Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Cycle of Self-Criticism and Self-Sabotage

During those tumultuous undergraduate years, I once had a friend mention that while most people are sometimes critical of themselves, I was extremely hard on myself. She was one of those friends that was by all appearances, the complete opposite of who I was. Beyond the appearances we shared a similar life experience that affected all aspects of our life, our choices and even our personalities. That similar life experience's aftermath just manifested itself somewhat differently within each of us.

Although we've lost touch, I remember our time together fondly. She had a way of bringing out my wild and carefree side. I had a way of making her realize she had the capability of being independent and strong. We created many youthful moments of random adventures that always seemed to work out somehow, funky laughter and soulful conversations that made the other stop and think. She was also the one who supported me and saw my perspective when my family didn't. She was the one who was genuinely happy for me when I left home to explore what could exist beyond my shadows.

One of those shadows, as she had pointed out, was the tendency to place impossible standards and expectations on myself. Perfectionism has its dark side. We don't give ourselves credit for our talents because we don't allow ourselves to see them. We're too busy nitpicking at the small details that we see as somehow being out of place. We don't see how far we've come in such a short amount of time because we expected ourselves to go even farther, faster. We're scared that we might actually be good, because with talent comes a certain level of responsibility and attention that we're not sure we're ready to handle.

I've seen it all in other HSPs, as well as myself. We openly self-criticize in hopes of receiving the external validation we aren't able to give ourselves. We periodically or habitually abuse harmful substances and go down roads filled with self-defeating behaviors in order to relinquish responsibility. We're tired of feeling the pressure that we think is coming from others, but in reality, we're the ones creating it. It took me a long time to realize that; a long time. That's not to say that once you start to perform up to a certain standard that others around you won't hold you to those expectations or become upset and disillusioned once you abandon them. You just have to remember to take accountability for your part in their creation.

There are also times when we hide behind the scenes on purpose. We don't allow ourselves to express our full potential because it requires more energy than we feel we have. At times we fear that we'll have to face who we really are and others will reject us for it. Other times we simply don't believe in ourselves because we've bought into the non-HSP message that our differences aren't welcomed. We realize that we want to do things "our own way" and being a pioneer can be a risk we haven't developed the courage yet to take. Or we've become so accustomed to being invisible that it has become a familiar stifling trap that we're not sure how to break free from. Quite simply we fail to take the action we know is necessary to accomplish the changes we want to materialize in our lives, not because we don't want to, but because we've decided something about our current situation is acceptable.

There isn't an easy answer to breaking the cycles of being hard on ourselves and self-destruction. In a way it can be self-medicating at times; an addiction that is hard to recover from. Take it from someone who decided to drink herself into oblivion because she was tired of the pressures of sixty hour work weeks, grad school and family obligations. Someone, as a result of being intoxicated to the point of blacking out, almost left the bar with a married man because what she really wanted was the companionship of the other half of her long-distance relationship. Someone who often looks in the mirror and doesn't see what others tell her. She only sees what's wrong and then goes between bouts of starvation, indulgence and excruciating gym sessions. Someone who doesn't feel comfortable with accepting praise because deep down she feels like an imposter and doesn't feel that it's deserved. And from my fourteen year old self who almost swallowed a mixture of her father's medication because she was tired of feeling pain and emptiness.

Yes, I have a deep dark side and it's far from pretty, inviting, or at times even recognizable. My point in sharing it is that we often go about our daily routines acting as though it doesn't exist. We all have one and we act as if everything is ok because we're afraid of being honest. HSPs are just bothered more by it and when we finally release, the result is more extreme. Perhaps honesty is one of the answers to breaking the cycle. When we reveal the truth, we find that others will do the same. Support comes from unexpected places and from those who are willing to see us for who we really are. Still, I've found that one of the most powerful answers to breaking the cycle is making the decision that the "something" we found acceptable about our current situation is no longer going to be tolerated. It's a decision that says our hopes, our dreams, desires and self-worth are more important than settling for an illusion.

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