"Self-criticism is an art not many are qualified to practice." --Joyce Carol Oates
Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) picks the brain of Adam Phillips in order to understand the human tendency toward self-criticism. She acknowledges, quoting Phillips, that “Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.” However, she says:
In our capacity for merciless self-criticism, we tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.
Masochistic as it may be, this self-criticism feels essential to us:
Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded — more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused — than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.
And so Ms. Popova turns for insight to Phillips’ essay “Against Self-Criticism”:
This self-critical part of ourselves, Phillips points out, is “strikingly unimaginative” — a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic at the same time:
“Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”
What catastrophe? Nothing less than the ongoing catastrophe of the Self pitted against itself:
“We are continually, if unconsciously, mutilating and deforming our own character. Indeed, so unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we are like without it. We know virtually nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves (as though in panic).”
Phillips, says Popova, sees this as amounting to an “internal tyranny by what is only one part — a small but loud part — of the self.” She goes on:
The tyranny of the superego, Phillips argues, lies in its tendency to reduce the complexity of our conscience to a single, limiting interpretation, and to convincingly sell us on that interpretation as an accurate and complete representation of reality:
“Self-criticism is nothing if it is not the defining, and usually the overdefining, of the limits of being. But, ironically, if that’s the right word, the limits of being are announced and enforced before so-called being has had much of a chance to speak for itself…We consent to the superego’s interpretation; we believe our self-reproaches are true; we are overimpressed without noticing that that is what we are being.”
With an eye to Freud’s legacy and the familiar texture of the human experience, Phillips makes his central point:
“Overinterpretation here means not settling for one interpretation, however apparently compelling it is. Indeed, the implication is…that the more persuasive, the more compelling, the more authoritative, the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be. The interpretation might be the violent attempt to presume to set a limit where no limit can be set.”
Overinterpretation—seeking and being open to other meanings and other perspectives—is a way to resist the tyranny of the internal critic, which, says Phillips, is always trying to limit and define us; it is always “an emperor of one idea”:
“The superego … casts us as certain kinds of character: it, as it were, tells us who we really are. It is an essentialist: it claims to know us in a way that no one else, including ourselves, can ever do. And, like a mad god, it is omniscient: it behaves as if it can predict the future by claiming to know the consequences of our actions (when we know, in a more imaginative part of ourselves, that most actions are morally equivocal, and change over time in our estimation; no apparently self-destructive act is ever only self-destructive; no good is purely and simply that).”
Samuel Johnson wrote that "Every self-criticism is a hidden praise. We criticize ourselves only to show our impartiality." By being hard on ourselves, we reveal ourselves to be superior to people who lack our critical self-awareness; our self-inflicted psychic wounds are, in this sense, proof of our virtue.
No wonder Maria Popova, like Adam Phillips, thinks that self-criticism is a trap:
Phillips urges us to question the superego’s despotic standards:
“The superego is the sovereign interpreter… [It] tells us what we take to be the truth about ourselves. Self-criticism, that is to say, is an unforbidden pleasure. We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer [and] take it for granted that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment. That every day we will fail to be as good as we should be; but without our being given the resources, the language, to wonder who or what is setting the pace; or where these rather punishing standards come from.”
Phillips, says Popova, wants us to resist “this docile surrender to self-criticism,” a surrender which Popova believes leads to “the resignation of cynicism…The cynic bypasses the constructiveness — that is, refuses to do anything about changing a situation for the better — and rushes straight to inflicting punishment, be it by insult or condemnation or that most cowardly and passive-aggressive fusion of the two, the eyeroll.”
Popova isn’t trying to get us to abandon introspection or self-criticism, but to find a constructive balance. She quotes Phillips:
“How has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, as unimaginative as it usually is? And why is it akin to a judgement without a jury? We need to be able to tell the difference between useful forms of responsibility taken for acts committed, and the evasions of self-contempt…Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgement as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma, not overinterpretation.”
Our self-criticism, to be sure, couldn’t be entirely eradicated — nor should it, for it is our most essential route-recalculating tool for navigating life. But by nurturing our capacity for multiple interpretations, Phillips suggests, self-criticism can become “less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful.”
Some people manage somehow to silence, or at least to ignore, the clamor of their internal critic; others can hear almost nothing but its ongoing litany of fault-finding; still others (like Samuel Johnson) neutralize it by an ironic reversal (self-criticism is really self-praise). “Multiple interpretations,” as Phillips and Popova recommend, means having a dialogue with ourselves: an internal conversation about who we are, who we want to be, and what we can do to bring those two realities closer together. It means dispensing with both psychic self-flagellation and smug superiority; it means treating ourselves as we would be treated by others.
We all talk to ourselves; it seems only fair that we should be civil and respectful when we do so.