Thief of Peace: The Inner Critic as the Cause of Low Self-Esteem
"Stay out of the court of self-judgment, for there is no presumption of innocence." — Robert Brault
How many times have you been enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon, resting in your backyard in the late summer sun, perfectly at ease in the world, when suddenly a nagging voice pipes up and says something like, “Why are you wasting this perfectly good afternoon? You could be doing something more productive, like cutting the grass, clearing out all that clutter in the garage, or tending to those chores around the house that you said you would get to this weekend”? In a flash, that moment of tranquility is gutted by a sense of guilt and anxiety.
It’s the same when you go for an evening drive and realize the car has not been washed for months, the windows need to be cleaned, and the trash needs to be emptied. Then a voice rises up from the shadows and tells you why you don’t deserve a nice car ride, but instead need to be reminded of how forgetful and lazy you are and why you need to get something done — anything, even something as simple as cleaning the car.
Likewise think about all the times you have gone to a dinner in your colleague’s beautiful house, or visited your friend’s idyllic children’s birthday party, or taken a drive in your brother’s new car, and instead of being able to enjoy the moment, you were sidetracked by the critic comparing your life to theirs, listing all the ways you don’t measure up. Your inner judge implies you are a lesser person because your cooking is not up to snuff, your house is too scruffy to host a party, your children’s birthday parties are disorganized, and your car is an embarrassment.
That voice of judgment seems ready, at a moment’s notice, to kill the joy of the moment and remind us that we don’t deserve to have fun or relax, aren’t worthy of taking care of ourselves, aren’t good enough in comparison to others, and that if we only listened and obeyed the critic’s commands, we would be a better, happier, and more successful person. What may start as an innocuous voice builds up steam over time until it becomes the loudest thing in your head and an incessant rumination, like a yapping dog constantly snapping at the heels of your goodness.
If we listen to all those disparaging remarks, what happens? We shift from enjoying the present moment to feeling unworthy, unhappy, and deficient. In my experience in working with thousands of people over the past two decades, I have seen time and again how people fall victim to their inner critic and its harsh words. The sad consequences of taking in all its sharp judgments are a dampening of joy, a reduction in well-being, a lowering of self-esteem, and greater chances of depression and anxiety. The net result is a low-grade feeling of shame.
I once worked with a delightful man in his sixties named James who had been unable to get out from under the oppression of his inner critic. He looked gray and weather-beaten and talked about feeling smothered, as if under a cloud of shame. He was unable to distinguish his own thoughts from the noise of the critic, so he was plagued by an ongoing tirade of judgment in his head.
I felt terribly sad for him. He couldn’t see that he was a good person, trying to do his best, who genuinely cared about his colleagues, his family, and people in general. I could sense a sparkle as he talked about his love of nature and animals. Yet his whole being was shrouded, as though under a heavy cloak. Despite the brief joys he could find in his life, the experience of his critic constantly reminding him that he was not good enough, that he was a failure, made it hard for him to find any peace of mind.
If the critic were a person dishing up those endless tirades, we would call it emotional or psychological abuse and perhaps seek some kind of intervention, tell them to go away, or get a restraining order. But because the criticism takes place within the quiet confines of our own head, it goes unnoticed by others; it becomes like our own living-room furniture — background and familiar — and so goes unchallenged.
I remember a similar situation: I was coaching a woman who worked as a top medical researcher in New York. In her late thirties, she was quite accomplished and had consulted on national health policy issues on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Yet her self-assessment was very negative. All she could fixate on and use to evaluate herself was her inability to have successful long-term relationships. Sadly, she was unable to enjoy and celebrate the achievements of her illustrious career.
This particular challenge in her personal romantic world was the only lens she could look through to see whether she was a worthy person. As a consequence, she felt depressed and hopeless, blind to her innate gifts, strengths, and talents. She was looking at herself through a distorted lens. No wonder she felt miserable.
The more we listen to the negative, distorted inner voices of self-judgment that directly attack our self-worth, the more likely we will be to have an imbalanced sense of ourselves. We will be prone to disconnecting from a sense of our innate value and therefore have a tendency to feel despondent about ourselves. Failing to feel that sense of innate goodness at the heart of who we are means we lack a strong foundation on which to build a happy, flourishing life.
Practice: Correcting the Inner Balance Sheet
The inner critic is like a bad accountant who only looks at the column in red, or the liabilities, without taking the assets into consideration. To practice getting a clearer view of your internal balance sheet, try taking a whole day where you notice the positive aspects of yourself:
- Pay attention to your unique gifts, skills, and qualities.
- Notice when you act in positive, kind, caring ways.
- Observe the moments of quiet joy and ease.
- Take in any moments of appreciating what you are wearing or how you look.
- Acknowledge when you talk to people with politeness, respect, or interest.
- Look for any positive impact you are bringing to a situation, person, or environment.
- Take in those times when you are spontaneously generous to others.
- Notice your sense of humor and your capacity to enjoy life.
Sometimes when we do this, it can turn up the volume of our critic. The critic may ridicule any attempt to look on the bright side of things. See if you can begin to correct the balance sheet by shifting your perspective in the following ways:
- When people compliment you, take a moment to take it in rather than dismissing it or questioning their motives.
- When someone sends you an email thanking you for something you did or said, take it in and notice how it feels.
- When you feel you did a good job at some task at work, at home, or taking care of your family, also let that in.
The more you can acknowledge the goodness of an action, the more you will realize it comes from your innate goodness — your authentic nature.
Excerpted from the upcoming new book Make Peace with Your Mind. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Coleman. Printed with permission from New World Library, www.newworldlibrary.com.
Mark Coleman is the author of Make Peace with Your Mind and Awake in the Wild. He is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at www.awakeinthewild.com.