The Internal Critic: When Evidence of Your Worth Isn’t Enough

Ultimately, the ability to take risks and tolerate the uncertainty that accompanies them is the point of therapy.

When struggling with depression, self-isolation, and loneliness, the individual also struggles with dysfunctional thinking, often conceiving of themselves as worthless and unable to offer anything of value to someone else. Risk-taking in that context is conceived of as high-risk taking. And while safety isn’t an appealing option; it’s the only one. So, that individual spends much of her life in hiding, both figuratively and in reality.

Self-critical thinking is reinforced through interpretations and misperceptions, some of which are accurate and some of which aren’t. When beginning with highly negative self-oriented beliefs, it becomes easier to misinterpret neutral comments and actions as being more negative and personal than intended; we’re built more so to foster a sense of familiarity than for engaging in exploration. And, often, cognitive exploration is scarier than its physical counterpart.

When self-oriented negative beliefs are resistant to change, which they usually are, it sometimes helps to focus on other significant people in your life who possess similar beliefs about themselves. I often ask my clients, “Isn’t it odd that you and he have similar perspectives about yourselves, yet you can easily find good reasons for why he’s wrong?” Creating a distanced, and more objective, observing self can help the person you’re speaking with spot the distorted beliefs, and dysfunctional thinking styles, in their loved one. So, if he’s engaging in mental filtering or personalizing, failing to see his achievements or another’s pattern of cruelty, perhaps you are, too. One of my clients has a friend whose thinking almost completely mirrors her own. And I frequently remind her how similar they are in that respect and that I often tell her exactly what she tells him.

We discuss how frustrating it is for her when he can’t see what others do and then how frustrating it must be for others when she can’t see what they do, and even for her to struggle to see it in herself. Our conversations are mostly fruitful because whenever she resists my arguments, I just ask her to put herself in my shoes and herself in her friend’s. Sometimes, she’ll say something like, “Well, that’s him, but I’m different.” Then, I’d ask how. And whatever she judges herself harshly on, she can, in turn, judge him for the same. But yet chooses not to. And that’s the rub.

In psychology, this distorted thinking style is known as the fundamental attribution error. My client attributes her friend’s flaws to his environment, or brain chemistry, and her own to herself. When he struggles, it’s due to depression. When she does, it’s due to her laziness. He can’t change because he can’t help himself. But she can’t because she’s too damaged. Fundamentally, this double-standard helps her to continue to love him but, also, hate herself. When it’s him, it’s reality. When it’s her, it’s excuses. So, the question is: why isn’t she ever afforded a break?

She told me that focusing on her friend’s circumstances and comparing them to her own helped her the most in therapy because she had a tendency to dodge my challenges when they solely focused on her. Most of the time, we consider comparing ourselves to others in a negative manner, but doing so isn’t always harmful. Much of my client’s life was spent in darkness because she refused to take risks, again, considering them to be irrational. But, her life was positively altered when she developed the ability to see herself in her best friend, in his irrational thoughts. As she continues to help him cope with them, she’s reminded of how she could continue to help herself, too. Now, my most frequent question to her is: how can you apply that to yourself?

Many of my clients tend to search for the ultimate proof of their innate value. But, more often than not, it’s already in front of them. My client values her friend so much that she’s already grateful for his compassion. Additionally, she believes that any form of proof beyond his provisions would and should be offensive to him. On the one hand, she believes that his validation is plenty; on the other, she’s still searching for more. And, she agrees, if he needed more than what she had to offer, she’d be offended, too. Both were on a quest for what they already had, but were too distracted to notice.

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