Health, Living Life, Readings, Relationships

Understanding the Self-Critic

This last year, I've been diving in full-throttle in identity work and self betterment. This investigation has required a tremendous amount of deconstruction, reconstruction, and a deep sense of self awareness. Here are some findings. So, I'm a Tiger Daughter. I was raised with a perfectionist Tiger Mom who expected a lot of her kids, who really wanted us to take on a lot and be tough asses. And we did. Well, at least my brothers were fantastic at the hard sciences. I wasn't. I was good at.... err... drawing, and... watching people.

Anyway, my mom doesn't reign over my life anymore (that's a completely different story), but there's this internal voice that is represented as mom's voice within my head. For most of my decisions, it's a matter of "Does she approve? Does she not? Will I make her proud? Will I be accepted? Will I be criticized for this?" Growing up in my parents' house, this used to actually be her, and she was the cause of all the anxiety in every decision I made. I'm not anywhere near nor close emotionally to my mom right now by choice, but I still have those thoughts in my head in all my big decisions.

When I make mistakes, it's brutal. Rather, I'm brutal. I'm relentless, unforgiving, viciously toxic to myself. To the point where I've lived most of my life feeling like I'm broken: I don't fit in, I'm not good enough to be with that person, I can't do what normal people do, I'm inadequate in every way. We're all critical about ourselves, but I think there's a different class of self-criticism and ingrained anxiety for those raised by Tiger Moms.


Along this journey, I've been actively trying to undo the damage my self-critic demons have caused. I've been reading a book called Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff. Here are some of the things I've been learning:

  • To make ourselves feel better about our selves, we tend to think we're better than others in some aspects. These "self-enhancing" traits are dependent on the values of the culture. For example, "Whereas Americans tend to think they're more independent, self-reliant, original, and leader-like than the average American, Asians tend to think they're more cooperative, self-sacrificing, respectful, and humble than their peers" (Neff, 20).This relates to our tendency not only to view ourselves as better and more superior than others (for human being, animal, instinctual social reasons), but we view others as worse. We do this so that we won't be ousted or cast out by our social groups, so that we can exist somewhere in the hierarchy — we are social animals, after all.  "When we are always seeing the worst in others, our perception becomes obscured by a dark cloud of negativity. Our thoughts become malevolent, and this is the mental world we then inhabit... By putting others down to puff ourselves up, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face, creating and maintaining the state of disconnection and isolation we actually want to avoid" (Neff, 21).
  • Self-criticism is a kind of safety behavior to make sure we can still be accepted by the larger social group. It's a kind of submissive behavior. Like, "I know I messed up. I'm gonna beat you to it -- you don't need to tell me cuz I already know. Don't criticize me or judge me, please, cuz I already know. Sympathize for me, please, and let me know I'm not as fucked up as I think I am." Neff notes that this "stems from the natural desire not to be rejected and abandoned" (24). It makes me think about those of us who have core themes of rejection and abandonment. Are we waayyy more self critical?
  • On critical parents and worthiness: "People with critical parents learn the message early on that they are so bad and flawed that they have no right to be accepted for who they are." They are often both the good cop and bad cop: rewarder and punisher. "This leads to fear and distrust among children, who soon come to believe that only by being perfect will they be worthy of love."Perfectionism becomes something to strive for because it then takes away any reason for people to criticize the child. "Self-criticism will prevent them from making future mistakes, thereby circumventing others' criticism. At the very least, they can blunt the force of others' criticism by making it redundant. A verbal assault doesn't have quite the same power when it merely repeats what you've already said to yourself" (25-26).
  • It's also related to control. If we are blamed for our mistakes, then that means we are solely responsible for our failures, regardless of external factors and internal responses. This is unfair to ourselves because we don't always have control.
  •  On dating and attraction: we look for relationships that validate who we believe we are ("self-verification theory"). "They want their self-views to be validated because it helps to provide a sense of stability in their lives... Even people who make strong negative evaluations of themselves follow this pattern They seek to interact with others who dislike them, so that their experiences will be more familiar and coherent.""Self-critics are often attracted to judgmental romantic partners who confirm their feelings of worthlessness. The certainty of rejection feels safer than not knowing what to expect next" (30-31).

This part is so fucked up. And I've done this. Lead myself into a situation where I know it's absolutely detrimental to my well-being because I didn't value myself. It's like finding validation like, "YUP. Rejected. I knew I'm not good enough." It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Choosing to be around people that are toxic as a form of punishing myself for my faults and as proof that they'll eventually reject me, further proving that I'm not good enough. It becomes a kind of setting up for self-deprecation. When I was feeling at my lowest of lows, it was hard to accept that someone valued me greatly and wanted me — I actually couldn't bear to be around them. I chose to be around others that made me feel inadequate, insecure, judgmental in order to punish myself and reinforce how broken I was.

How often do we put ourselves in these situations in order to recreate and perpetuate our self-critic's core beliefs?