THE BATTLE BETWEEN SELF-CRITICISM AND SELF-EXPLORATION
I have always been hardest on myself.
I will walk out of a performance review that, by anyone else’s standards, went down in an ideal fashion, complete with a rating of “exceeding expectations” from my manager, and wonder what I should be doing better, and who I fooled into thinking I am deserving.
A student will walk out of a yoga class I taught, look me in the eye, and say genuinely, “That was a great class,” or “Thank you for class.” And while I am saying the words “Thank you” in return, in the back of my head I will be wondering if I annunciated enough; if my cues were clear enough; if my music was too loud; if my music wasn’t loud enough.
Just this week, at my day job, I gave a presentation to a large team I work with. It was hardly two minutes after the conclusion of my presentation that three of my colleagues reached out to me saying, each in their own way, “job well done!” Rather than breathe a sigh of relief that all went well, all I could think was “Did I really do okay? Or are they just reaching out to me because they feel bad for me because I sounded so nervous? Holy shit. They feel bad for me. It must have been really bad . . .”
This persistent pattern of self-criticism has slowly infiltrated nearly every facet of my life, and has even made its way to one of my most sacred spaces . . . my yoga mat. My former eagerness to step onto my mat has slowly been replaced by a quiet trepidation that becomes louder as the myriad of self-examining thoughts pour in . . . “Have I earned the right to be here, on this mat? Have I done the work to honor this practice in an appropriate way? Who am I to be practicing asana? Who am I to be sharing the teaching of asana?”
It was not until a complete, utter, and unprovoked meltdown on a recent, random, sunny Saturday afternoon that I realized and was able to digest just how heavy the load can be when we are constantly telling ourselves “You are not enough. Your work is not good enough. You haven’t earned what you have. You are a fraud.”
As I embarked on unpacking why my inner critic had suddenly become so loud, I at first arrived at the conclusion that self-criticism and self-exploration exist in a vacuum; that they reside separately, never to overlap. I recovered from my unsolicited Saturday meltdown, puffy-eyed and exhausted, but resolute in the solution being, simply, to be kinder and more forgiving on myself. That a little self-love and self-nurturing would be the cure-all to the heavy burden my inner critic has heaved on my shoulders.
But, as is often the case, the first, and arguably easiest solution, was not the right one.
I dug deeper. And here is where I arrived . . .
At the risk of empowering it, I don’t think my critical inner voice is coming from a bad place; in fact, I think it’s just the opposite. I think my inner critic comes from an inherently good place; a place that wants me to think honestly and thoroughly about my choices and the ripple effect they can potentially have on different arenas of my life. However, I have allowed myself to get so caught up in self-criticism that not only have I crippled myself from celebrating hard fought accomplishments, but I have critiqued myself into a place of paralysis where self-exploration is smothered by the weight of self-inflicted feelings of inadequacy.
I began to realize that self-criticism and self-exploration do not exist in a vacuum at all. Energy that could have been spent in patient, honest, reflection of my actions was directed instead towards degrading, belittling, and skeptical self-criticism. Whereas previously I thought self-criticism, to a certain extent, was a healthy avenue through which I could keep myself in check, I realized that not to be the case at all. Self-criticism was not only preventing me from celebrating my successes, but it was scaring me away from self-exploration and handcuffing me from embarking on the important work in my life that needs to be done.
It does not serve me to walk out of a great performance review and immediately assess my shortcomings. I am not really hearing my students if I am mentally berating myself at the same time they are looking me in the eyes to say “thank you.” I am discrediting my hard work, and imparting unhealthy skepticism of others, if I continue to think colleagues are complimenting me because they feel bad for me.
I am doing myself as a yoga practitioner, as well as my community, a huge disservice by allowing myself to be so crippled by my inner critic that my inner explorer is too afraid and too discouraged to do the work that allows me to evolve into a more aware, empowered, educated, respectful, and informed yoga student and teacher.
The battle between self-criticism and self-exploration in the pursuit of growth in my life comes down to this: allowing myself the space to not just accept, but celebrate, my accomplishments, as well as allowing myself the space to examine my opportunities for growth through a healthy lens, and embark on the challenging work that matters without fear or trepidation.
Self-exploration cannot flourish when it is stifled by the fear instilled by self-criticism. While the battle between the two is an ever-raging one, and combating my self-diagnosed imposter syndrome is a constant struggle, I am confident that if I enable my inner explorer to become louder than my inner critic, I will allow myself the grace and patience to evolve into the professional; the yoga student; the yoga teacher; the all-around human being that I am meant to be.