Studies show that children internalize what’s said to them and about them in childhood which is a very good thing if your parent was loving, supportive, and fair and extremely damaging if your mother’s repertoire was made up harsh and abusive verbal assessments of your kid self. With an unloving mother at the helm, these messages become a permanent tape that blares every time something in your life goes wrong; its formal name is self-criticism. What is self-criticism? It’s the habit of attributing all your failures or missteps to fixed flaws in your character rather than seeing a larger, more nuanced picture. The tape sounds something like this: “Of course, you didn’t get the job because the interviewer saw right through you,” “It’s not surprising he never called again. Why would he?” “No one is going to want to spend time with you because the world is full of people who are appealing and not lazy and stupid like you.”
Daughters who are told again and again that they are flawed and lacking, less than or inadequate, or called names and mocked absorb what is said to them as certain truths; this habit of self-criticism can absolutely co-exist with real world success and achievement. When it does, the person suffers from what’s called imposter phenomenon—the irrational thought that she is a fake or a fraud soon to be found out and exposed.
It will surprise no one that those who are self-critical often suffer from anxiety and depression.
The first step is recognition
As I explain in my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, you remain powerless to change the tape until you recognize it and where it comes from; basically, you cannot a treat a wound you cannot see. Coming to terms with your mother’s treatment of you—both then and now—is the very first step. Counterintuitively, this may be surprisingly hard because all of us tend to normalize what went on in our childhood homes. As an adult, you may rationalize how your mother treated you and still treats you by thinking that “It’s just the way she is” or “She doesn’t really mean to be that nasty.” It’s much easier to look away and deny a mother’s verbal and emotional abuse than it is to confront it.
Again, in a culture which wrongly believes that “words can never harm me,” making excuses is way easier than dealing with the painful truth of having an abusive parent.
The second step is challenging the voice
The reality is that you’re going to have to really register what the voice is saying and actively countermand it; you’ve heard it for so long that you’re way beyond nodding your head in agreement and simply think, “Uh huh. That’s me.” Well, guess what? It isn’t you and you’re going to have to replace that tape with different words. Write down the thoughts and words that come to your mind when life goes south; force yourself to hear the self-criticism consciously. Now look at that list and start challenging those statements. Are you really lazy? Come up with examples that actively disprove it. You need to debate that voice so that you can begin to override it and call it out for what it is: A liar.
The third step is shifting perspective
That voice is most active when life goes south and you’re stressed out of your mind and flooded with emotion, and the volume gets turned up big time; it’s at this moment that you need to become your own superhero and cheerleader. The minute you find yourself thinking that you’re just a loser or deserved this failure or setback, stop! Recognize that this is the automatic fallback position you learned in childhood and stop it dead in its tracks. Work on managing your emotions first; calm yourself by thinking of someone you feel safe with or a place that makes you feel safe. Once you’re calm, sit down and analyze why this stressful event or interaction happened; writing your thoughts down will help clarify. Steer clear of self-criticism (“He left me because I’m worthless and unlovable”) and focus on real reasons the crisis took place (“I chose to be with someone who wasn’t a good listener or a good fit for me. I ignored all those signs and kept trying despite the fact that he made it clear he didn’t want what I wanted.”) I’ve used a relationship example here but I think you get the difference. Critical thinking—analyzing how things turned out the way they did—is very different from self-criticism.
The fourth step is making your own tape
No matter what you were told in childhood, being aware of all your gifts and strengths isn’t narcissistic, prideful, or vain; it’s called healthy self-regard. Being able to recognize both your strengths and weaknesses with a certain amount of equanimity is a sign of psychological health. And being your own cheerleader when life is hard or stressful is absolutely key to being more resilient.
You can make a new tape by looking at yourself as a stranger might, without self-criticism or blame, and figuring out where both your strengths and weaknesses lie; these observations will, in time, become the new voice in your head, one that actually reflects the reality of you in the moment. Write these observations down and, if you have trouble coming up with a list, ask someone close to you to contribute. Again, this isn’t about puffing yourself up; this is about unlearning the default position of tearing yourself down.
The fifth step is revising your vision of the self
Studies show that people who tend to believe that personality and the self are fixed and cannot be changed are less resilient, less capable when there’s a crisis, and weather failure less well than those who believe that the self is malleable and that people are capable of change. Think about your beliefs, and how they may be limiting you in the present.
It’s not easy but disarming and evicting that internalized voice in your head can be done… What’s stopping you from stopping it?
Photograph by Joshua Hoehne. Copyright free. Unsplash.com