On our inner critics
Updated: May 1
I want to introduce you to my friend, Joe.
I get to the office at 8.57am. The commute was a horror. There are requests from my team to sign documents and to attend to other issues. I can't care now, I’m worried about making my 9am. I get to my office, throw down my bag. I’m dying of thirst, but there’s no time to get water. I grab my notebook and a pen and make it to the meeting at 9.01am.
I’m in a foul mood. If I was a cartoon, I’d have some pretty angry storm clouds hovering above me. So begins my day.
The meeting begins soon after and the Ambassador makes some introductory comments. I make some notes, but I feel that I’m still calming down after the commute. I can’t take off my suit jacket as I’m a lather of sweat underneath. I shift uncomfortably in my seat and undo the button on my suit jacket in an attempt to get some air moving.
As the meeting progresses, there’s the time to make contributions. I have an idea and have thought about how it could contribute to the embassy’s goal. Others make their contributions. They’re so smart and erudite. It’s little wonder that they’re around the table. I’m feeling a bit intimidated and way out of place. There’s a pause in the discussion. The Ambassador asks if there are any other contributions, looking at me. Shit. I take a breath and start to stammer out, ‘Look, I’m not sure how relevant this is, but…’ As I speak, the Ambassador glances at his watch. He’s bored, I think. Oh God, I’m boring him. I look around at others around the table. Some are looking a bit confused. Some aren’t even paying attention. Shit! I’m way off topic here. Wrap it up! I scream at myself.
I wrap it up. There’s a pause in the conversation. Someone asks me a question to clarify, and it’s clear that I’ve been misunderstood. I’m such a fraud, I think. I don’t deserve to be here. I stammer out my response, and it kind of just tapers off into almost nonsensical sounds. I feel my face redden and the tap in my armpits turns on again.
Attention moves on as someone else speaks. The Ambassador looks happy with what they have to say. I quieten the racing thoughts in my head about how many ways I’m stupid and a fraud and tune back in to what’s being said.
Wait, what? Did they just rephrase what I said? Yes, they did. And look: people around the table are nodding and are leaning in to the conversation. Wow, I think, they're so smart. People agree with them because they like them more than me, I think with absolute certainty. It must be because I’m not personable enough. And then the spiral starts. How many people here don’t like me? It must be everyone. They are obviously all talking about me and I’m just being tolerated. That must be why I’m not invited to coffee or lunch. Am I too much? It’s this suit, isn’t it? Must be. I look like I’m wearing a hessian sack. I need to workout more. That’s it. If I was funnier, smarter, better looking and absolutely buff, they’ll like and respect me.
The meeting ends and I walk back towards my office feeling utterly dejected.
This is a description of a morning I experienced in 2016 a few weeks after beginning the School of Personal Mastery course run by Mike Campbell. Mike had me paying attention to my words, thoughts and actions in my every day. These, he said, would give me the biggest clues to what drove my behaviour and unlock the secrets to why I responded in certain ways in certain situations and to certain stimuli.
I've known for years about my self-deprecating streak. As part of the work I did in the School of Personal Mastery, I began to name the voice in my head Joe. Joe tells me, in the most unkind ways imaginable sometimes, that I’m not good enough. Joe tells me that my voice doesn’t deserve to be heard and that I have nothing valuable to say. Joe loves those silent moments between when I say something and the response. Joe loves to tell me that I’m not able to keep up with the other people around the table who are obviously smarter and much more competent than me.
Joe searches for any reason for me to stay quiet and to stay small. When he finds one, he lets me know very strongly. Usually by making me sweat or even taking every word that I would normally think of to use and putting them just out of reach.
Joe has been very effective at getting me to be small. Typically, he wants me to withdraw into myself and disconnect from those around me. I realised that listening to Joe was leading me to a scary and isolated place.
Why is this so?
I have spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting on how, and why, Joe works in this way. In short, these behavioural responses happen as they had previously served me. While I was being bullied at school, external voices told me that I was not good enough. Being different wasn’t something of which I should have been proud. I took on these external comments, so they became a part of my internal voice.
I feared being judged and found lacking or deficient in some way. I thought that if I aired my doubts before anyone else, then their words couldn't hurt me as much as my own.
I would start my contributions in meetings by apologising. I’d use humour and funny quips to deflect focus from me. I dreaded receiving feedback. If it was negative, I’d dwell on it for days. If it was positive, I’d dismiss the feedback as if it was given just out of politeness. If someone had an opinion different to mine, it was obviously their opinion that was right and more nuanced and I’d tell myself that I was wrong. Perversely, I’d talk myself out of making contributions during classes or meetings and then berate myself afterwards for not having spoken up.
I believed Joe when he said that I was not enough. But I would work so hard to prove to Joe wrong. The great work I did, the promotion I won, the postings, the amazing wife and family, the quest for the perfect me were all to prove that Joe was wrong about me.
No matter what I achieved, nothing was ever enough for him. He still found fault.
Why I know that I'm not alone
I've come to appreciate that self-deprecation is a common trait among high achieving people.
We have such high expectations of ourselves and have such strong motivation to achieve that we are disappointed in ourselves - and feel that others are disappointed in us - if we do not meet our high expectations at every opportunity. The word 'disappointed' seems understated here. It conjures images of a small shake of the head and a tsk-tsk as we turn back to what we were doing. It's so much more than that. 'Crushed' and 'unworthy' are more like it.
We can also feel like we're frauds or impostors. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, wrote extensively on impostor syndrome.
It's that feeling that we're not good enough, yet. That at any moment, someone will realise that we are frauds, that we are just making it up and everything will come crashing down around us.
That we don't belong.
That we are not worthy.
We deserve not belonging. We deserve unworthiness. [continued...]
Where did Joe come from?
That crushed feeling that Joe loves when I didn't meet my own exceedingly high standards is one thing:
When I didn't meet my own high standards, I didn't see it as an attempt that failed, I saw myself as a failure. Harsh, right?
I believed my own stories that I was not enough. I was not smart enough. I was not sporty enough. I was not funny enough. I was boring. I was ugly. As a friend has said: 'These words were planted externally, but were grown and cultivated internally'.
I did not truly understand this until I really looked at what drove my words, thoughts and actions. I saw that there were events in my life about which I carried immense shame. These were the events and memories from which I spent much of my life running. There was my suicide attempt when I was 14-years-old. Instances when I was bullied. Instances when I bullied people. People I'd depended on as friends turning on me and me taking personal responsibility for their decision. Mistakes that I’d made at work. The list went on and on.
Eventually, I realised that Joe's just a scared, sad, confused and lonely 14-year-old boy who wants to be safe. When I'd look in the mirror, I'd not see me as I am in the present, I'd see me through the eyes of the sad 14-year-old within me.
Joe and I are a team
While I often talk about Joe in the third person, Joe is me. Joe's role is to keep me safe by staying small.
Now that I know this, I can work with Joe. I have turned him into an ally. When Joe wants my attention, I give it to him. I sit down and listen. I work to feel what he's trying to tell me in the midst of the shame storm he's whipped up within me. I work hard to not act in the midst of these storms, when Joe is going full throttle. I know that I can act contrary to my values when that happens.
I've also taken to writing notes to Joe to let him know that he's been heard and I talk to him with logic. Crazy? Probably. Does it work for me? Absolutely. Usually within moments.
I also have an amazing support team around me who I know will listen to me when I speak of Joe and I know will respond with empathy and kindness.
Even now, as I write this, Joe is telling me that no one wants to hear this story. I'm being self indulgent. Joe catastrophises and runs doomsday scenarios like a boss. He's really good at finding ways to distract me. Who knew our house could be this clean as I write this post? Or that stuff on the internet was so interesting?
This post has actually taken a long time to write, as I would take frequent breaks to feel what Joe wanted me to feel. I would then write notes and reassure Joe with reason that this is what its like to be authentically and unapologetically me.
What are we to do?
While I have just outed myself to the internet as some kind of crazy man who's named the voice in his head and write it notes, I tell you this so you know that you are not alone. To live with shame is part of the human condition and us high-achieving people-pleasers all carry that nagging doubt about whether we are enough.
But we are enough, and more.
Shame is a powerful motivator of human behaviour. Think for a moment about what you've told no one about yourself. To what lengths have you gone to keep your shame private?
I could write endlessly on shame and it's effects on me, but I'll leave it to my intellectual crush, Dr Brené Brown. She writes and speaks extensively on shame and understanding it to live authentically and wholeheartedly. Perhaps the most profound statement she has said or written was:
Shame cannot survive being spoken. It needs three things to absolutely grow exponentially. Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement. The antidote? Empathy. It cannot survive being spoken and being met with empathy.
And while not everyone deserves to hear your story, who do you have in your life that you can speak your shame and be met with empathy? Can you speak your shame to yourself and be empathetic?
I challenge you this week to join me in some self-care.
So, whoever your version of Joe is, let's acknowledge their presence in you and think of why he/she may be there.
If you haven't already, click on this link to get a brilliant suggestion on how empathy works. Who do you know can respond in that way? Who has earned the right to hear your stories? Could you reach out to them and talk?
Thanks for reading!
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.