Imagine A Life Without Criticism
How to hear the voice of the inner critic and turn it into a pillar of mental support.
From time to time, I receive criticism. Most of the criticism that I’ve received has been from people I love and who love me. From my youth, I learned from the people around me, to criticize myself. To criticize others. For a long time, I lived with a voice that told me what I did wrong, and how bad I was for my mistakes.
I spent a long, long time reading, writing, meditating and meeting with people who had similar problems as I before I really started to learn how to live with my mistakes. I used to call a friend when I made a mistake and I’d explain it to him. Then he’d say, “So how long do you want to beat yourself up for it? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Just let me know when you’re done.”
What I learned from my good friend in a few short minutes is that I can make a choice about how I respond to my mistakes. Just as happiness is a choice, and anger is a choice, we can make choices about how we respond to our mistakes. If I fail a test, I can go out on a bender and wake up feeling terrible the next day, or I can resolve to study the subject matter more thoroughly, to do better next time. I can be destructive or constructive, but the choice is almost entirely up to me.
There is something else that I do with criticism. I consider the source. I may consider what I know about the source of the criticism. Does that person have more experience than I do? Is that person someone I respect with good character? Do I value that person’s opinion?
I have also applied what I know about myself to those who criticize me. I am my own worst critic. Most of the people who criticize me are probably not even aware of what they are doing. That voice that plays in their minds, it is speaking out loud to them, even when it is delivering criticism aimed at me.
The difference between me and them is this: when they walk away, I can still turn that voice off, they can’t. If I receive criticism, it is easy to assume that whatever I have just heard from someone else has been bouncing in that person’s head for months or years, and it was directed at themselves.
I also think of criticism as punishment. Criticism has more to do with punishing other people than teaching them new skills. I can hardly think of a time when I made a critical remark to someone else, that wasn’t intended to punish them. The cognitive dissonance of punishment (and reward) is that it is intended to change other people, preferably with “good” results. You know, like, “please conform to my desires and be how I want you to be”.
So when I receive criticism, I am at least aware that I’m receiving criticism from someone who has that voice running in their minds, criticizing them. I remind myself that any person who is a source of criticism is also suffering, or they would not impose suffering upon others. I have also learned, and reminded myself, that people who criticize don’t always know how to get their needs met, or they would have no need to criticize me.
Criticism is a sign of an unmet need. Most people have been raised to think that they need something outside of themselves to feel better about themselves, to feel happy. They need a Polo shirt, they need a GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip, they need a Barbie doll, they need a hot dog, they need to eat a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream — right now, they need a quarter ounce of purple-haired pot, they need a McLaren 720s, they need a diamond ring, they need a vacation…from all that criticism. I have heard it said that shame is the rocket fuel of success.
I once had a hard time articulating my needs. I once had a difficult time identifying my needs. I tended to substitute my needs with something else that didn’t actually fulfill my needs. I tended to try to fill a hole in my soul.
It was only with great effort and introspection, that I began to identify my needs and meet them, either on my own, with assistance from compassionate people, and over time, with less drama as I matured. At the bottom of it all, I began to notice that I am enough. That I have enough for today. I began to let a good day be enough. I didn’t have to go to Disneyland after winning the Super Bowl.
I still make mistakes. I still make many mistakes in a day, but the size and scale of my mistakes, including the natural consequences that go with them, are small enough that they’re not fatal to my mind. My mistakes don’t involve a lot of drama. I don’t criticize myself for my mistakes much anymore. I don’t worry about what others think of my mistakes, either. I don’t worry about my mistakes. Next week, no one will remember.
If you have a problem with my mistakes, that’s on you. If you would like to lend a hand, that’s on you, too, thank you very much.
I read an article not too long ago, about the American dopamine addiction to shopping. Since I read that article, I began to notice the same thing around helping people. I experience a certain “high” when I help someone at work. When I solve a problem that has vexed a customer for hours, sometimes months, I get a little hit of happiness, and it’s better than a bong hit. This high is what I enjoy about my job. This high is also something I get when I hit the publish button after writing an article like this. I get an immense sense of satisfaction from helping people.
I still receive criticism, but I have a better way to deal with it now than I used to. No longer do I let that voice ride me all day like a donkey, telling me how bad I am and how other people are going to think about my mistakes. No longer do I sit around medicating myself to quiet that voice down. No longer do I accept criticism from others at face value, as if they know enough about me to know why I made my mistake in the first place. I remind myself that people who criticize me are already in pain, and if they’re not offering help, they’re not ready to help.
So I’ve made my peace with my mind. I don’t beat myself up for years, months, hours or even a few minutes, for a mistake, anymore. I don’t have to. I forgive myself as soon as I can. I forgive others for they know not what they do.
And when I see that someone has made a mistake, I go for the dopamine, the oxytocin, the serotonin hits that I can get, just from helping someone who finds themselves in the middle of the mess of their own error. And when I do that, I just glow.