A long-standing cliché is that you are your own worst critic. You “beat yourself up” more harshly than you should, misidentifying earth-shattering catastrophes and never giving yourself the credit that you so rightly deserve. And there is some validity to this statement, for we often expound greater and more frequent negative criticisms about ourselves than about our acquaintances, friends, and family members. When we do feel compelled to criticize these important people in our lives, sitting them down for a one-sided discussion about those character flaws that need be fixed, oftentimes we are simply projecting onto them what we haven’t yet sorted through psychologically. This is an idea elaborated on, in detail, in Rule 2 of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life,” a bestselling self-help book that synthesizes ancient wisdom with scientific knowledge.
Whom, I ask, do you love more, your spouse or yourself? As Dr. Peterson alluded to in Rule 2 (“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”), most of you would probably concede that it is your spouse’s welfare that takes precedence over yours, and if you won’t admit to it, then you’ll certainly act in ways that prove otherwise.
Preferential treatment doesn’t have to extend to significant others – people ascribe increased value to entities existing outside of their conscious minds, like their goldfish, their pets, and even their prized material possessions that are not capable of achieving sentience. That is, when your pet gets sick, you’ll drive it to the vet immediately because you don’t like to watch it wither. And when your car breaks down, you’ll take it to the mechanic to get it inspected and diagnose the problem accordingly. But when YOU get sick – when your body and mind break down? It can wait until tomorrow. You’ll “get around to it.”
I have this theory which suggests that people criticize themselves with unrelenting harshness, and by implication turn a blind eye on their health like the medical patient who refuses to fill his prescription or the chronic alcoholic who drinks his liver away to quell inner demons, because they spend too much time in their own heads. They know themselves too well. After all, they’re apt to tell themselves, in their minds, that they’re a piece of trash, that they’re not good enough, or that they’re a failure beyond redemption. Yet they’ll never conceive of saying these things to another person lest they reap the enormous social consequences thereupon. This is because, beginning at age 4, they develop something called a “theory of mind,” or the cognitive ability to recognize that others’ thoughts, feelings, goals, and intentions are distinct from their own. (Consider the undisciplined toddler who screams and cries in an airport, much to the dismay of strangers. An adult would almost never do this.)
As such, my reasoning is that if you could really know somebody, perhaps by living inside their head to get a good feel for their thought patterns and less-than-favorable implicit biases, you start to resent them, and thereby take greater priority over their pets and inanimate objects.
I can tell you that, anecdotally, if you were to live inside my head, you might convince yourself that you are not worth taking care of. For instance, I don’t like that I practice such bad habits, including watching television for too long and drinking whiskey. As a result, I denigrate myself, and thus perpetuate the bad habits with hopes that I’ll be able to distract myself, for some time, from my growing list of problems.
You could apply similar logic to two romantic lovers who, prior to moving into a new apartment and living with one another for three weeks, had nothing but admiration to give. But as soon as the man left his disgusting facial hair shavings in the sink and the woman snored obnoxiously in her sleep, they both got under each other’s skin. Having found faults that never used to be present, their philosophical differences clashed, leading to arguments, snappy remarks, and an atmosphere characterized by general hostility. Now, multiply that three week period of living with your annoying partner by 30 years. You would drive each other insane! It is no surprise, then, that over half of all marriages end in divorce.
But what if that annoying partner whom I just used as an analogy was your conscience, repeatedly criticizing your every fault until the point of exhaustion? Might you expect that, on account of the considerable number of foibles that it’s discovered within you and informed you of, you are indifferent to improving upon them, thus fulfilling its prophecy that you’re a failure beyond redemption and only giving it more reasons to criticize you?
I would recommend resolving, or at least striving to resolve, this conflict between your conscience and the recipient of its criticisms by reminding yourself, first and foremost, that you are objectively worth no more and no less than the average human being. It goes back to what I was saying about the theory of mind in that you are quick to speak ill of all your character flaws, but you would never do so to someone else’s face.
So, start treating yourself like you are the “someone else” – like you and the average stranger are equally valuable. Like you are responsible for someone (or something) worth helping.