In many ways, striving for perfection is a recipe for disaster. I’ve spoken with too many people who could never be smart, successful, slim, or striking enough to meet their own unrealistic demands. All the while, these individuals failed to experience themselves as people of value just for being themselves.
I’ve worked with countless couples that spend as much time obsessing over their relationship as they do experiencing their relationship. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if these thoughts were kind, compassionate, and introspective. Instead, they are harsh, cold, and critical. The demanding attitude we all have toward ourselves often divides our lives into two realities—what’s actually happening and what we tell ourselves about what’s happening. People who live in pursuit of perfection are missing out on the real pleasures of life.
We’ve heard the expression “live in the moment” so many times that the words can lose their meaning. We lose track of the fact that much of the time, we spiral off into thoughts that have little to do with the here and now. Buying coffee, we forget to meet the eyes of the stranger serving us. We obsess over how we look instead of noticing how we are being looked at—by a loved one, for example. When we fall in love, we worry about losing it, rather than enjoying the blissful feeling of being in love.
How can we shift from judging our lives to actually living and enjoying them? Here are three key elements:
1. Silence Your Inner Critic
Whether we are accomplishing a major goal or enjoying a simple pleasure, our “critical inner voice” is a thought process that can constantly question, critique, and undermine our experiences.
It subdues us and holds us back. It tells us we aren’t good enough or warns us that we will lose everything. It tells us that we have to be special to be worthwhile. It shouts, “If you’re not the best, you’re nothing.” When we receive an acknowledgment, it says, “You don’t deserve it.” When we fall in love, it whispers, “She will leave you.” When we listen to this voice we miss out on reality. We lose touch with the tactile, feeling, tumultuous roller coaster of real life. Instead, we stay in our own heads, failing to connect with the people, places, and experiences that make our moments worthwhile.
A friend of mine was invited on a getaway by her boyfriend of a few months. She was excited, but a few minutes into their long drive to the mountains, her critical inner voice started in on her. “What will you talk about? You don’t have anything interesting to say. He’s going to realize how dull you are.” The running dialogue in her mind made her unusually quiet, uncomfortable, even awkward. By the time they made their first gas stop, she wished she’d never agreed to come. Then, stepping out of the car, she felt a rush of cold, crisp air. She noticed they were surrounded by snow. It was beautiful.
She realized that her self-critical thoughts had left her missing out on everything from conversation with her boyfriend to taking in the stunning scenery. It was a wake-up call that gave her the insight necessary to silence her inner critic. She spent the remainder of the drive actively ignoring the “voices” that surfaced. When her “voice” told her she sounded stupid, she’d tell her boyfriend a story. When it said she seemed “desperate,” she’d put her head on his shoulder. When it commented on her appearance, she’d look admiringly out the window. Though it got stronger at first, like a child throwing a tantrum to get its way, eventually, the voice grew quiet, and she stopped noticing it altogether.
This is the approach we must all take, and it was recently, and perfectly, illustrated in an account by Amy Poehler in her book, Yes Please, in which she refers to her inner critic as her “demon":
Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head for love. They feed their demon, and it gets really strong, and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin.
Actively ignoring and taking action against your demon will initially make its voice louder and you more anxious, but it is the only way ultimately to silence it. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a leader in interpersonal neurobiology, says that the only appropriate attitude to have toward yourself is to be curious, open, accepting and loving. This attitude is what makes change possible. It’s what helps you to not only reach your goals but also enjoy and appreciate the road that gets you there, imperfect as it may be.
2. Don’t Avoid Feelings
Psychologist Robert Firestone, my father and my co-author on Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, recently pointed out that living in the moment isn’t always as joyful as the saying would suggest. Life is filled with a wide array of emotions including pain. However, living in the moment does ensure a more lively existence. We can’t experience the past or the future, yet we spend much of our time lost in regretting the past and worrying about the future. Still, the present moment is all we have. Think of what we are missing when we trail off and focus on things we aren’t actually experiencing. Think of how we tune out or numb ourselves in an effort to avoid whatever we would think or feel if we let ourselves be right where we are.
Most of us engage in behaviors that numb us in an effort to avoid sadness. But sadness has many benefits: It makes us feel rich, full, and alive to feel our sadness. It has a rejuvenating effect that grows our capacity for happiness. When you try to kill off a part of yourself, you lose more of yourself than you think. The fear that motivates us to avoid deeper feeling frequently leaves us dulled, anxious, and miserable instead.
3. Refocus Your Attention
When we listen to our inner critic, it is like looking at ourselves through someone else’s eyes instead of our own. We must learn to take the focus off ourselves and look for meaning in our experiences. This still means setting goals, but also enjoying the journey. Life is about striving, not just being there. Have you ever set a goal to exercise or lose weight, then felt slightly empty when you reached it? That’s because life happens in the journey itself. Your energy can only be felt in your actions.
As you live your life, remind yourself: Slow down and pay attention. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Focus less on evaluation and more on your actual experience. Look out the window of your car. Be in the moment. As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Pay attention in the present like your life depends on it.” And if you do get lost, never beat yourself up; just bring your attention back to the present moment. You can actually strengthen your mind like a muscle by putting your attention where you want it.
Life is too precious to waste lost in our heads, evaluating ourselves, one step removed from our own experience. We can live more fully by paying attention to our senses and being willing to feel what we are actually experiencing at any given moment.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org