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How do you see yourself?
It’s an easy question isn’t it? Maybe it’s not.
Do we see ourselves in a positive or negative light?
On second thought, it’s definitely not an easy question.
How we see ourselves is dependent upon how we perceive our effect on the world and how we perceive how the world treats us and reacts to us. Our parents and siblings are our first litmus test of this. Did our parents nurture us and give us acceptance and love? Did they treat us harshly and admonish our behavior or appearance? Did our siblings argue with us and show resentment for our very existence?
Each interaction with others – family, friends, neighbors, teachers, classmates – teaches us about our power to finish a task, earn a smile, praise or a high-five. Each time we succeed or fail in anything we are shaped by that very thing. Each time a parent gives us a proud smile, a loving hug, a statement of approval, or a slap of anger, a word of judgment, or a glance of ridicule – we are shaped by that. Those experiences, large and small, shape who we believe we are and shape of our dreams or nightmares.
I read once that what others think of you is not your business. I believe that at one time or another we have all been curious about what others think of us, we may have even bent over backwards to make sure (as if we really had any control over it) that someone else thought highly of us. But I know that anyone else’s opinion of me is none of my business and highly irrelevant. It’s what I think of me that counts.
How do I see myself? The question is still lingering in midair like a feather floating on a soft breeze.
I grew up in suburban Long Island, NY, came of age in the 1980s, and usually had a pretty positive sense of who I was. I came from a neurotic, slightly dysfunctional, but loving household where I felt appreciated. I had a few very caring, trustworthy friends and faced challenges that I feel I handled well, despite a few mistakes. I sought solace in therapy and with those I trusted and confided in and somehow either succeeded to meet the challenges I faced or at least was resilient enough to not be daunted by them or dissuaded from my dreams. I love those things about myself. And yet, even with a successful, highly meaningful career of more than 24 years, even though I have raised two amazing young adults well on their way to forging their own identities in this world, even though I have started a growing art business and have had my work exhibited across Long Island, even though I have some very dear friends who are loving and generous, and even though I have a fabulous husband who I have been friends with for over 33 years, I still say horribly mean things to myself on a daily basis. Things I would be reluctant to say aloud and would never say or even think about another person.
Why, you ask? I have no logical idea, but I do have an emotional one. I have battled a minor weight problem my whole life, as did my mother. But so what, you say. Millions of people deal with that and it doesn’t matter much at all – you are still a great person. My brain says you are right. My heart screams “bullshit!” Every day I am surrounded by gorgeous, slim, fit, shapely teenage girls. Everywhere I look there they are. Even rolling out of bed and rushing to school sans makeup, wearing the pajamas they slept in, they are gorgeous and as fresh faced as a Noxema commercial. Then I look in the mirror. I see an aging 51-year-old woman who is carrying around about 5o extra pounds. I look at myself subjectively through a highly distorted lens. Then I hear my audible voice reminding my inner voice, the mean bitch that she is, of the age difference. Those girls are only children. Younger than my own daughter. If you insist on comparing yourself, the audible voice continues, look at the women your own age, then you will not look so bad. It’s about perspective.
In Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, she recalls a time when she asked the women, in her erudite literary group, this very question. How did they see themselves? Their answers were extraordinary and profound considering they lived in the totalitarian state of modern Iran in the 1990s. One young woman “saw herself as a fog, moving over concrete objects, taking on their form but never becoming concrete herself” (75). Once described “herself as a figment” (75), another as the “Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word paradox” (75). “Implicit in almost all their descriptions was the way they saw themselves in the context of an outside reality that prevented them from defining themselves clearly and separately” (75). These women live in an oppressive culture in which women are subjugated and suspected of insidious and scandalous things daily and this prevents them from living a full, unique, fulfilled, free life. They feel like ghosts of their own selves. They don’t fully see themselves as anything since they are always hiding, always on the sidelines of their own lives.
Ask any teenage girl and she might say that she thinks of herself as less than or not good enough, not thin enough, pretty enough or smart enough. She has internalized what she perceives as the expectations of the media, her parents, her girlfriends, and the boys in her school. All of these self-descriptions are highly likely to be wrong, highly judgmental, highly negative and very hurtful as she feels that she doesn’t measure up to the people around her. This “shame, sometimes called the “master emotion,” is the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good—that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core. Beating ourselves up is a preemptive gambit to inoculate ourselves from external shaming” (Silencing Your Inner Critic, Psychology Today, March 2009). Shame keeps us perpetually vulnerable and keeps us from living our best lives and inhibits us from making ourselves proud with our accomplishments because many of us stop taking the risks that would give us the opportunity to grow and shine. Those exact experiences that would negate the shameful inadequacy we feel. Shame is such a big deal in our lives that Brene Brown said that by learning to be shame resilient we can reconnect our self-compassion while detangling the web of feelings and experiences that cause our shame (Shame Resilience Theory).
Emily Prouin, says that our own emotions are what are holding us back and in her article How We See Ourselves and How We See Others says, that people “are immersed in their own sensations, emotions, and cognitions at the same time that their experience of others is dominated by what can be observed externally. This basic asymmetry has broad consequences. It leads people to judge themselves and their own behavior differently from how they judge others and those others’ behavior. Often, those differences produce disagreement and conflict” (Science, May 2008). The hurtful things we say to ourselves are based upon our emotions in the moment. The the self-critical, every demanding, judgmental, insulting inner voice many/most of us hear in our inner dialogue is a mean SOB. We would never judge anyone we know as consistently harsh as we judge ourselves.
I teach high school English and I was just talking about this exact thing with my seniors. We are reading Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, and were discussing why Bernard felt self-consciously about himself just because he was an inch or so shorter than other Alpha-pluses (men in his, the highest, caste). No one had said anything derisive to him or treated him badly becasue of his stature. His emotional make-up, which he spends quite a bit of the novel trying to ignore, causes him to feel awkward, shameful, and vulnerable and to degrade himself in his inner dialogue.
Why is it that we can hear a thousand compliments and kindness from others, but we don’t believe them or let them seep into us as heartily as the one negative, judgmental thing we say to ourselves? Why do our mean, horrid thoughts have so much power as we compare ourselves to others or some annoying perceived expectation? We would never say any of those judgmental comments, that we hurl at ourselves, to others. If someone else spoke to us the way we speak to ourselves we’d be pissed! And rightly so. Why do we tolerate it? Why do we persist in this self-demeaning way? I don’t know, but it sucks.
What can we do about this? How can we learn to see ourselves in a better, most likely more truthful and valuable light?
For an exhibition in January 2020, each woman in my art group has been asked to create a self-portrait in whatever medium we typically work. I am tasked with painting my own portrait. I have to visualize how I see myself and paint it for everyone to see. This is a big dilemma. What shall I paint?
Shall I paint myself tall and strong with long wavy brown hair? Do I paint my whole self or just my head? Do I add things that I love like books, music and art? Do I include other people like my husband or my children? My fuzzy and cozy kitties? Do I paint myself in full sun or in shadow? In what clothing? There are a thousand questions and no answer until the inspiration hits. But one thing is clear, in order to do this and be happy with the result, I have to silence my inner judgmental bitch and learn to ignore her completely throughout this whole process. (Will this process and the result be her demise?)
How can I learn to silence her and be kinder to myself? As with everything, I go to the research. Here are some suggestions.
Don’t listen as in follow its admonishments. Listen to hear what you are actually saying to yourself about yourself. By listening carefully to what you are saying, often you can hear how ridiculous and unfounded those harsh criticisms and comparisons that make you feel vulnerable and inadequate are, and begin to diffuse or ignore them (5 Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic).
This is technique uses the actual language we use against us and reshapes it, which diffuses it’s power. “To self-distance, one replaces the first-person pronoun I with a non-first-person pronoun, you or he/she, when talking to themselves (Elena, what happened is no reflection on your abilities. You were surprised by his question during the interview but now you know what to do. It’s called experience.)” (Silencing Your Inner Critic, Psychology Today, March 2009). This grammatical shift allows you to remove the direct emotionality of your self-recrimination and shift from first person, or a less personal point of view, giving yourself the distance to pause, take a step back, and think more objectively and rationally, diffusing the emotion.
Once emotions cool, “use story editing to stop reverting to that negative cycle over and over again…A story edit offers a way to reframe or revise a negative experience” (Silencing Your Inner Critic, Psychology Today, March 2009). This is what I did by forcing myself to see the unfair comparisons I was subjecting myself to and recognizing that unfairness. This did help diffuse my own suffering as a result of my own self-badgering and I did begin to look more kindly and compassionately at myself.
Not since Saturday Night Lives’ Guy Smiley made self-affirmations fun have they ever been more appropriate than when we are trying to stop our inner judgmental bitch. We can talk to ourselves very directly and list all the objective evidence that refutes the negative self-criticism. I am a strong and kind person. I am a wonderful mother. I am an attractive woman. I am a talented artist. For each fact, I can objectively point to proof that that is true. For each fact, I can remind myself how amazing I am. And I’ve learned that facts quiet my inner mean girl.
Go back into your memories to the time when your inner critic was born. What were the circumstances surrounding that causal event(s)? Did something significant happen? Did your grandmother express critical views of you that you internalized? By going back to your childhood, when this began, you can cognitively recognize where the inner critic came from and over time, unpack all the shame and guilt from that time and put it behind you. Learning to forgive our inner children from having been hurt elicits self-compassion, which is the hero in this battle. We all strive for self-compassion. Ask yourself, would you say any of these mean things to your five-year-old self? To your best friend? To your co-worker across the office with the sad eyes? To the person you sat next to on the train? Of course not. You would never. It would be too hurtful. Aha!! So, stop saying them to yourself!
In reality, we may need to use several or all of these techniques to learn to quiet the inner, judgy, mean girl, but with persistence and practice we can do it. Paint a beautiful and strong self-portrait in your mind and frame it with love, patience, and kindness.