The Self-Critic – An Entry by DW Brown

The Self-Critic

by DW Brown

The normal person has within them a judging presence: judging themselves. And, given
how much this entity, with its whip of shame, dominates our hours and dictates the
course of our lives, let’s take a moment to turn the tables and critique this critic. The
mechanism of self-criticism prides itself on being stark and acute and having a lock on
the ultimate truth about us, certain in its opinions of how we’ve measured up so far, and
how we’re doing in each unfolding moment. Its assessment is essentially based on two

– Whether a thought or an impulse (or the lack of an impulse) is considered
disgraceful or forgivable. {“A sufficient amount of time is passed since I’ve
eaten, so I’m entitled to be hungry.”}

– Whether our behavior would increase or diminish the amount of praise that we
deserve. {“A sophisticated person wouldn’t have tripped on the step.”}

Our ethics are largely developed in order to assimilate with a preferred group (largely
peers ages 9-14), and we bow down in consent to self-criticism’s authority assuming it
represents these core values. But does it always and exclusively reflect what we
genuinely believe? I once absent-mindedly missed an exit off the freeway and, alone in
the car, I began shouting insults at myself. Hearing my voice echoing in the car that day,
I became clearly aware that if I’d been sitting in the passenger seat, with someone else
driving, I’d never treat them this way… even somebody I wasn’t particularly fond of,
never mind a person I actually wished well.

Much of our snarly behavior is born of feeling like cornered animals. Contemptuous of
ourselves, we flare with outrage at any hint of disrespect from others. We condemn
people to displace the caustic blame we would otherwise have to take on personally. We
lash out at spouses and children who, having gotten enmeshed in the self-critic’s
jurisdiction, are punished for being a bad reflection on us. And, in a rank failure of the
self-critic’s purported mission to create a better human being, we reject as attacks helpful
instruction that, had we been open to it, might have actually made us one. Further, we
deny comfort to those who need it because we hear in their expressions of pain only
accusations of fault for not having prevented it.

It’s curious we give such unconditional power to this voice of discontent considering how
essentially dreary it is. If you met this being in the flesh you’d think there was something
wrong with the person. If they showed up in a story, you’d immediately peg them for a
bad guy: the humorless prig frowning down on the cheerful, forgiving hero. But, a clear-
eyed evaluation of this mechanism tends to be fraught because the self-critic, like all
good tyrants, is keenly on guard for attempts to diminish its supremacy. Entertaining the
idea of perhaps dialing back on some of this ruthless criticism arouses suspicion whether
or not these are the same thoughts that all “losers” have, and the chill of possibly finding
yourself ranked among the weak-minded, inadequate and dishonorable.

Recognized or not, however, the methods we use to cope with the self-critic are at the
heart of some very costly behaviors. We intoxicate ourselves with substances and indulge
in all manner of addictive and dangerous acts, seeking a shot of adrenaline that can make
the immediacy of the moment override our bleak judgments and shut this thing up, if only
for a moment. There are costs, impossible to measure, for the aspirations never pursued
out of fear of the self-critic’s outrage at unfamiliar disappointments. A calculation is
made that it’s better to suffer a grinding ache than face lacerating retribution for the sin of
not knowing your place. What is often interpreted as someone’s aloofness and pride (as
well as their “loser” status) is their hesitance to take a misstep and have their self-critic
slam the hell out of them for it. And then there’s the price, maybe in its own way worst of
all: it makes you lonely. Having the powerful self-critic constantly focused on you alone
defines experience as a solitary venture.

To be human is to experience a multiplicity of nameless, ambiguous shades. Even formal
science has come to put a premium on a respect for the mysterious. I don’t have to labor
the point: virtually every great mind has championed the value of wonder. Put well, if
strangely, by Georges Poulet: “To understand is almost the opposite of existing.” This
unassailable truth can be used to put that know-it- all self-critic in its place. There’s
nothing dumber than to think you’re smart. And an even more potent, pacifying force is
available constantly close at hand: THE WILL TO LIVE.

When I’m emotionally in a bad way, I’ve found it helpful (if I can remember to do it) to
think to myself, “Have I ever been more alive than I am at this moment?” That thing that
exists, whole and undivided in each who has ever lived, delights in itself. The trumpet of
a goose, the breaching of a whale, my dog flopping around on her back… Look around
you. Life wants nothing so much as to rejoice. A habit of frequent celebration can reduce
the darkness towards which self-criticism tends. The self-critic’s authority is based on its
claim of pursuing the highest good. There can be no higher good than demonstrating a
reverence for Life. You honor Life when you embody healthy joy. Visualize what is
praiseworthy in human behavior to include a good measure of exuberance. Visualize the
happiest state possible to imagine experiencing and, with occasional exceptions, strive to
live that way all the time. Being happy is being wise.

Of course, a proper life has balance. We must exercise the discipline to push through
good pain and contribute our fair share. You’ve been blessed with this infinite miracle of
life and each moment you are rightly being asked, “What are you going to do with this
gift?” But as a piece of life yourself, as real and worthwhile as anything that has ever
been, you’re entitled to answer back, “I’m going to enjoy it!”

[Inspired by the work of Adam Phillips.]


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