are you being critical enough of your own self-criticisms?
Q Train by Nigel Van Wieck (1990)
I’m an extremely critical person. I’m not proud of that, but I’m also not trying particularly hard to change it. I think it’s one of my core strengths and definitely my greatest weakness — I’m able to dissect precisely what makes a thing work and what’s holding it back. I want things to feel pure, unabashed, and clear in their convictions.
Which is great — except for the fact that it’s nearly impossible not to wear this hyper-critical lens while looking at myself too. Framed positively, this is the most potent “growth mindset” imaginable. Framed negatively, this is being fucking brutal towards myself. And unfortunately, the latter is a much stronger motivator: self-flagellation and withholding satisfaction are addictive in the way that they produce consistent results.
My critical voices go something like this:
I’m a fraud and don’t deserve the opportunities I’ve been given
I can’t commit or stick to things
I’m a disappointment to all of the people that I respect
Now, none of these voices have particularly strong evidence to back themselves up — and yet they persist, relentlessly. They’re the product of an acutely critical eye, an intense upbringing that I internalized, and a high dose of naturally-occurring conscientiousness. The voices find immense pleasure in discovering evidence that proves them “right.” They go something like “yeah, I knew it! This is exactly why you should always listen to me.”
For better or worse, almost all of my accomplishments have been made possible by self-hatred. It’s hard to push past mediocrity without sacrificing a certain degree of safety — and that’s easiest done by pulling from your card catalog of reasons why you don’t deserve the luxury of comfort. But relishing in self-hatred is a slippery slope towards self-destruction — whether that be from action or inaction. The inactive form is especially pernicious: it feels excruciatingly difficult to ship things when your standard is nothing less than excellence in the eyes of the people you most respect.
Despite all this, I still believe being critical is good. Relentlessly examining all the ways that things could be better allows you to recognize and replicate quality while developing a taste for objective truth. The only bug is that these same benefits get short-circuited in the case of your internal criticisms — your ear is positioned simply way too close to your voices to see them fully enough to critique them.
This wouldn’t be a problem if they were based in fact. But they usually aren’t — critical voices are mostly built of feelings. Visceral feelings, to be sure, but entirely subjective and unrooted in reality all the same. Why does that matter? It matters because if you want to hate yourself less, it’s crucial you find ways to step back and evaluate your voices objectively.
This is the part I think most people get wrong when trying to help critically-inclined people feel more satisfaction: reciting affirmations or “being nicer towards yourself” is basically bullshit advice because it’s asking us to go against our entire nature — the very nature that has been both rewarded and refined into one of our most valuable assets out in the external world.
Instead, I think we need to be just as critical of our voices as they are of us. Don’t let them get away with flimsy arguments for why you suck simply because those arguments feel “right.” That’s bullshit too — something you’ll realize the more you cultivate an internal taste for truth and see how fast that “right” feeling fades. The voices were never “right” in any meaningful way, they just felt comfortable to you because they were familiar.
Backing away from your voices allows you to piece out the kernels of truth embedded in each of their undertones. In my case:
I haven’t achieved anything I’m proud of yet and want to feel like I’ve earned my spot
I want to commit to something and hold myself to it
I want to do something worthy of respect from the people whom I respect
Which feels… much more manageable. And maybe that’s the hidden gem of being extremely critical: it gives you a lot of signal on what you want out of life — or at least to start, a lot of signal on what you don’t want. High standards are an essential ingredient to excellence and to be completely honest, I’m quite uninterested in doing anything less than excellent.