We Are Our Own Worst Critics
This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness week (#NEDAwareness), and this year’s theme is “Come as you are.” This theme sends a message to individuals at all stages of body acceptance and eating disorders recovery that their stories are valid. It also speaks to people with body image issues to “be you,” instead of “being the unattainable version of you that the eating disorder voice is urging.” In patients with eating disorders, these unattainable goals are often not limited to weight or looks; many also aim for flawlessness in grades, sports, and other activities. As many of my patients say, “I need to be perfect.” This blog is dedicated to them.
At some point in our lives we have all had someone give us constructive criticism. Growing up it may seem like you get this from so many people around you that you get sick of hearing it. Maybe a coach has given constructive feedback as they try to teach the correct way to perform a skill. Maybe a teacher makes more red marks on a paper than you would have liked or maybe your parents have said things such as, “I know you can do better.” Usually these comments come from a place and person who is saying them to help you grow. While these criticisms may be received with some hesitancy or even embarrassment, most of the time they are used to help grow and mature into a better student, player, or person. Yet for some there can be a voice that seems louder than the rest. One that says, “What if I am not good enough. Look at all of the mistakes I made. Why can’t I just get it right the first time.” A psychiatrist I knew labeled this voice, “the bad coach voice.” This voice that many young players or students focus on, comes from within and can push aside the other thoughts that say, “Give it your best effort. Or each day I am getting better.”
Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.
Perfectionism is defined as “setting an extremely high standard of performance in conjunction with a tendency to make overly critical self-evaluations in the pursuit of these standards.1” Basically, perfectionism is setting tremendously lofty goals and being unreasonably self-critical when these are not met. While it is true that many high achieving individuals often show signs of perfectionism, it can be easy for this to turn into a problem, especially when those qualities lead to a negative voice that says nothing I do is ever quite good enough. This is what is called maladaptive perfectionism. Studies have shown a link between maladaptive perfectionism and depression in adolescence. It is easy to see the link between the two, when you think about how one would feel about oneself if the bad coach voice always won. That is the dangerous side that says that anything less than perfect is not acceptable. This type of perfectionism can lead to decreased self-worth and low self-esteem when goals are not met, continued deliberation about mistakes which can lead to shame and only expecting negative outcomes.
Recognizing one’s own maladaptive perfectionistic thoughts can take time. However, it is important to be aware of the voice in our head that is our own worst critic. During adolescence, while coping mechanisms and sense of identity are developing, it is important to become more aware of the critical voice inside you. Self-compassion is one strategy that has been shown to combat the effect of maladaptive perfectionism on depression risk. Self-compassion is the ‘ability to be open to and moved by one’s own suffering.’ It is working on being kind and caring to oneself and approaching one’s failures with an understanding attitude. An easier way to think of this, is how would you respond to a loved one in your situation? Would you tell them they have failed, or they are not good enough, or would you respond in a more honest way with understanding and compassion. Self-compassion is realizing that every failure is just part of the common human experience that everyone around us is working through.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
With social media it is easy to get caught up in the idea that your peers have perfect relationships, sports records, or lives because people often only post or talk about what is going well. This can lead to feeling as if your life, compared to others, is less than perfect. Don’t let that voice win. Realize that everyone around you struggles and that being human means you can never be perfect. (In fact, elite organizations like United States Navy’s Fighter Weapons School are redefining perfectionism to encourage finding mistakes and correcting them). Becoming more aware of the bad coach voice in your own head and addressing these thoughts with self-kindness instead of self-criticism is one way that has been shown to help combat the maladaptive effects of a perfectionistic attitude. Lastly, remember that anyone who you view as being perfect is far from it; the reality is our humanity makes us beautifully imperfect and we truly are our own worst critic.