For years, I would have answered the question, “Who is your harshest critic?” like so:
Many of the people I work with in therapy also say that they are their own harshest critics. Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Narrative Therapy, and other proven techniques, we acknowledge the harm of that harsh criticism and reduce its toxicity.
There are times in my life when my answer to the question, “Who is your harshest critic?” would be, “It’s not me.” I remember, decades ago, when I agonized over whether to leave my job as a writer at a technology company, which had not worked out as I expected. I said many harshly critical things to myself (including “you make terrible decisions!” “what makes you think you’ll find a better job?”) as I went through the painful process of pros and cons about staying or leaving. One of the obvious advantages of leaving was that I did not respect management at that company, so I did end up resigning. Before I left, one of the top managers said harsh things to me, including labeling me “a quitter” and somebody not capable of sticking to things that are challenging and difficult. Once this man externalized my internal harsh criticism, I was able to recognize the unfairness in his reaction, stand up straight, look him in the eye, and say, “That’s not true. I’m leaving because I know I can be happier elsewhere.”
I’ll never forget how good that felt — to directly confront those harsh messages and say, “That’s not true.”
Since becoming a therapist, I’ve done a therapeutic exercise in groups where people write down their harsh internal criticisms and we externalize them. Somebody in the group reads the harsh critical statement out loud, and the person gets a chance to respond back, sometimes being coached by others. It’s always inspiring to witness people challenge their internalized harsh critics, replacing those old and toxic messages with more accepting and helpful ones.
Last night, when I performed my latest original song, “It’s Not Me,” about a toxically critical person, I became my harshest critic, again. For one thing, I went on immediately after the featured performer, a 13-year-old prodigy “– The Mighty Quinn” — who blew out the joint with his fiddle playing and his singing. Here’s a photo of Quinn and his father:
They were the proverbial tough act to follow. I considered saying, “Let’s hear it for my opening act!” before I started performing, but I harshly criticized that and said something else instead. As I started playing, I realized that my ukulele was out of tune. I blanked on something I wanted to say, and I didn’t like that I needed to use a cheat sheet to remember some of the chords and words. After I finished, I sat down, ignoring the applause and the positive comments from people in the audience, listening, instead, to my harsh inner critic.
I then asked my new co-worker and friend, Alice (who is also a musician), whether she felt bad when her performances weren’t up to her own standards. She said many supportive things, including, “I think you’ll feel better when you watch the recording.”
And, when I watched the recording later, I did feel better. I let go of the role of my own harshest critic and, as always, it felt great! Here‘s the recording, which Alice made:
When I watch this, I use one of my helpful phrases: “It’s good enough AND I can make it better.”
In the past, I’ve been the harshest critic of my blog writing and my photographs, like these:
For now, I’m celebrating not being my own harshest critic.
Thanks to all who helped me create today’s post and — of course — to YOU, for your kind acceptance (of me and yourself) (I hope!)