Being My Own Worst Enemy Is Going OK
If I recognize everything that could possibly be wrong with me in every situation, I won't be caught off guard if someone else sees it.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
For a while (approximately my entire life) I've been under the impression that my self-hatred is well deserved, important, a protective safety measure. This is especially true in the case of constant, harsh self-criticism, wherein I feel that if I recognize everything that could possibly be wrong with me in every situation, I won't be caught off guard if someone else sees it. This is true of all things from sex (my tits are saggier than they were the last time we fucked) to death (I don't believe in hell but if there is one I'm going) to this essay (yes, commenters, it's self-centered and not newsworthy).
But am I really the worst human being ever? If no human is perfect in all areas, chances are that no one is fallible in all areas, either. What if the impulse to self-criticize is just a bad habit and not something that truly protects me?
In an attempt to get to the bottom of my auto-excoriation, I spoke with my good friend, the NYC-based psychotherapist Amy Jones, about self-criticism in terms of good and evil, Nietzsche, and empathy.
So Sad Today: I know you've been on a big no self-criticism kick lately. How did you arrive at that?
Amy Jones: I think it has to do with getting older and also arriving at a pretty intractable agnostic place. I'm committed to keeping mortality on the mind and find it to be a ubiquitous motivator in deciding how to spend one's time and energy.
I think that's good. When I'm in a dark place I see death piercing through everything. And when I'm in therapy it's like, I'm going to die and you are too and neither of us have the answer to that one. So I think I would find it oddly comforting, or at least, honest, if my therapist made it clear that she knows that.
I think the next natural place to try to hang one's hat when arriving at agnosticism is humanism, but for me George Saunders put it concisely when he talks about the tenets of humanism: "I mean, I buy them, they're a subset of what's true. But they're not sufficient. They wouldn't do much for me on my deathbed."
If you've eliminated the basic potential goodness of humanity as a sturdy meaning-making system, I think the next easy place to land is "well at least *I* can be good, or try to be good." But for me, at least, there is no universal meaning in that statement. It seems to me that "goodness" is so culturally constructed and so relative that "I will be good" is an absolutely meaningless statement.
I have so many different kinds of self-criticism, so many flavors, a rainbow, and some are definitely vast and infinite: like, some cosmic arbiter is judging my every move and thinks I'm shit. But some are very superficial (like how is my skin aging or does this person think I'm a loser) and serve to distract me from thinking about the bigger questions of personal freedom and how I want to live my life.
Exactly, the clock is ticking. Do not let the cosmic arbiters steal your time.
I'm not going to pretend to fully understand Nietzsche, but he makes a pretty good argument that good didn't originally mean "that which is not evil." It meant to be "strong." It's important to keep in mind that it didn't mean the opposite of "morally bad." If you are trying to be "good" and what you are really trying to do is be "strong" as opposed to "not evil" the field opens up quite a bit. I think Nietzsche goes on to say that strong means a lot of active appreciation for the fact that you are alive, i.e. not yet dead.
Sometimes it feels like so much responsibility to not be dead.
It is! I mean, c'mon!
A more modern version of this moral arbitrariness is in the work of the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In the 1970s he set up these hierarchical stages of moral development involving a developmental transition from self-interest to rule-following to concern for more broad human rights. Women were repeatedly scoring poorly on these morality tests and then it was revealed that the rubric was set up using empirical data from studies that DIDN'T INCLUDE WOMEN. And because women are socialized to have their basic identity be relationally-oriented (as mothers, as "nice girls,' as "good friends") in ways that men are not, they were found to be morally deficient. Well-intentioned intelligent people can have this major obtuseness around the possibility that what it means to be "good" couldn't be more constructed.
This seems very true of the internet, where being "good" can be such lip-service. Like, people are trying to say the right things online and then whispering how they really feel to their friends in dark rooms.
I think we really owe it to each other to talk publicly about how hard it is to figure out how to live, instead of fronting on the internet.
Psychoanalytic theory at this point in history seems to understand that our deepest, most embedded ideas about what it means to be good originate in our family of origin and even in the best case scenarios those families of origin can be pretty solipsistic little microcosms.
Right. Like, my "cosmic arbiter" idea is definitely based on Mommy.
There was this little sing songy chant on educational television or something that came on a lot when I was a kid that went: " The most important person inthe whole wide world is you and you hardly even know you." That little 20-second-chant, man, I thought about that for hours as a kid. What could they possibly mean? But I kind of get it now—no one but you knows what kind of integrity or ethos you need to live by to not feel regret when you are imminently dying.
Two of the three references in your question above really focus on being perfect in relationship: the question of "what if someone else sees this imperfection that I haven't yet seen," thus opening the door for all kinds of shame aka feeling that we aren't worthy of being loved. The brilliant psychoanalyst Adam Phillips addresses this problem of the superego (the mechanism of psychological pressure we engage with to make sure we are "good" through the utilization of self-criticism or prohibition) in relationship by suggesting that it actually makes us pretty hateable and destined to be alone:
"The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are as nothing compared with the murderous mufflings and insinuations and distortions of the super-ego because it is the project of the super-ego, as conceived of by Freud, to render the individual utterly solipsistic, incapable of exchange. Or to make him so self-mortified, so loathsome, so inadequate, so isolated, so self-obsessed, so boring and bored, so guilty that no one could possibly love or desire him."
Could there be any benefit at all to my constant self-criticism. Or are the notions that it somehow both protects and enlightens me complete lies?
I think to the extent that self-criticism can veer into self-reflection or general reflectiveness about what it means to be a human being, it does protect you. It protects you from being on your deathbed without any chance for any landing place other than a big old "uh oh." But to the extent that self-criticism goes beyond self-examination, I'm not sure it is that useful. And by self-examination, I mean the kind that keeps you REALLY honest about what all your motivations are when you take an action or set of actions.
When we lie to ourselves about our motivations—the fact that all of us have some pretty dark motivations running through us at one time or another (what Jung calls "the shadow")—then those motivations start taking on a life of their own and our integrity with ourselves starts to fail.
So, like, embrace the shadow. Make out with it. Don't pretend it's not there.
Yes, because it will do its thing and you at least want to be holding hands with it. If it's masturbating shamefully and alone all the time...
One can argue that at least we could agree on SOME things to be self-critical about, like "do I have enough compassion or empathy?" But even those concepts aren't unequivocally good. Studies have shown that empathy is often very preferential to people that we perceive to be "like us" to the detriment of people that we perceive to be "not like us." And we know, historically, how that goes. And that empathy as an autonomic nervous reflex often means that we would choose to derail a train carrying 400 people on a bridge in order to save the two people standing on the bridge because we can literally see those two people but can't see the 400 people on the train as clearly. So even empathy is problematic as a benign value.
And don't even get me started on "pathological altruism." Really, you don't want to. A friend of mine coined the phrase "narcimystic" and anyone who has been to more than a handful of yoga classes or felt the inevitable occasional or even massive disappointments of participation in an activist movement knows what this is all about.
I think we want to believe that a hierarchy of good exists so we have something to aspire to. I used to worship my yoga teachers until I found out they were human—and flawed. I was disappointed that they were flawed, but only because they pretended not to be. When someone tells you you're going to Oz and then you see the man behind the curtain, it's like, um, you're just me with a harmonium, a vegan cookie, and a pair of Lululemon pants.