This week’s letter raises an issue we can all relate to: critical self-judgment. Tomorrow’s Web chat will be about how to deal with it. My guest will be Michael Baime, an internist and director of the Penn Program for Stress Management.
I wish I could talk to you about some things that have been going on in my mind. The questions are simple:
How can I be optimistic about everything that will come or will not come into my life?
And how can I accept myself the way I am?
I just can’t stop blaming myself, or mocking myself, and I know it’s not right.
Thank you, and I wish you health and love.
– Looking for Answers
Maybe your questions about optimism about the future and critical self-judgment are really the same question. Let’s start with your critical self-judgment.
Right away we know that you are more kind to others than you are to yourself because of your kind wishes at the end of your letter. You are not alone. Almost everyone I know has a critical judge living somewhere inside his or her head. Between you and me, if those critical judges magically went away, I would probably have to find another job!
So why are so many of us so critical of ourselves? Perhaps you have noticed that the people who are the most self-critical also tend to be more kind – like you – while those who go to the other extreme, and rarely find fault in themselves, often tend to be less kind.
This judgment thing starts off as a very healthy and important component of our psychological makeup. It’s called our conscience and it is designed to give us feedback when we break a rule or violate social mores. The feedback we get is usually guilt. For example, when I am not completely honest with someone, I feel guilty. When I was younger and cheated on a test, I felt guilty. I also was scared of getting caught. If no one had a conscience to stop himself from acting on impulses, this would be a pretty scary world for all of us.
Critical self-judgment occurs when our conscience has poor judgment. There are lots of theories about how this happens, but I believe that it’s simply about anxiety. Anxiety almost always influences our judgment. My vision of a healthy conscience is that of a gentle guide. A critical judge, on the other hand, is more like a nervous parent who is never happy with anything. Your judge tells you that nothing you do is good enough – and that if you are more generous, accomplished, better-looking, or just plain different, then you will be happy. Of course, it never works because that critical judge will never leave you alone. So what can be done? Nothing!
Consider this: You suffer not because of the critical judge but because you take that critical judge seriously. Most of us do. We hear that harsh voice and respond almost as though it’s the voice of God or some other power. It’s not. It’s just a nervous, cranky parent. So instead of trying to please the judge (never gonna happen), or outsmart the judge (even less likely), let’s first develop a healthier relationship with this poor nervous entity that lives somewhere in our brain.
We’ve learned a great deal about changing our relationship to suffering from programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It originated decades ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., when Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a program for people in chronic pain. Instead of wrestling with their pain or bracing against it, he taught participants how to simply notice the pain. The pain still hurt, but the combination of body and mind reacted differently to it.
Your relationship with your judge can work the same way. When self-criticism comes up, simply notice. While you are doing so, you might also want to notice that the moment the judge becomes active, you are suffering – and need compassion. When you try this and don’t get it right, don’t beat yourself up; it takes years (sometimes decades) of practice. But you can begin by simply noticing.
Now about that optimism question. Nobody can be optimistic about everything that will happen in the future. But if you learn to be open to whatever comes, whether it feels good or bad, you might be less afraid of what’s around the corner.
And one more thing. If you are able to train your brain to simply notice, you might find the answers that you’re looking for.