Browse the self-help aisle at the bookstore, or comb through the online material about self-esteem, and you’ll mostly find advice on how to take “conscious control of your self-talk,” to stop negative self-statements and replace them with affirmations, to love yourself, to conquer this or that experience, etc. In an earlier post, I discussed why such verbal techniques don’t work, but even for those people who do find them valuable, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching this issue.
These other techniques tend to view “negative self-statements” as if they were something almost alien to the person: internalized parental criticism we must identify and reject; perfectionistic standards imposed upon us by advertising, our peer group, society at large; mental tape loops that reflexively repeat horrible things about us, almost like a critic-virus implanted in our brains. Instead, you may find it more useful to “own” the critic and take a look at what it is that you (and not somebody else) actually expect.
Let me give a personal example. I play the piano, and sometimes when I’m confronting a new technical challenge and get frustrated, I can come down hard on myself. If I listen closely, I’ll be saying things like, “You’re a lousy player. What’s wrong with you? You should have mastered this piece already! You’ll never be any good.” Those thoughts aren’t merely critical. They reflect attitudes and expectations I’ve struggled with my entire life: 1. I should be able to master things quickly and easily. 2. Learning should not involve frustration. 3. I want to be the best at what I do; anything less is without value.
I am not the victim of these perfectionistic expectations; a part of me demands that my life conform to the way I expect it to be. When those demands aren’t met, it usually stirs up anger that I “can’t have my way”: on some level, it makes me furious that life and my experience don’t unfold exactly the way I want them to, and in this particular example, that I’m not the brilliant musician (a true genius!) that I long to be.
Self-criticism transforms into anger — my anger, and not a “negative self-statement” I’ve internalized from the outside. Knowing myself well, having been over this ground many times, I think: “Oh that again. Now be quiet and breathe.” I turn myself back to the long patient work of practicing and accept that, as much as I might hate the fact, I will never play Carnegie Hall.