Dismantling The CriticFeb 16, 2022
What is this self inside us, this silent observer,
Severe and speechless critic , who can terrorize us
And urge us on to futile activity
And in the end, judge us still more severely
For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?
--T. S. Eliot, The Elder Statesman
In the book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz asks then answers a pivotal question: “How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on Earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves.” Meet your inner critic. The judge. The source of your internal struggles and frustrations. As I write about the internal critic, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ because my judge is a dude. Your judge may be a ‘she’ or a ‘they.’ Regardless of your self-critic’s identity, it serves as a negative internal dialogue. It does not discriminate and is the source of our self-judgment, self-doubt, lack of self-confidence, and imposter syndrome. And while judgments frequently start with ourselves, it leads to judgments about others, our lives, and the circumstances surrounding us.
As I sit down to write, my inner critic’s voice begins to build:
- Who cares what you think?
- Why would anyone want to read what you have to say?
- You are a terrible writer.
- How can you be an example for others? You are a hot mess!
- You should probably stop wasting your time on this nonsense and play with your kids before they start resenting you.
Man, do I hate that guy. He is honestly the worst. It was not until my experience with physician coaching that I began to see him as distinct from me. Before coaching, I just thought we were one and the same. I was encouraged to give him a name to fundamentally create that distinction. The goal of naming the inner critic is to separate those critical thoughts from yourself. At first, I wanted to call him by the name of a childhood bully. Unfortunately, that name was shared by a beloved family member who died by suicide in his fourth year of medical school, and the name had taken on a completely different meaning. I tried to make up a name, but that didn’t feel authentic. Then, it came to me: The Destroyer. The Destroyer sounds like the villain in a Marvel movie. The Destroyer’s unique superpower is taking an otherwise good moment filled with hope and courage and turning it into a heaping pile of poop, filled with fear, stress, anger, shame, and unhappiness. As I said, he’s a villain.
The Destroyer is always in my ear, creating self-doubt. His quest to convince me that inaction is better than action never ceases. I am not sure when he showed up, but I imagine it was some time in middle school. His arrogant, know-it-all attitude and quick-witted ability to doubt my accomplishments and expertise made it impossible to question his intentions. I even started to defend him:
Surely he is only trying to protect me. If I am going to survive, I need to blend in, fly under the radar and try not to be noticed. If I hide, I can be protected from failure and harm. Yes, that new thing I want to do sounds fun and exciting, but what if I fail? What if someone makes fun of me or thinks I am a loser for even trying? Why not just watch Netflix and have a beer? That sounds so much easier.
As a physician, The Destroyer constantly judges my day-to-day activities. He comments on the thoroughness of my notes and judges my attitude and response to stress. Sure, you have excellent patient satisfaction scores, but that last patient didn’t seem happy, and it is probably because you are a total jerk. If you were a better human being, you wouldn’t get so frustrated when you are woken up at 3 AM to be informed that the inpatient’s most recent hemoglobin was stable at 11 g/dL. If you had just done this or said that, that bad thing wouldn’t have happened. Why can’t you be better than you are? You just can’t be happy with how things are now. Maybe when you fix this or solve that, eternal happiness will finally be yours.
One of the most interesting aspects of physician coaching is learning to watch your thoughts. In that process, you learn to observe how you speak to yourself. With so many thoughts moving in and out of our consciousness throughout the day, most of us don’t even recognize our thoughts as thoughts. They’re just there. But just because you don’t process every thought does not mean that your brain isn’t listening. In fact, the more we allow negative thoughts and self-doubt to creep into our everyday lives, the more normal it becomes. And, as we are all aware, the more “normal” something is, the less likely we are to recognize it as a problem. But negative self-talk is a problem. It creates boundaries and limits where they should not exist. It trains our brains to stop pushing, stop trying, and stop growing. We start talking ourselves out of doing things before seeing all of the inherent possibilities. So, what did coaching do for me? It trained me to develop my own superpower. It led me to recognize The Destroyer as the negative Nelly taking over my thoughts and stealing my dreams. It gave me the power to yank him out of the driver’s seat and place him in the back seat. I don’t imagine he will ever be out of the car entirely, but shining the light on his presence has made all of the difference.
As physicians, we are so careful with our patients. We choose all the right words. We actively avoid the wrong words. We speak clearly and simply, aiming to make the best possible impression to attain the best possible outcome. However, we frequently forget that our words matter when we speak to ourselves. We forget that our brain is listening. We fail to recognize the damage of our negativity. Let today be the day that you begin to challenge negative thinking. Let today be the day when you see the negative thought as a reflex that causes you to pull your hand away from a hot stove and allows you to learn an essential lesson in the process, rather than the end result itself. Let today be the day when you stop thinking that things will be better when you have more money, a different job, or a nicer house. Instead, let today be the day when you realize that you can be happy, just as you are, without changing anything about what you have or who you are. Once you see him, you can stand up to The Destroyer and all of the negative thinking he represents and say: Thank you for the warning, but I know what I am doing. I will take it from here.
What do you think about yourself when you think about yourself? What do you want your opinion of yourself to be? What do you want to think about yourself? Do you believe that something in life needs to change to achieve happiness?
Are you interested in creating more balance in your life? I want to invite you to check out my FREE TRAINING. Click here to get: How Busy Physicians Can Stop Trying To Escape Medicine And Start Living Their Best Life Today.
With this training, you will learn about the five most essential techniques physicians need to stop feeling stuck, burned out, and trapped in medicine. You will also learn how to discover what you truly want in life and how to get it!
PS. I get a lot of inspiration from music lyrics. Many people use inspiring quotes (and I do too), but music really speaks to me. I hope you find inspiration in the songs too.
Tori Amos – Crucify
If you can’t watch the video or just want to read the lyrics, click here.
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