Monday, 6 February 2017

On self-criticism and fear.

(cartoon by Liana finck)

I am not always very good at being nice to myself. I’ve addressed this briefly in other blog posts in relation to my anxiety, but I wanted to give it its own post, because it’s an issue I’ve been struggling with especially recently.

I’m writing this from my bed right now. I’ve got an essay due in tomorrow evening, which I haven’t done any reading for, but I woke up this morning feeling fluey and tired and all my plans to have a productive day and do some exercise have gone out the window. I know that what I need is to rest, but there is a voice in the back of my head saying ‘you’re lazy’, ‘get up, you’re not even ill’, ‘it’s going to be a crap essay, like last week, if you don’t start work now’, ‘why are you so bad at managing your time - you should have worked more over the weekend’. It’s relatively quiet right now, but it's there.

Some weeks it’s really really loud. I’ll slip up and say something stupid, and spend the rest of the day inwardly abusing myself - ‘why do you always do this’, ‘why do people even like you’, ‘you should just stop talking altogether’. My essays are never good enough. If I forget to do an admin job, or miss a meeting with someone, I convince myself that they’ll hate me, that I’m incompetent, that I should never have taken the job on in the first place. It’s like I’ve got an inner self, and I can sometimes tune her out, sometimes even shut her up completely for a while, but as soon as I am feeling overworked, or tired, or stressed, there she is again. The opposite of a personal cheerleader. Someone really put it in perspective for me recently when they asked if I would ever talk to someone else the way I talk to myself sometimes. I was horrified even thinking about it.

I’ve never really known why it is that I have this - I’ve attributed it to anxiety before, to low self-esteem, to any existing mental health issue that I’ve had at any one time. I always try and attach her to an external factor, because then I don’t have to face the facts that her voice is my voice, that it is me that is the problem. 

Last week I was at a session with a new counsellor, and she said - in my first session with her, bear in mind - “I think you live in a lot of fear”. This woman, who had known me not 40 minutes, hit the nail right on the head. I am afraid. Afraid that people won’t like me, that I’ll let people down, that I’ll never be ‘good enough’, whatever that means. And this fear drives me to intense perfectionism - everything I do has to be the best, otherwise people won’t like me, people will think I’m a fraud.

In my first year I had an obsession with deadlines. If I was off by even half an hour I’d freak out, sometimes even cry - I knew I was being dramatic but it felt like the worst thing in the world. I did a personality test towards the end of the year (the Myers Briggs - it’s pretty cool if you’re into that kind of thing) which gives you 4 letters to describe yourself: I got ENFP. My friend, having watched me freak out numerous times over deadlines, was surprised that I was an ENFP, not an ENFJ. I’ll highlight the differences here: “ENFPs tend to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to "keep their options open" should circumstances change.”, whereas “ENFJs tend to plan their activities and make decisions early. They derive a sense of control through predictability.”. The reason for my deadline obsession wasn’t a wish for predictability, but fear - fear that my tutor would hate me, that I would be seen as a bad student, that people would realise I was a fraud and that I shouldn’t be here (imposter syndrome am I right?).

The truth is that I am so hard on myself because I am scared. I am scared that if I cut myself some slack then my work won’t be good enough. I am scared that if I say something wrong then my friends will decide they don’t like me anymore. I am scared that if I miss a deadline my tutor will hate me - which actually isn’t true, because last term when I apologised for handing 3 essays in a row in at 3am the day before the tutorial, 9 hours late, my tutor brushed aside my apology and said he was ‘impressed that I had poured my blood sweat and tears into getting the work done’. But it’s not always easy to listen to logic.


I had such an epiphany last year about ceasing to judge myself based on other peoples’ perceptions of me, and I really thought that I had come past that, but it turns out that I haven’t. The voice is still there because I haven’t let go of that fear yet. I am not yet ready to rely on myself, because that is the scariest thing of all. But I am going to start trying to be brave, and let go. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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