When Your Worst Critic Lives Inside Your Head

Psychology Today | Margaret Rutherford. PhD

Long ago, a therapist suggested the little book "Taming Your Gremlins" by Rick Carson to help me begin to fathom what my own inner demons were saying to me. There I found disturbing illustrations of gnarly-faced gremlins that would sit on your shoulder, and harshly whisper, "No one cares about what you think, " or, "You should be ashamed of yourself for that."  The images were dramatic and made my "negative self-talk" come to ugly life.

I'd slipped into an extremely critical place in my head, my own vicious little gnome constantly reminding me of my mistakes and my vulnerabilities. I was in graduate school to become a psychologist after a chaotic decade of  life. And I'd hear on a daily basis, "You should be ashamed of yourself. No one will ever believe that you could help them."

My worst enemy lived in my own head. 

And its voice was the voice of shame. Perfectionistic, deliberate, destructive, ever-present shame. 

Reading that simple book turned on a lightbulb in my head that slowly began to glow brighter and brighter. 

My questions became, "You mean, I don't have to keep a thumb in my back to trust that I'll work hard? Constant shaming and questioning of myself isn't necessary to be a good person? My vulnerabilities don't have to remain closeted away or carefully hidden?"

No. No. And an even more emphatic -- No.  

Shame's role in classic depression and in perfectly hidden depression...

Shame can play a significant role in classic depression, although usually characterized as feelings of worthlessness or low self-esteem. You can allow guilt or remorse to define you, as you consider your mistakes as impossible to forgive. Shame leads you to believe that at your core, you're less than or worthless because you've made those mistakes or done things you regret. Your self-worth can plummet, as you absorb the responsibility for abuse or neglect that you suffered in your past.  You can give up. Isolate. Become angry and irritable. You can easily convince yourself, "I just don't care anymore. Why try? I always screw up." 

For someone who identifies with perfectly hidden depression (PHD), shame is still very present. But its impact is different. Instead of shutting you down, shame can act to fuel your perfectionism and propel you into creating even higher expectations for yourself. Any emotional pain you may have is rigidly guarded and compartmentalized far away from your awareness. Instead of working through those feelings, you're constantly evaluating yourself about how you're not living up to who you believe you could be. Even if you're successful, or have accomplished things that were very difficult, you'll focus instead on what could be better. And you ramp up. There's rarely a time when you relax, sit back, and enjoy whatever it is you've created. You silently but consistently fault yourself, saying, "It could've been better." Or, "I can't believe I forgot something like that." 

This goes way beyond high expectations; nothing for you is ever quite as good as it could be. Your focus is on what isn't, instead of what is, and you feel great shame for what you perceive as inadequacies and failures. Inwardly you're chastising and demeaning yourself, while outwardly you appear quite satisfied and as if your life is fulfilling and wonderful -- even perfect-looking to others.

One question that might help...

So how do you stop shaming yourself if you identify with PHD? 

It's certainly not easy. But here's one question to begin thwarting the shameful voices inside your head. 

The question isn't magic and might not work for everyone. But because it's very practical and pragmatic, it may appeal to the over-analytical person that may strongly identify with perfectly hidden depression.  

So here it is. 

 “Is this thought helpful to me today?"

Let's say you're thinking about a friend who's undergoing cancer treatment. You texted last week, brought food in weeks past, but you haven't contacted her in a few days. You suddenly remember and your mind is flooded with shaming thoughts. "I can't believe I didn't make that a priority." 

Someone who's healthier, who doesn't immediately slide down the rabbit hole of shame, remembers and uses the memory as something helpful. She'll say, "I'm glad she came to mind, and I'll put her on my priority list."

Is shame ever helpful?

Let's face it. Sometimes, we all need to be critical of ourselves. Obviously, having a conscience is important, and empathy for those around you is necessary to enjoy quality connections with others. Holding yourself accountable is important.

But constantly nagging yourself? Opening your eyes first thing in the morning, and tuning into the cacophony inside your head that jousts for your attention and stealthily overrides any belief in yourself?  

It's a waste of your life.

Shame can be helpful if it reminds you today of the person you want to be; if it leads you to an apology that will clear the air; if its purpose is clear and helps you grow in a direction that feels right and whole.   

Robert Beavers, a Dallas family therapy researcher and author,  used to say in our supervision sessions, "Shame is a helpful emotion if it lasts ten seconds, and leads to a change of behavior." (quoting loosely...). 

I couldn't agree more. 

What does it take to work through the habit of shame? 

It takes a lot of practice. But it can be done. Here are three basic steps. 

1) Identify how you started initially shaming yourself.

This means figuring out the origins of that gremlin's voice. Where did you learn it? When did you absorb it? Allow yourself to identify and be compassionate toward the likely child that came to believe it. You can create a timeline to help you do just that.

2) Recognize shame's presence in your present.

When you  begin to catch how you shame yourself, you can recognize that shaming yourself may have become quite a bad habit.   Saying things like,  "I'm sure I'm wrong...".  Or if it's perfectionism you struggle with, "If it's not done perfectly, I'm a failure."

3) Ask yourself the question, "Is this helpful?" 

Ask yourself the question -- "Is this helpful to me today?" If not, then let go of it. Work on deciding what could be helpful. 

With time, those nagging critical voices can be softened, and even the gnomes can fall into silent defeat.  

To identify your own possible perfectly hidden depression, you can take this questionnaire.


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