I came to quite a realisation recently, one that was so obvious that I’m ashamed that it took me so many years to arrive at this epiphany. It was a small realisation in the scheme of things, a slight shift of perspective, but for me it has made a world of difference. I have to remind myself often of this shift as old habits die hard, but when I do, when I remember, I feel a freedom of thought, a rising in confidence and a release from negativity that I have seldom felt before. And that’s why I wanted to share this with you.
So here’s the thing. Like many women, I often have moments (sometimes very long moments) of self-doubt, of low self-esteem, of a lack of confidence in daily life. At these moments, like many women, and perhaps many men too, I tend to focus on one aspect of myself, perhaps the frizziness of my hair, the bags under my eyes or my ineptitude in social situations. And once I have fixated on this aspect, it feels that the only way to regain my confidence is to fix it. So I look online, I try different products, new moisturisers, I seek out new breathing techniques or meditations.
And then one day, really rather recently, I recognised the voice of the inner critic and realised, with a huge sigh of relief, that I didn’t have to fix anything. I didn’t need to research and invest in anything at all because the problem wasn’t the problem. The problem was the ‘helpful’ little voice in my head that was telling me how to improve myself and how, if I could just fix this one thing, I would finally be able to feel comfortable in my own skin.
Now you may have read of the concept of making friends with your inner critic. Perhaps for you that’s the way to go, but for me I decided that enough was enough. I decided to turn my back on the bitch, as I would if it were a real person, a person who won’t desist from pointing out what they think is wrong with me and giving me ‘friendly’ advice as to how I could improve.
Because the crux of the matter is that we won’t tolerate that kind of censure from a stranger or a friend, so why should that little voice be given free reign to criticise and demoralise? Why shouldn’t I simply turn away from it? And this was my ‘ah-ha’ moment.
A friend once told me that, as a young adult, they believed that we should ‘train’ our parents to behave in a way that gives us freedom to be adults, to blossom and to nurture our self-esteem. If parents say they’re coming visiting, then my friend recommended not bending to their requirements or timetable. Your life doesn’t have to go on hold and you don’t have to pretend to be the perfect child or to blend in with their lives. Neither do you need to be unkind, but you can assertively establish boundaries and, on occasions, you can simply say ‘no’ without giving a reason. You have this right, in any situation, even with parents, and it’s good to remember it and exercise it from time to time. Like a muscle, it will get stronger with more use.
And somehow I feel these two issues are related, the inner critic and the concept of training our parents, whether living or passed. For the inner critic can be seen as a reflection of a parent’s voice; it’s partly our imagination’s imprint of past criticism that we carry with us through into adulthood. Parents are not to blame for this; don’t forget that they have the same little voice in their heads too, probably telling them that their parenting skills are lacking. But that’s another whole subject for a whole other day…
Okay, so how exactly do we turn our back on the critic? The first difficulty with trying to implement any of this is actually recognising the little voice when we hear it or when we feel its effect. It’s not always obvious at all, sometimes it’s just a sudden feeling of something not being quite right, a drop in confidence or an idle obsession with a certain aspect of ourselves or our lives.
My experience is that if things are generally fine in my life (that is, I have no immediate crises) but I’m still not feeling carefree and confident then that little voice is at work. Don’t forget that the critic will take any little thing and blow it out of proportion, even things that have been fine for a long time.
I might suddenly have anxiety about my finances, even though I’ve been managing rather well and nothing significant has changed. The little voice can make me uncertain about my ability to continue in my job or my relationship, make my hairstyle and clothes (that I was really quite happy with yesterday) seem like a crime against fashion today. I’m learning to recognise these moments as opportunities to build a better me, to turn my back on what the little voice is telling me because I finally see that ‘the problem is not the problem’. I’m fine as I am, I just need to show my critic that I will not be listening to it any longer.
And so what exactly was my small shift of perspective that I was initially talking about? This epiphany that has made all the difference? Well it’s simply that, if you can learn to recognise that the inner critic is at play (and it very often is), then that immediately releases a huge amount of pressure. You can take a deep breath and remind yourself that your hair isn’t really that bad (and what does it matter anyway), that the bags under your eyes aren’t really that noticeable, and that you really are a rather nice person after all, worthy of love and a happy, contented life. This small change of perspective will make you take a step back before you get tunnelled down a spiral of self-doubt and sent into a panic of trying to ‘fix’ everything about you. The truth is that you’re fine as you are. In fact you’re more than fine. You’re magnificent.