Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we are “perfect,” then we’ll be loved.
I remember as a child perceiving academic achievement as the golden ticket to my family’s heart. Measurable success was highly valued in my family’s culture, as was having a bottomless well of intrinsic scholastic motivation.
I saw my older brother and both of my parents as possessing these qualities in spades, while I with my undiagnosed ADHD and penchant for procrastination felt like a stranger in a strange land in my own family.
Feeling loved, accepted, and understood are our most primal needs. When these needs aren’t met, we may find ourselves acting in ways that deplete or disconnect us from our authentic selves in an attempt to regain that lost sense of security.
Perfectionism is really a desperate attempt to control, to feel seen, to be accepted. We believe that if our grades are good enough, if we look pretty enough, if we achieve enough we will be loved and we can be assured that we will have love to keep.
Over time this perfectionist voice takes over our lives and leads us to believe we’re not okay deep down inside. We come to believe that we don’t have a right to our feelings, that we’re not that special, or that our imperfections are more legitimate than our gifts.
This voice becomes a guiding force. It tells us that success must happen at all costs. It tells us that our feelings make us weak. It questions our intuition. It takes us away from being present in our bodies. It keeps us from finishing or even starting creative projects. It tells us that our feelings are unimportant or not valid.
Perfectionist mindset ultimately robs us of who we are. It has the opposite effect that we originally intended it to have: it prevents people from knowing and loving us. It cuts people off from the real us and the real us becomes buried beneath a shiny façade that we’re desperately scrambling to maintain.
For me this translated into an academic career steeped in alternating panic and self-flagellation. I would put off assignments and studying until the last possible moment because I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. Then, when it was down to the wire and the adrenaline was pumping, I’d plow through, cursing myself every step along the way for not being more disciplined.
I graduated from college with honors, but the cost was an inner-critic with a voracious appetite for finding fault with pretty much everything I did in life.
How did I make peace with this voice? By developing a relationship with it.
Here are some things I learned along the way:
1. Your inner critic wants to feel loved and appreciated just like you do, and just like you, it’s exhausted with having to maintain a façade in exchange for the love and acknowledgement of others.
It’s worth noting that your inner critic has served a vital role in your life. It protected you and allowed you to survive a situation that might otherwise have been too overwhelming or too traumatic to bear. It kept you from being rejected and shielded you from more pain and shame.
When you develop a dialogue with your inner critic, you will discover that it’s the voice of the child that never grew up because she never got her needs met.
2. You’re the only one that can ever really meet the needs of your inner critic—and the only one that can fill the hole in left in her heart by the people she once depended on.
Your inner critic represents an extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable part of you. It is the result of childhood messages you received from your early caregivers—the people that were supposed to shower you with unconditional love and acceptance but instead projected their own issues on to you through criticism or rejection.
Meet the needs of your inner critic by recognizing her and accepting her as a legitimate part of yourself, not something to be shunned or conquered.
3. One of the best ways to allow your inner critic to be heard is to communicate authentically through journaling.
Check in with her and ask her how she is doing today. Invite her to tell you anything she feels is important for you to know about your life. Let her know that you will listen closely and carefully consider anything she has to say.
Do this in an atmosphere of unconditional love and unconditional acceptance in the same way you would with a small child that is hungry for soothing.
Like the small children that our inner critics aim to protect, our inner-critics crave a confident, empathic leader, clear boundaries, and open, loving dialogue.
For me, as I learned to help my inner critic to feel more secure and peaceful, I diminished its power over me.
I helped it slowly to grow up.
I still dialogue with my inner critic constantly and keeping my relationship with it loving and respectful keeps myself loving and respectful as well.
The funny thing is that my relationships with everyone else are all the better for it.
Author: Amy Beth Acker
Editor: Renée Picard