Expert Column: Embracing self-doubt
Throughout our lives we are faced with an onslaught of external challenges and obstacles - but none , in my opinion that rival the irrevocable and determined force that is our own internal critic. Our
Throughout our lives we are faced with an onslaught of external challenges and obstacles – but none , in my opinion that rival the irrevocable and determined force that is our own internal critic. Our critics voices sow the seeds of doubt which keep us up at night, weigh heavy on our hearts in the morning and can cause that dull aching headache throughout our working day. They are well versed in all the ways in which we are not good enough, not cutting it and ultimately, likely to fail at the things that matter the most.
A huge drain on mental and physical resources, its a shame that this internal criticism and consequential self-doubt is so universal. Yet it is it’s universality that have drawn scientists to suggest that our self-critics played an important role in our survival during our evolutionary beginnings and in hunter-gatherer times.
The latest research in neuroscience seems to support this theory – revealing that self-criticism impacts the brain and body by releasing stress hormones that send an organism into fight or flight mode. The message that this effectively translates into is “ You are not safe…you are under threat…act now to do something which restores safety”.
Why would we evolve an internal self-regulating system that continually sends us into flight or fight mode? Neuroscience expert and researcher Dr Kristin Neff (Neff, 2012) proposes that historically, our survival was contingent on our membership and acceptance in social groups and that we developed a self-monitoring system to scan and determine if and when we were behaving in a way that was ‘out of the norm’ or somehow might be deemed as mis-aligned/unacceptable by the group and get us chucked out – leading in all likelihood to death.
Leap frogging into the present however, what was quite a clever tool at the time is slightly less up to date and a bit clumsy when we try to apply it in modern contexts. Less reliant on social group acceptance and tribal systems for survival , yet constantly fed by the social media and antiquated educational systems, our over-functioning self critics are tripping us up in the present. And because they get in the way, we grow frustrated, resentful or even hateful of them. We do our best to keep them at bay, fighting them during the day and anaesthesizing them at night.
What has become easy to forget though in the process is our critic’s point of origin – that they essentially came into being in order to keep us safe and to protect us and that central to their essence is still this ‘ desire to protect’ , if we were to imagine them as have live personas within us.
And It is in their reason for their conception – to protect us – that I believe we can also find the solution and our freedom to step into a space of greater confidence and internal peace.
Processes that emphasise reconciliation and compassion for our critics are key to our healing. More than anything, our critics are looking to be understood, validated and thanked for their efforts to protect us. Founder of The Internal Family Systems Therapy Model ( IFS) , psychotherapist Richard Schwartz has helped to pioneer approaches which help engage with our critics easily and effectively , and ultimately create a shift which disentangles us from the shackles of self-doubt (Schwartz, 2001). Similar to Neff, he advocates that because this part has come into being to protect us, that it is our apathy and/or resentment of our critic that keeps us stuck in self-conflict and that ultimately, it is acknowledgement, and compassion of our critic that is key to our healing.
- Neff, K.D. (2012) The Science of Self-compassion. In C. Germer & R. Siegal (Eds), Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy, 79-92. New York, Guildford Press.
- Schwartz, R.C. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. New York, Guildford Press.