For the first forty-some years of my life, my inner critic was always on duty. Experience taught me that if I recognized my mistakes and quickly course-corrected, I could avoid being called out or criticized. Any honest perfectionist will admit that it’s shameful when others notice our mistakes before we do. And since shame is so painful, we must avoid it at all cost.
I learned how to critique myself at an early age. It became a habit that continued long into adulthood. Because I deemed all mistakes consequential, even the smallest blunder earned an internal tongue lashing. Once, I overcooked the green beans that my young sons had proudly harvested from our tiny, urban garden. They were perfectly ripe when picked, but when I placed them on the table, they were limp and pale. I berated myself for hours. How could I have been so careless? Of course, I wasn’t careless. I was exhausted and distracted by the many demands of raising three young sons while working part-time.
My failures—both perceived and actual—occupied a great deal of space on my internal hard drive. I thought this was totally normal until my late forties, when God broke in.
I had been experiencing a low-level anxiety for several weeks. One Sunday after church, I asked for prayer. A prayer team member tentatively inquired if self-hatred was an issue for me. I shook my head dismissively and said I didn’t think so but added that I’d pray about her question, so she wouldn’t feel embarrassed for suggesting it. (Co-dependence, anyone?)
A few days later, as I was assuring God that I didn’t have an issue with self-hatred, I sensed the Holy Spirit gently ask, “Isn’t that what your perfectionism is all about?”
This gutted me. During my childhood, my mistakes resulted in criticism and ridicule. This led me to conclude that the only way I would be loved and accepted was to be perfect.
The problem is, I never tallied the cost. I hadn’t realized that by honing my inner critic, I would come to hate my imperfections. I never realized how much creative energy I would squander condemning myself, replaying scenarios, and trying to get inside the heads of others to understand what they might be thinking about me.
Not long after the Holy Spirit asked me that piercing question, it became clear that I needed to set some boundaries on my inner critic. This habit has taken much longer to break than I anticipated.
Part of the difficulty in quieting this critic is that I actually need her. Editing—a form of self-criticism—is an essential component of my writing and photography work. I must ruthlessly discard approximately 90% of any photo shoot so that I can send a client the best images. I must delete paragraphs or entire chapters if they do not serve my text. I cannot succeed without criticizing my work.
Since I can’t simply fire my internal critic, I’ve cut back her hours and redefined her job description. She didn’t go down without a fight.
There’s something about midlife that invites us to evaluate who we are and figure out who we want to become. I’ve learned two important truths on this journey: Being good enough is a healthier and more reasonable goal than perfectionism. And appreciating my broken, limited self is far more satisfying than memorializing my mistakes.
I’ve made peace with my inner critic during the last ten years. I invite her in when I need her and mute her when I don’t. She still has an important role in my life, but mercifully, she no longer gets the last word.
Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Marriage in the Middle (IVP) and Making Marriage Beautiful (David C Cook). When she’s not rearranging words or making photos, she loves to kayak with her husband and share food with friends.