“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
– William Shakespeare, English poet and dramatist
Imagine watching a documentary about a troubled man. Angry, often excessively so, his tone is frequently condescending and his language harsh. He swears, he rages, he threatens – even the use of physical violence is not beyond his consideration. Characters in the movie call him a narcissist: someone incapable of feeling empathy or understanding the concept of deep and abiding love. He is accused of being an absentee father, all but abandoning his first wife and young son. In fact, his first wife calls him immature, absent, indifferent, drug-addled and generally unpleasant to be around. Some accuse him of exaggeration, embellishment and outright lying, deconstructing and reconstructing history to suit his purposes. Insecure, often frightfully so, he is easily threatened by those he deems more talented than himself, sometimes destroying both personal and professional relationships as a result.
Sound like someone you’d like to meet? Someone you might admire? Likely not, but in all fairness, this imaginary documentary features only the negative aspects of a brilliant life. The man in the fictional documentary is an entertainer and social activist John Lennon, frontman for the legendary pop group, The Beatles.
Is this hypothetical documentary accurate? In a sense, yes. The events depicted are true. But in another more important sense, it’s not accurate because it isn’t a fair, balanced representation of who he was. It focuses only on the most negative aspects of his life and character and leaves out all that was amazing about him.
Having poor self-esteem is like being a biased documentary maker of your own life who only selects the worst elements to feature in the film. Think about it: you could choose any great figure down through history from John Lennon to John Kennedy, Albert Einstein to Albert Schweitzer, and if you had film footage of his entire life to use for a documentary – and selected only the worst clips – you could make him look evil, despicable or foolish. You could look for times when he was angry, rude or behaving inappropriately. You could add some menacing music and show images of him tired, stressed or ill, or maybe even interview people from his past who disliked or envied him.
For those with low self-esteem, your internal self-critic is the director of your documentary. And by allowing this critic to constantly remind you of past mistakes and shortcomings, you allow the creation of an inaccurate and biased documentary of who you are. And over time, you may begin to believe that your documentary is real, an accurate representation of who you are and of your value as a human being. The time has come to detach from this negative internal story. No, I’m not suggesting that you switch to a rose-coloured, idealized view of yourself. You nor anyone else is perfect. Instead, learn to adopt and accept a more accurate, balanced and compassionate understanding of yourself.
Here are a few strategies that may help silence the critic – or at least lessen its impact.
Start by taking a serious look at the self-critical judgments that appear in your documentary. Jot down the judgements, the “I can’t” messages: you’ll never amount to anything, you’re worthless, you’re not smart enough, no one will ever love you. Write them down, whatever they might be, and take an objective look at these declarations. Writing them down may decrease the intensity and frequency of the taunting. Also, take note of the situations in which these feelings occur. See if you can recognize any recurring patterns.
Imagine that you’ve been tasked with doing accurate, unbiased research for a documentary. Determine whether the claims are arbitrary or fair. If the claim is that you’ll never amount to anything, take a serious look at your past accomplishments. Challenge negative labels with cold, hard facts.
Make a list of your accomplishments and carry it with you; pull it out and look at it when self-criticism threatens to overwhelm you. An exercise I’ve used often in my workshops is to hand out packets of sticky notes and ask participants to write down one admirable quality for each individual in the room and then walk over and stick it to them. I keep a number of these positive notes in my suit jacket and pull them out when I feel especially put upon.
It’s important to recognize the difference between thoughts that are critical and thoughts that are constructive. If you fall off your diet, calling yourself a fat loser is a condemnation. To assert that you’ll do better tomorrow – and truly mean it – is a conviction. Our goal must be to improve daily rather than constantly be putting ourselves down. Worthy goals such as kindness, integrity, self-discipline, and improved self-esteem add quality, joy and meaning to life.
John Lennon was arguably one of the most influential people in the 20th century. Lennon was a musical pioneer and a man who promoted a peaceful existence even though such an existence often eluded him. He helped introduce the world to rock and roll and free thought. Lennon was revolutionary in changing negative social values. His lyrical tone and musical prowess were unrivalled. Was Lennon a perfect human being? Of course not, but he followed his passion and changed the world. His message of peace, brotherly love and the pursuit of happiness will live on forever. And for that, he will always be remembered, and we will always be grateful.
It was Lennon who said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” Perhaps Lennon knew that someday his life would be constructed and deconstructed, interpreted and reinterpreted.
And as for us, our inner critic – the biased documentary maker – rarely goes completely away. Left unchecked, he or she will continue to make documentaries that show us in the worst light and damage our self-esteem. Challenged, he or she will be forced to create an unbiased, more accurate view of our life. As Lennon might say, imagine all the possibilities.