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What It's Like to Constantly Fight Your Inner Critic

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My dad used to tell me this story when I was younger and struggling with my mental health. It was the story of an old man sitting around a campfire with a young boy, telling the boy about a fight between two great wolves. In the story, two great wolves, both as strong as each other, fight constantly. Sometimes, the dark wolf wins; sometimes, the light wolf wins. But, they were always fighting and you were never sure who would win. The old man stops right before the story ends and doesn’t go on. The little boy grows impatient and says, “Well who wins?” The old man says, “Whichever one you feed’.”

The two great wolves in my dad’s mind were metaphors for my inner turmoil and the daily fight I had between my dark wolf (my awful inner critic) and my light wolf (my reasonable self).

My dark wolf, my inner critic, who I now call “Horrible Habitual Harriet,” is just that — she’s habitually horrible. After telling yourself for years, “you’re not good enough,” your brain begins to play that song on repeat, thinking that’s what it’s meant to say. Your brain thinks, “Oh yes, this thought pattern, I know how this goes, I know what I’m meant to do. One, two, three, everyone together now, be vicious about it. Do better, anyone could have done that better than you. God, be better, it’s not that hard, are you seriously saying you can’t do better than that? That wasn’t good enough, you’re not good enough, you’ll never be good enough, you’re never enough.” Eventually, it gets to the point where that “do better” loop could be said in your sleep.

One of my first memories of Harriet is the story my parents tell of a cross-country race I won when I was a kid. The way they remember that story gives them pride, joy and happiness to think their daughter really wanted to win something, she put in effort and did. Truth is, I remember that story very differently. I wanted to win the race because eight-year-old me told myself I wouldn’t be liked by my crush if I didn’t win, I wouldn’t be good enough if I lost. These significant moments in my life others remember as moments of joy, effort and ultimate reward are all littered with Harriet my dark wolf saying, “could have done better” in my memory.

Horrible Habitual Harriet plays on loop every day, with every choice, every achievement. She causes me to never truly be content with accomplishments. On the rare occasion I deem something an average achievement, I’ve surveyed every possible member of my family and friends to determine that, first, it is an achievement, and second, I did OK.

I’ve fought over and over with my two great wolves, nowadays with the light wolf coming out on top the majority of the time. But depending on the day, feeding Harriet my dark wolf results in questioning my achievements. It results in, “Are you seriously proud of that? What, you’re proud you got a good mark on your assignment? Anyone could have done that, I mean, are you serious? It could have been better, you could have done better, and you didn’t. Wow, not good enough again, what a surprise.”

To an outsider, my achievements are really damn good ones. If someone close to me had the same achievements I did, I’d be proud of them. For me, my achievements often have a different meaning.

You see, feeding the dark wolf is really easy, comparing myself to others makes the dark wolf almost unbeatable. Harriet gets fed day in, day out through the impossible expectations I place on myself. The irony is, I don’t place these expectations on others. When others make a mistake, fail or experience an unlucky event, I have a great ability to provide immense compassion. Yet, I can’t give myself an inch of compassion. When I make a mistake, I beat myself up for around three days, feeding Harriet, feeding the dark wolf. Amazingly, three days is actually a huge improvement for me.

Horrible Habitual Harriet’s favorite loop is the unlucky event loop. She knows this one the best. Unlucky events with an awful inner critic get turned into a fault of mine.

“They’re your fault because you could have done better, you could have prevented that, anyone could have seen that coming.” Getting rear ended turns into, “Well, you shouldn’t have stopped so suddenly, clearly you were at fault here.” A banner promoting The Mighty's new Chat Space group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Want to talk and connect with others? Join Chat Space to check in with others or have a conversation that's not related to health (because we all need a break sometimes). Click to join.

I’ve been working extremely hard with my therapist to feed my dark wolf less, starting with interrupting Horrible Habitual Harriets loops. Comparison is one of the biggest feeding mechanisms for my inner critic. I hold myself to my impossible expectations, and my inner critic always wins when they can never be met. A cycle of turmoil that has no end. Although the simplest solution is clearly lowering the expectations of myself, I can’t do that — I believe them all too well.

So, instead, I try comparing my expectations of myself, my self-talk and inner critic thoughts, to what I would say to a loved one. The comparison of this is hugely different. It’s my first step in feeding my dark wolf less, giving myself a spoonful of the compassion I give to others. It takes a lot of work, will continue to take a lot of work and will probably take a lot of work for the rest of my life to feed my inner critic less. But I’m determined to do it, I’m determined to change the Horrible Habitual Harriet loops she knows by heart, to a loop that’s interrupted. A loop she knows less and less of the words to.

Getty image by Grandfailure

Originally published: December 12, 2020
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