“We are all failures – at least the best of us are.” – J.M. Barrie
No matter how “successful” a person may seem, we all have moments of feeling like a failure. When things feel smooth at work, we pick apart our parenting skills. When our home life is going well, we criticize our job performance. When we’re single, we scoff at ourselves for being alone, and when we’re not, we persistently remind ourselves just how bad we are at being in relationships. All human beings are flawed. Anyone who has ever succeeded at anything has failed along the way. And yet, most of us spend too much of our lives weighing our weaknesses, reliving our defeats, and feeling like a failure. Why is that?
“Most people judge and appraise themselves in ways that are extremely self-punishing and negative,” said Dr. Robert Firestone, author of Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice. He describes an “anti-self” or “critical inner voice” we all experience that acts like an internal judge. This voice is almost constantly assessing us, evaluating what we accomplish and how we’re perceived. This cruel inner critic not only tells us that we’re failing when we’re not, but it contributes to self-limiting behavior that can lead our fear around failure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Destructive thoughts or internal voices strongly influence our actions and the way we conduct our daily lives,” wrote Firestone. “For example, a man about to give a speech thinks: “You’re going to make a fool of yourself. You’re going to sound stupid. Who wants to listen to what you have to say anyway?” As a result of “listening” to this voice, he becomes nervous and actually does stumble over his words.”
We can all be our own biggest critic and our own worst enemy. So, how do we defeat these nagging voices and stop feeling like a failure?
Get to Know Your Inner Critic
No matter where we stand in relation to our goals, our inner critic will always be there to put us in our place and undermine our efforts. This “voice” is tricky, because sometimes it can sound friendly or soothing. “Just take one more day to relax. You can get to that project tomorrow. Have a drink, watch TV.” That same voice will go on to punish and insult us. “Seriously? You never get anything done. You’re useless.” Or, if we do achieve some success, it will say “Who are you kidding? This won’t last. You’re a fraud.”
The common goal of either the soothing or punishing side of this “anti-self” is to distance us from our real selves, the part of us that is on our own side and has unique goals and values. The more we listen to this inner critic without examination, the more we’ll be left feeling like a failure, regardless of what we accomplish. The best thing to do to counter this critic is to identify each moment when it creeps in and separate it from our real, more compassionate point of view.
Learn more about the steps you can take to challenge your critical inner voice.
Researcher Dr. Kristin Neff points out that one of the problems with self-esteem, in general, is its focus on self-evaluation. “Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness,” wrote Neff in her book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. “Once we start basing our self-esteem purely on our performance, our greatest joys in life can start to seem like so much hard work, our pleasure morphing into pain.” Each day, we should aim to orient ourselves away from self-evaluation and instead reflect on what we’re experiencing. What part of this day brings me joy, satisfaction, meaning, or fulfillment?
So, how can we feel good about ourselves without focusing on self-esteem? Neff has completed an impressive body of research on the benefits of practicing self-compassion, which she defines as having three elements: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. People who practice self-compassion have a kind (as opposed to judgmental) attitude toward their struggles. Through mindfulness, they learn not to over-identify with negative thoughts and messages that wear on them, and they embrace that to suffer is part of being human. They are not alone, no better or worse than anyone else, who faces challenges in life.
Neff’s studies have shown that embracing self-compassion can reduce self-criticism, while actually making us better equipped to accomplish our goals and make real change. Unlike self-criticism, self-compassion increases self-improvement, in part because, people with more self-compassion are more likely to face and learn from their mistakes. Rather than feeling victimized or bogged down in self-hatred, they’ll often see setbacks as opportunities to develop and change.
Stop focusing on what you need to fix
While it’s valuable to look at real characteristics we want to develop or alter in ourselves, we have to be careful about not allowing our critical inner voice to get carried away with laundry lists centered on self-improvement. The critical inner voice is sneaky and tends to run wild with any evidence of imperfection. For example, you may miss a deadline, and it starts in with, “You see? I told you that you couldn’t do this job. You’re incompetent. Now, you have to push harder, work longer hours. Don’t think about anything but work right now!”
We should try to regard any change we want to make the way we’d look at a friend trying to make that same effort. Remember, it’s possible to be determined without being self-hating. When we start to go negative, it’s also possible to gently remind ourselves to shift our perspective. “Rather than wandering around in problem-solving mode all day, thinking mainly of what you want to fix about yourself or your life, you can pause for a few moments throughout the day to marvel at what’s not broken.”
Find your change team
Dr. John Norcross, author of Changeology has emphasized how important it is to have support when making a lasting change or attempting a long-term goal. “Whether it’s New Year’s resolutions, depression, anxiety, developing a new skill, having a change team makes a huge difference to success,” said Norcross. Finding a team of people in our lives that support our goals and see us through compassionate eyes can help us stay on our own side and stand up to our inner critic. Even when we experience a setback, we can rely on these people to keep us from spiraling back into feeling like a failure. If we don’t feel this support from our close family or friends, we can seek it out in other places. “There are so many different ways to secure this support. There’s online support groups, there’s co-workers, there’s friends from earlier in your life who can be on the telephone or shoot you an email,” said Norcross.
By both seeking the support of people around us and cultivating a supportive friend within ourselves, we’re better able to cope with the mean attacks that make us feel like a failure. In life, our greatest pursuit should be to feel and be the most ourselves, to find what lights us up and pursue that. By countering our anti-self and finding personal meaning in each day, we may make mistakes along the way, but we can never be a failure.