In second grade, I got really into journaling. I’m not sure if it came from my obsession with Harriet the Spy or just a desire to add meaning to my comfy suburban upbringing, but I made a promise to myself. I, Allie Arends, would fill an entire journal for each year of my life. For the most part, up until senior year of high school, I did. And during a recent trip home to Chicago, I found them stacked in my bedroom closet like a chronological library of my childhood complete with N*Sync magazine clippings, overly dramatic inner monologues, and hilarious spelling errors.
That afternoon, I sat on my bedroom floor, ready to thumb through each journal and get re-acquainted with the moments of my life that weren’t sticky enough to recall without a written reminder. Instead, I came face-to-face with an ugly familiar voice. My inner critic. Apparently, that B and I go way back. I found her icky little Negative Nancy fingerprints in every single journal entry. As I moved through the Lisa Frank notebooks of my elementary years to the Moleskins of high school, I noticed that her words got meaner over time. In elementary school, I deemed myself untalented because I hadn’t won a regional title for my dance studio. In middle school, I obsessed over how many friends I had and settled on the fact that I was unlikable. In high school, words like “fat” “lazy” “ugly” popped out on the pages like blemishes.
I’m intimately familiar with my inner critic. She and I go through adult life together, hand in hand. I guess I had just assumed she was a recent roommate, not one I’d been living with my whole life. Honestly, if it weren’t for starting therapy just a month earlier, I might have breezed past her snarky presence, brushing off my self-hatred as normal teenage angst. In fact, I probably would have thought she was the saner voice in my head, the one with a more realistic view of the world and how I fit into it.
Like a lot of people, I’ve had this assumption that my inner critic was my motivator. She pointed out my shortcomings with good intentions – to keep me aware of the things I needed to work on. To ground my expectations in order to avoid disappointment. To keep me humble. I worried that without her, I would get lazy, complacent or make mistakes. What I didn’t realize was that she was making me perpetually depressed.
To be honest, my therapist is still trying to convince me that she’s a problem. Recognizing and separating my inner critic from my healthy inner monologue has proven to be super, super difficult. I’ve sort of lost myself to her over the years. On most days, those fears about complacency or setting myself up for disappointment are still alive and well. But I’ve found a few tricks that have helped me turn the tide on the way I allow that negative voice to show up in my life.
Become An Expert
My sister is responsible for the best piece of advice I’ve gotten so far on the issue. She recommended approaching combating my inner critic and depression like I would a passion project – go all in. Read everything you can get your hands on. Talk to other people who are experiencing similar feelings. Research. Go to therapy. Taking up her advice, I’ve realized two things; 1. That there is a legitimate explanation for the overwhelming negative thoughts (aka I’m not just being a whiny millennial) and 2. I am definitely not alone in my struggle with self-criticism and depression. Those revelations made dealing with the problem that much more manageable. They gave me a place to start.
For me, content that offers up scientific logic and/or humor helps the most. I’ve become obsessed with studies connecting self-criticism and depression to either evolutionary science or social media consumption. I’ve added NPR’s Hilarious World of Depression to my podcast rotation and I have Amy Poehler’s excerpt on inner demons bookmarked in my copy of Yes, Please next to my nightstand. But If I could recommend one place to start for helpful reading material, it would be Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. It’s essentially The Happiness Project on intellectual steroids and it even has a nifty self-assessment quiz in the back of the book.
Focus on Gratitude and Positivity Will Follow
Thanks to advice I found in Flourish, I started writing down 3 things that went well during the day on a nightly basis. I’m embarrassed to tell you how difficult it was the first few times I tried this. My mind immediately wanted to go in the opposite direction. What did I fail at today? What was an important item on my to-do list that I intentionally avoided accomplishing? What devastatingly embarrassing thing did I say in an important work meeting? Because, well, that’s how I’d practiced self-reflection my entire life. I have my childhood journals as proof.
For the first week of the exercise, my three things were consistently related to my workout routine or validation from people other than myself. Basically superficial “wins” that my inner critic allows me to categorize as successes. My therapist suggested that I come up with things that I might be ashamed of – softer, more emotional wins like, “I didn’t try and deal with a problem alone today.” Or “I allowed myself to take a lunch break and read on a patio for an hour.” For me, this exercise is great because it’s the easiest way for me to identify my inner critic and see, in real-time, how it distorts my perception of myself and my life.
Once you’ve learned how to separate your bitchy inner critic from your actual self, it’s time to clap back. For me, this is very much a work in progress. But in Yes, Please, Amy Poehler describes it perfectly.
“Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head or bed for love. They feed their demon and it gets really strong and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.” Sometimes you say, “Demon, I promise you I will let you remind me of my ugliness, but right now I am having hot sex so I will check in later.”
I would drop dead before I let someone talk to my best friends in the same way my inner critic tears me down. So then why, for all this time, have I thought this is ok to do? And why, if it’s so obviously a misstep, is it so hard of a habit to change? Through my research, I’ve learned that part of what links self-criticism to depression is a belief that every negative thought you have is a depiction of reality. For someone like me, one weird look from a co-worker suddenly becomes the fact, All my co-workers hate me. This is where humor and Amy P help me out. Now, as soon as I categorize a thought as a destructively negative one, I come up with an Amy Poehler-like response to it. It diverts my mind away from the negative thought and makes me laugh all at once.
Like I said…I’m still working on this one.
Ask For Help
If any of this resonates with you, go to therapy. I mean, that sounds aggressive and antagonistic but it’s not. It’s out of love. When time travel technology is inevitably invented, going to therapy sooner is one of the first ways in which I plan to use it. In all seriousness, even just a few sessions will open your eyes to all of the ways in which you are holding yourself back from being imperfectly happy. Especially when it comes to self-perception, an objective party is the fastest way to accepting that your inner critic isn’t necessary for growth, success or meeting your goals. All of that is only achievable with self-love and acceptance.