To thine own self be kind

A recent conversation has reminded me how routinely many thoughtful, lovable people put themselves down or talk disparagingly about themselves – reflecting a harsh inner monologue and a shaky sense of self that is almost certainly hard to endure.

I had been at a meeting with a talented young woman in her late twenties who was noticeably warm, lively and good company. We had moved away from the topic of our meeting and she was telling me a little about her life and ideals when quite suddenly she made a really harsh judgement of herself, speaking callously about her looks.  Then, as we were saying goodbye, she did something similar, although this time she was talking about her work goals.  “I work with so many talented people,” she said, “and often wonder how I came to be among them.”

This time I questioned her.  Was she appreciated at work?  Had she been regularly promoted? Was she receiving positive feedback from her clients? She answered yes to all my questions.  So of course I went on to ask about the basis of her pessimism.  She looked vague, and then said that she knew herself better than her colleagues or clients did.  What she didn’t say, but I could surmise, was that she felt as though she was “getting away with it”, that her success was somehow fraudulent, and that one day people would see the frightened, anxious woman on the inside, rather than the more polished, confident woman she superficially appeared to be on the outside.

I understand this kind of scenario all too well.  I wrote extensively about it in my book, Intimacy & Solitude, and that work was certainly precipitated by the fact that as a successful, confident young London publisher, I continued to suffer anxiety about my deeper and far more vital sense of reality and self-worth. Feeling different on the inside from the person others see on the outside is exhausting.  Without a secure sense of your own self and value, other people’s judgements loom far too large.  This makes it hard to lift your spirits and bounce back when things go wrong – as they sometimes will.  Just as worryingly, other people’s support and kindness may feel relatively meaningless or even threatening.  (“They wouldn’t say those nice things if they knew the real me.”)  This can affect people’s personal connections even more dramatically than their work lives.  The more intimate the relationship, the more we long to be loved for “ourselves” – but if we are unsure who that self is, or have fallen into bad habits of routinely putting ourselves down, then quite obviously when the love we long for does come our way, it can feel confronting rather than totally welcome.

Many people struggling with issues of self-acceptance are sensitive, responsible or even perfectionist. They often set themselves exhaustingly high standards while also berating themselves for ordinary human errors.  And they are wide open to criticism because this so neatly dovetails with their own fears. High levels of anxiety often underpin this picture, sometimes with debilitating depression.  But the outlook certainly is not grim.  My observation is that such people are often noticeably thoughtful towards others. With support, they can learn to direct some of that kindness and consideration towards themselves. Greater self-acceptance can only be achieved as a by-product of changes in thinking and behaviour. And that could include totally silencing those negative public remarks, talking themselves “up” and soothing rather than talking themselves “down” on the inside, and creating at least some sense of perspective and distance from other people’s actual or assumed criticisms. Those practical changes can radically improve emotional confidence and inner security. They will also make it much easier to accept affection and appreciation from others – and to trust its authenticity.

First published in Good Weekend, 2007.  Please do not quote or reprint without permission.