The Inner Critic

asian girl shouting with flying papers around

It’s a voice we probably all know, though I can only speak for myself. For as long as I can remember, it has been the default setting to hold myself to account for my mistakes, to strive to be better – at least, that’s what I thought I was doing. Only since starting therapy 2 years ago have I become aware of just how toxic this voice can be, and the detrimental effect it has had on my life.

Here’s what i’m dealing with at the moment. It’s a steady stream:

  • I’m fat
  • I’ve failed at everything i’ve tried
  • My writing is crap
  • My bass playing is embarrassingly bad
  • I’m bang average at everything
  • I’m pathetic
  • I shouldn’t have shared what i’ve shared. Nobody cares. I should be big enough to keep it to myself and get on with it
  • My past wasn’t that bad, plenty of people just get on with it, what makes me so special?
  • I need to just man up and stop complaining
  • I’m a fucking idiot (because I slightly overcooked some potatoes on Sunday, or dropped something, or made a small mistake, banged a door, whatever)
  • My blog is a farce. It’s not going to change anything. Nobody reads it, nobody cares, everyone else’s is better
  • I’m going to fail at therapy, just like I failed at everything else
  • People who say nice things to me are disingenuous
  • Every compliment i’ve ever received wasn’t real
  • I am weak
  • I lack courage and commitment
  • My daughter doesn’t know it yet, but she will hate me
  • I’m a toxic influence on everyone around me
  • I’m broken
  • I don’t deserve anything good

For the last 3 or 4 days, these thoughts have been swarming me. This used to be my way of life to be honest, and it’s been a while since it was this bad.

I think a couple of things triggered it. On Friday I was taking part in a twitter chat and realised that there was someone in there who had blocked me. I had no idea until then, and don’t know why. I know it shouldn’t bother me, but it did. It started a tiny thread of doubt and anxiety, which has gradually grown. I want to know what i’ve done to upset someone. I have logical thoughts about it – perhaps my content is triggering, for example – but all I can think is that i’ve made a mistake and upset someone, and I just can’t stand it.

Undoubtedly that’s the fear of making a mistake as a child and fearing the consequences. For God’s sake i’m a grown man and this SHOULD NOT bother me. The fact it does is just making things worse.

The other thing was because I recorded myself playing bass. I had been really loving playing again, and someone mentioned that they would like to hear my play. So I looked into making a recording. I captured a video and a few things were very apparent. I am crap, oh, and I am fat and disgusting. Shameful to look at.

Every time, every SINGLE time I try to do something I seem to fail. I am not good at anything, and it is constant fuel for the critic fire. The voice inside that always goes back to the bollocking I got from my Dad aged 7 when I kicked the ball over our fence – “you think you’re fucking Pele but you’re NOT!”. That seems to be a line in the sand for some reason. I’m sure plenty of people have worse experiences that don’t haunt them, but for me it stuck and I think about it a lot. The message is clear – don’t try because you are shit.

Sadly, there are countless examples of things I haven’t even tried because of fear of failure. As well as the many i’ve given up and just felt bad about.

Look, i’m not that naive, I don’t think i’m the only one who has a fear of failure. I’m just thinking about the origins of this negative voice that narrates my whole life. I’m in no doubt that it’s the voice of my parents, but magnified over the years.

When i’m in a bad place, this voice is rife. It keeps me failing, keeps me down, makes me give up. I’m aware of the suggestion that this is a part of me that’s trying to protect me. Perhaps it started that way – stay out of trouble, don’t do that thing because you don’t want to be humiliated again…etc. but now, it’s out of control.

One thing i’ve tried to take from therapy is to think about whether you would talk to your loved ones with the same voice. Obviously, I wouldn’t. Some people would – very abusive people. If someone makes a small mistake, do you immediately scold them and tell them how pathetic they are? No, but that’s what I do to myself.

The voice works on many levels. It’s the same one telling me that my whole life is a joke, as it is telling me im a fucking idiot for splashing the chopped tomatoes when I was cooking yesterday. It’s there whenever I make a mistake.

Even when good things do happen – a promotion at work, a good performance on the cricket pitch, when I was awarded my PhD, they are so difficult to enjoy. I can only think about the negatives – i’m still below where I should be at work, or the promotion was just because i’ve been around, or someone else deserves it more than me, i’m a fraud. Or I just got lucky at cricket, next week i’ll be crap again, or this level is so low I shouldn’t be celebrating meagre achievements. Or my PhD was a waste of 7 years, I still had loads of corrections, I did a bad job in the examination etc.

If i’m truly honest, and this is the most difficult bit to write, when i’m in this mood I am very unkind to others as well. I find that i’m constantly comparing myself to others and feeling negative about it, in a very selfish and unkind way. I’m not always like this, and the ME that I am trying to be, is not like this at all. But the demon in me still is…

It’s things like, seeing someone else’s blog get traction and being jealous, bitter, and then turning on myself. Seeing someone’s achievement and simultaneously feeling jealous and attacking myself for not being good enough. Or seeing people supporting each other on Twitter and feeling like nobody gives a shit about me. It’s when I realise i’m not the best at anything, in fact i’m a million miles away. I can’t be happy for other people because all I see is further framing of my failure. Nothing will ever be good enough. If I won the lottery, i’d want more. If I won an Olympic gold medal, I would convince myself I didn’t deserve it.

Like I said, i’m not always like this. I am the positive person more often than not these days, and in those times I can enjoy other people’s success, be truly pleased about their happiness, and genuinely care about them without using it as another stick to beat myself with. As with everything I write in this blog, I want to be honest because if we don’t talk about the uncomfortable stuff then we will never learn.

The Inner Critic is a dangerous foe. It can trap you, stop you from participating, stop you from growing, stop you from making or keeping friends. It can make you feel so bad about yourself that there seems to be no way out, no path forward. It can also turn outwards. You can find yourself thinking incredibly critically about other people. Again, i’m not proud of it, but I can be corrosive in my thoughts about other people, just as I am about myself. None of it is fair. I can’t seem to find a balanced perspective very often. I often wonder whether people who are so openly critical of others are just voicing their inner critic, and don’t realise it?

So I guess at least having this awareness about myself is positive? But, if anybody does read this, I wonder what they will think about having this insight into my mind? I’m sure it would make people uneasy to think that under the surface i’m seething, about myself and others.

I don’t really know how to end this (critic tells me, that’s because you’re shit at writing, you don’t plan, your posts are meandering rubbish, but don’t worry, nobody will read it anyway). I’m hopeful that i’ll feel better before long.

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