ought to be", argh!)

Why am I writing this? I suppose in part, in this ongoing process of "coming clean" with myself and with others - that I am a bit more complicated and struggle a bit more with life than I sometimes am able to admit. But also to ask whether this is something peculiar to me, or whether you struggle with it too. Do you have techniques that help? Have you found a way to silence that voice?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such an honest post. I do this too. I have a critical internal monologue running pretty much all the time telling me that I'm a failure and that I should do things better. The irony is, I'd never speak to anyone else the way I 'speak' to myself. I don't have a solution, but I thought I'd let you know you're not alone.