--The following are fragments from Paula Szewczyk’s interview with social psychologist Katarzyna Korpolewska. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.
Paula Szewczyk: “I could have done it better”, “I’ll never succeed”, or “I’m not competent enough”. Where is it all coming from?
Katarzyna Korpolewska: It sounds like our own an inner voice and that’s how we treat it, but in most cases, it actually belongs to someone else. Usually it’s rooted in our childhood experiences. Perhaps our parents criticized us excessively in order to motivate us, or make us more ambitious. Or they were too demanding and, despite our best efforts, never satisfied. The voice could also belong to an old teacher who constantly questioned our abilities, compared us to better students or never honoured us with the tiniest bit of praise.
Growing up with all these negative comments around us, we gradually adopted them as our own and continue to do so today as adults.
What if the critic inside us is the voice of reason?
If it sabotages our decisions, undermines our self-esteem and holds back our progress, then it doesn’t sound too reasonable to me. With time, the inner critic becomes the ultimate censor. Then the voice of this “Ideal Me” takes over our whole life and constantly urges us to be perfect.
Paradoxically, it does more harm than good. Faced with the fear of not being able to complete our tasks perfectly, we withdraw, choose not to approach them at all and start treating all new challenges as potential failures.
Does this fear afflict both genders?
My experience tells me it primarily affects women. Although the world around us is changing, girls and women still have to struggle with higher demands than men.“Be nice”, “Sit straight”, “Don’t say bad words” or “Keep your desk tidy” -- is all we hear at school. At the same time, we watch boys making a mess, fooling around and swearing with no consequences. What’s more, from an early age, girls are taught to work hard and be successful. For some reason, the same ethos doesn’t apply to boys. According to their standards, sitting still and allowing a teacher to run a lesson is already an accomplishment.
Does the self-criticism also apply to physical appearance?
Unfortunately, we still live in a society that places a high degree of importance on a women’s looks. We learn it when we're still very young. According to an HBSC cross-national study conducted in 41 countries across Europe and North America, over 40% of girls aged 15 are not happy with their bodies. These girls enter adulthood with the same negative self-image, and as grown up women can never be satisfied with their appearance. On top of that, they are pressured by societal expectations to be the ideal woman: beautiful and clever, a good wife, a tender mother and an ambitious employee.
Most women try to match up to all these roles, but the tiniest slip awakens their inner critic and brings back the ‘“I’m a hopeless case” mantra.
We could always admit to ourselves that our parents were right.
Sure. This is precisely what the inner voice wants and exactly why we need to challenge it. It’s time we admitted to ourselves that our childhood is over -- we are adults now. Isn’t it time to consider whether the expectations we’ve been so stubbornly trying to meet aren't truly ours? Do we really need them in our life? Surprisingly, it often turns out that so many of the decisions and efforts we've made over the years were incompatible with our own aspirations and that so many of the things we accomplished were done to satisfy our parents, friends, husband or children. Perhaps we applied for that position in a cosmetic company only to finally please our old teacher who had undermined our chemistry skills throughout primary school?
How do we fight with our inner critic?
Instead of fighting, we should first learn to decipher the messages our inner critic is sending; listen closely to that voice and try to recall whether we’ve heard it from someone else before.
Replacing the inner critic with a physical person may allow us to decide whether we’re fulfilling our own needs and wishes, or we’re trying to please somebody else.
Such an internal dialogue can be difficult and is only going to work if we embrace our weaknesses and accept the fact that we are not perfect.
So I’m not going to be perfect? Ever?
No chance. And saying it openly to yourself will make your life easier. Nobody’s perfect, even if some other women appear to be. We need to realize that having a big nose or thick thighs doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doomed to failure in every other aspect of our life. We should focus on our good qualities and appreciate them! When we hear a compliment, don’t suspect falsehood or mockery, enjoy it! Regaining confidence and rejecting negative thoughts is not an easy job, especially if no one praised and patted us on the back when we were kids.
How can we do it then?
First of all, we should try to understand our own urges and demands. I bet that pretty often we send ourselves contradictory signals. We want to be slim but food is one of our biggest pleasures, we unconsciously set traps and then fall into them and torment ourselves with guilt trips. The inner critic’s demands should be followed by crucial questions, such as, “Who do I want to be?”, or “Do I really need this?” I know many women who have managed to lose a lot of weight. But have their lives improved? Are they happier than before? Not at all. When we hear inside: “I’m hopeless” it’s worth considering who said it and in what circumstances. Most likely we’ll find out that the situation took place ages ago and that over the years we’ve managed quite a few remarkable accomplishments, but, as we are mentally stuck in that past, we've failed to notice and cherish them. And sure, there might be hundreds of people who could complete the task better, but if it’s my job, I’ll do it the best I can.
Is being a perfectionist a curse?
It is because it controls us, and holds us back. Not every action we undertake is worth an extensive effort. Sometimes it’s smarter to let go. If, right before a family dinner we’re hosting, it turns out that there’s no parsley to go with the chicken soup, it doesn’t mean we should get upset, drop everything and run back to the shop, leaving our guests and delaying the meal. Is that parsley worth sacrificing a cheerful atmosphere at the table? Sometimes I ask women: “Who truly cares about these little things?” Their automatic answer is: “Family! I’m doing it for them” but after some reflection they all come to the conclusion that it’s not the family who’s bothered, it’s themselves.
Perfectionism can be an exhausting and dangerous trait, often turning women into their own prisoners.
There’s no one standing behind us, nagging us to “Do it better!” It’s us, trying to live up to somebody else’s expectations. That’s what happens if we fail to look deeper into our inner negative voice and understand its real source -- the voices of our teacher or parents become our own.
And we pass that voice onto our children?
We do. Even though we promise ourselves to never be like our mothers or fathers. Keeping in mind how difficult it was for us, we should try to be a little bit more understanding to our own kids, accept the fact that they’re great at maths but not so good with history or languages and agree that it’s not the end of the world. Let’s not repeat our parents’ mistakes.
--translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach