Harshest critic for two

The past 2 years brought 2 realisations that have revolutionised how I see myself, and others: not only are we our harshest critics, but also we project that harshness onto others.

The maxims in themselves are not revolutionary, but these past 2 years I’ve experienced – first unconsciously, then consciously – the forms these maxims took as they reared their harsh heads in my life.

Realisation one: we are our harshest critics.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this maxim. Most likely you’ve heard it said to you (or others), and may even have said it yourself. I said it to a friend just earlier this week.

It was only last year though that I learnt of a specific way in which this maxim often manifests itself. I don’t remember the specifics of the event, so let me give you a generalised example.

I have for 8 months now been working in a fast-moving, challenging corporate environment. Throughout this period (and in fact for all of my life), I’ve held myself to an exacting standard. And often I’ve felt myself falling short of this high bar.

At some point last year, my partner asked me the question that revolutionised the way I think about this matter: imagine one of your colleagues did what you’ve just done and are beating yourself up for, would you feel that way about them?

It seems like, and is a simple question. But up until that point, it was a question I’d never asked. A little, sparkly penny dropped.

I would never hold any of my colleagues, even my manager or their managers above, to that high bar. And these are all super smart, competent people. Then why am I holding myself to it? Why was I treating myself as a special case, a superhuman with powers unrivalled by others?

I guess this is one wicked logical outcome for the belief which many (all?) of us hold: “I am special and unique”. And because I’m special, I’m superhuman and can accomplish great things, to a standard higher than anyone else is capable of.

It’s precisely this belief that results in the unrealistically high bar, and the countless scoldings we give ourselves when we time and again fail to reach that bar.

This may be something you already know, but I only became aware of this (thanks to my partner) some time last year. And it blew my mind. This awareness gave meaning to the maxim – “we are our harshest critics” – which so far I’d repeated religiously yet always rang hollow.

I’d like to be able to report that, since this realisation, I’ve stopped this vicious practice of setting superhuman standards for myself and beating myself up when I fail to reach them. But I haven’t.

I guess the fault runs deep. This is one inclination I will continue to fight. So if you see me doing it, please by all means point it out to me. I will thank you for it.

Realisation two: we project our harshness onto others.

I am proud to report, however, that this second realisation is one I came to on my own last week, and that I’ve already begun to change my behaviour as a result.

I have a friend – to be exact, up until last week an ex-friend. This is someone who, for years, I had a close but extremely tumultuous friendship with. It was a caring friendship – but they were a difficult person to be around. No need to go into specifics. Suffice to say I had my share of suffering and the friendship left a bad taste in my mouth.

Then, some years ago, we had a row and in the aftermath of that row I decided I didn’t want to be their friend anymore. It wasn’t an easy decision – we had been very close. But I felt that my eyes had been opened to the many ways in which the friendship had been damaging to my psyche, and I decided it was one friendship I’d be better off without.

Years passed. The friend reached out, apologised, extended an olive branch. I accepted the branch but was tentative in my exchanges for over a year. I kept my distance.

It was only until late last week that another little, sparkly penny dropped: I have changed so much in the past few years. I can confidently say I’m a different person to who I was 3 years ago. Who is to say they haven’t also changed?

I realised then that for over a year, I had been tentative because I expected them to react in the same way as they would have 3 years ago. I expected them to have the same thoughts, the same inclinations. I expected them to be the person who caused so much turbulence in my life all that time ago.

But more likely than not, considering most of us do change, they are not that person anymore.

So I reached out to them, checked in on how they’re doing, and confessed that I’d kept my distance over the past year because this was how I felt. They acknowledged my feelings. We talked it out and agreed we’d start afresh.

Our friendship isn’t picking up where we left off. We’re each getting to know the persons we’ve become all over again. Clean slate. The past left behind.

This episode made me realise one way in which we may be harsher toward others than we should be. We freeze them in time. Whatever wrongs they committed to us in the past, we expect them to commit the same wrongs in the present, even the future.

It’s because of this expectation – brought about by the belief that people don’t change – that we may be giving too few people a second chance.

Of course, each case is different. And you and I are different people who will make different choices.

But at least for this particular instance in my life, this realisation has gained me a friend, one who could become a friend for life. For someone like me who has very few close friends, that is a big thing.

So yes… 2 years, 2 realisations.

Going forward, I will do my best to remember that I am not so special that I can expect unrealistically extraordinary things of myself, and then beat myself up afterwards when I, of course, fail to live up to those expectations.

And I will remember that people change. My parents are not the same people they were when I was a child under their care. My closest friends, my partner – they will more likely than not change in the coming years.

Instead of keeping a tally of the missteps they’ve made in the past and will likely make in the future (as will I), I choose to talk it out with them as and when these missteps occur, and to believe that this feeds back into their growth as they become, each day, a new person.

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