Recently I’ve spent a lot of time trying to recognize and understand the impact of my inner critic. Those times when I let the negative self-talk have more leverage than it deserves.
This awareness began about two years ago when I finally realized the way I spoke to myself had all the hallmarks of a verbally abusive relationship. I could do no right. Every effort was twisted around. And I’d berate myself over making one mistake while ignoring the numerous things that went right.
On a recent walk, the following image popped in my head as a way of explaining the damage.
For this analogy to work, you have to be aware of what Rain-x is. For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a magic formula that you spray on your windshield after washing it to assist against rainfall and other weather elements. When this is applied, water hits the windshield, beads up and rolls off the glass. There is no pooling of water on the glass.
So a person with a healthy and balanced outlook on life is the one traveling in a car with a fresh coating of Rain-x on the windshield. The car itself acts as a barrier, keeping the rain from leaking inside. And the windshield wipers have tremendous assistance in repelling the water. The rain doesn’t stick around; it rolls off smoothly, allowing the driver to have a clearer view of obstacles ahead. The driver can see traffic piling up and have the ability to navigate around it or to change lanes. Or he sees the obstacles but is in a better position mentally to handle them instead of finding the circumstances overwhelming and slamming on the brakes. And he is more likely to reach his destination safely.
What about that person with an unhealthy view of life, where situations are taken as a personal reflection of one’s ability or a measurement of a person’s dignity and worth?
That person is also driving a car. The windshield hasn’t been treated with Rain-x. So when the rain comes, it clings to the windshield. It pools on the glass and increasing the wiper speed doesn’t seem to make a difference. Vision is obscured. But there is another big problem because this rain sticks around, becoming like acid rain. The kind of acid rain that erodes material upon contact. As the drive continues, the windshield’s integrity is being compromised and weakening. Water is getting inside the car. The driver is buffeted from all sides, making it difficult to navigate through traffic. The ability to see obstacles ahead is obscured and it leads to more accidents and problems. Depending on how severe the storm is, the driver may be lucky to still have something resembling a car upon reaching the destination.
Is this an exaggeration? Absolutely. Is there truth to it? You bet.
Does this mean someone with a healthy outlook is always on top of emotions and never takes things too personally? Of course not. In general, though, I would say these instances don’t last long for them and they are less likely to see mistakes as character-defining absolutes. (Forgetting something doesn’t mean you criticize yourself by saying “I’m stupid. I’m always forgetting things. I never get anything right.”)
Does this mean that someone who takes things personally is always negative and miserable company? (The social circle’s Eeyore?) Not necessarily. People tend to wear a lot of masks. But the negativity would be noticeable in how they react to things or the words used to describe various situations. (For instance, I might tell a friend that a mistake he made wasn’t worth worrying about, but I wouldn’t be as lenient if I found myself in a similar situation.)
How do you improve? You have to talk back to these inner thoughts and accusations. Talking back makes you stronger. It help you see beyond the lies. It requires taking a step back and trying to be a bit more objective in how you interpret a particular situation instead of letting your emotions carry you away.
The following lists can be helpful in identifying and labeling a frequent way of thinking so that you can find ways to break the cycle.
Another thing that is helping me have a more balanced view of myself is when I consider effort as part of a collection of experiences rather than isolated instances. For example, I made a comment to a friend last month that “I’m not good with networking.” I was thinking of my nervousness, my tendency to fumble for words, and the fact that since I felt like I was rambling that everyone else noticed that too and judged me for it.
She corrected me. As we sat talking at a coffee shop, she reminded me that I was the one to make the initial phone call. I was the one to suggest meeting up. “That’s networking,” she said.
“Ok,” I countered. “But that was one time. And I had experience talking with you in person. It wasn’t like I did a cold call.” (Because my effort didn’t fit this idealized image of how things should go, it all got grouped together and labeled as unsuccessful or not good enough.)
I admitted to her that I tend to view things as isolated events. I somehow think the skills won’t transfer from one situation to another. As if I’m starting from scratch each time.
And she reminded me that skill building doesn’t have to be some grandiose effort. Networking happens on a small scale and isn’t just a matter of being comfortable walking up to strangers at some big conference and trying to make new contacts. You make small steps in various situations. And together they can build up strength and confidence.
It can get easier. But I have to view each attempt as one step forward from the last one. Instead of starting with a mindset of “I can’t do this” and thinking every attempt at reaching out to people should be whitewashed as failure, I need to acknowledge what went ok from the previous experience and build on that.