Continuing my series of posts this week on mental health, I wanted to address the tendency to self-criticize as a survival mechanism in abusive relationships. In normal life situations, self-criticism is of limited usefulness. It can be helpful to look at your work, realize your mistakes, and fix them. The level of self-criticism I am talking about is not only unhelpful, but detrimental.
Growing up, I was constantly being built up only to have my bubble burst the moment I started to believe in myself. Essentially, I was taught it is acceptable for other people to decide my worth, but unacceptable for me to find worth in myself. Anything positive I said about myself was called bragging, pride, or conceit.
In my marriage, my (ex)husband found only fault. On one occasion he told me I was so close to perfect, he just wanted to help me become perfect (and get to heaven, but that’s a story for a different day). Whether it was how I did dishes, talked in church, or what I cooked for dinner, he found the mistake, pointed it out, and expected me to be grateful for it.
Over time, I became very aware of every possible error I made, or anything that could be viewed as an error by someone else. I started thinking about every word I said, how it could be interpreted, and whether it might be construed as offensive, over-talkative, or annoying in any way. The same applied to my writing, actions, and thoughts.
The first moment when I realized I wasn’t to blame for everything wrong was reading the book SOS Help for Emotions: Managing Anxiety, Anger, and Depression by Lynn Clark. Based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it addresses negative thought patterns and how to change self-talk. This book made me aware of the negative self-talk patterns I had developed, and in doing so I realized they were based in the negativity of others. It was the first moment in my life I realized I had been abused. I was 22 years old.
Am I over all of the negative self-talk, depression, and anxiety? No. Not by a long shot. However, I have removed (as much as possible) the negative external input, and have been working on more positive self-talk. I still feel anxious whenever I’m asked to be complimentary to myself (job interviews are especially difficult); I still call myself an idiot whenever I make a mistake (even if it’s only a minor one); I am still my own worst critic, especially in my writing; I still feel my worth can only be decided by others (especially appearance, skills, and talents).
People ask me why I can’t just see how awesome I am (my boyfriend is great), and my answer never makes sense to them. A part of me (the logical part) knows my own skills, abilities, and worth; I know I am capable. Emotionally, any spoken words of self-praise cause anxiety; I expect to be contradicted. Self-criticism is my coping mechanism.