THE WELL-BEING ALPHABET:
An Opportunity To Challenge My Inner Critic
I woke up this morning with an idea that popped into my mind on various occasions including before falling asleep last night: I would create an alphabet of well-being.
When I first came with the idea of this well-being alphabet, I got extremely excited and felt determined to write and complete it in a day.
Then I listed the words I wanted to talk about: awareness, attitude, acceptance, authenticity, adversity, being, bravery, beauty, congruence, care, compassion, connection, creativity, curiosity, communication, choices, determination, diversity, exploration, emergence, esteem, emotional intelligence (that one is cheating with two words when I first wanted to create a one-word alphabet), flexibility, fulfilment, fraternity, grounding, gestalt, grief, health, honesty, humility, hope, integrity, indulgence, intelligence, joy, judgements, jealousy, kindness, knowledge, love, loyalty, mindfulness, meditation, narcissism, novelty, neurodiversity, open-mindedness, ownership, playfulness, prudence, protection, quality, respect, rest, resilience, solidarity, survival, silence, strength, subpersonalities, thinking, togetherness, trust, uniqueness, understanding, vulnerability, values, will, welcoming, worth, x marking the unknown, y for you, z for zapping as letting go/moving on etc.
Writing that list awoke anxiety in me. Once more my imagination that is so rich and thinks and creates so fast wanted me to produce in a blink what would need a long hard work over time. I felt so discouraged, so overwhelmed. Why is my imagination so much richer than I can exploit and why does it always result in not exploiting it at all? This is so unfair. So much pain and emptiness where there could be so much creativity and excitement.
No. Not always. Not my imagination: my Inner Critic. It is my Inner Critic, - in the shadow of my consciousness -, that was creating my anxiety with that unreasonable expectation to complete in a day a fairly exhaustive alphabet about well-being with references to books and videos for more exploration. It could be the single project of a lifetime and my Critic wanted me to achieve it in a day, - in few hours if possible. Why am I so unreasonable with myself? Why do we crush ourselves like that?
It did crush me as it did so many times before. It crushed me with loud messages such as:
“You will never complete it. You don’t have the patience, the intelligence, the knowledge, the hard-working ethic and determination you need to complete that project. You are not intelligent enough. Who are you fooling when trying to create a dictionary of well-being? You are incapable. You are incompetent. You are a quitter. You are a failure. Give up! That’s what you do best, that’s all you know how to do! Stupid you!”
Then, I realised I had multiple and complementary choices. One was about rethinking that project. The other was about what to do with my Inner Critic.
I decided that I would use the experience of trying to write about this project to talk about my Inner Critic. By exposing it to you I want to encourage you to face this demon inside that crushes your self-esteem and gets in your way. By exposing it to you, I want to mirror many crucial elements I want to include in that well-being alphabet. Elements I want to invite you to reflect and explore about.
The awareness of my internal process. The attitude I can choose to have toward that process. An attitude made of acceptance, self-compassion, healthy indulgence, self-respect, gentleness and kindness. A for Awareness. A for Attitude. Awareness plus Attitude leads to C for Choices, and awareness and will (two major concepts of Psychosynthesis) are the pillars of E for Empowerment and F for Fulfilment. The Empowerment and Fulfilment of B for Being. Being Authentic. Authentic with my Inner Critic and its challenges. Mirroring to you what it is to take the time to breathe and G for Grounding yourself. R for Reflecting. I could go on like this a long time with the letters.
And maybe allowing myself to be congruent here, exposed and vulnerable1 is the best way to achieve what this well-being alphabet is all about. The best way to invite you to treat yourself better, to take the time to re-assess what is going on, the dynamics at play and the choices you may have. The best way to help you be inspired and empowered.
Maybe by exposing myself I will help you to listen to your inner voices and decide whether or not you let them control you, whether or not you decide to try taking back the driving seat of your mind and life.
I am taking back the driving seat by exposing my Inner Critic and admitting its power over me. I admit the shame and embarrassment I feel as a Counsellor to get stuck in self-depreciation and disappointing myself. The weight of experiencing myself as a failure for it. The challenge not to always know how to overcome my Inner Critic and how to achieve what I want to achieve. I am taking back my control. I am taking back my value, my worth as a human being.
I am feeling discouraged and being a failure for totally unreasonable and unrealistic expectations I put on myself. I say “I” put on myself because it comes a time where one needs to take ownership of the voices and deal with them. I am dealing with them transparently because how am I suppose to help you as my clients or readers empower yourselves out of shame and judgement if I can’t do it for myself? I am exposing myself to you as a gift, the gift we give in therapy2 as Counsellors: the allowance to be yourself, and to know that yourself is enough, yourself has no shame but pride to feel. Yourself is valuable, beautiful and worthy, even in the darkness.
What was before my Inner Critic took over and what does remain since?
My imagination. Rich, creative, exciting, joyful, playful and generous. My generosity, my heartedness and my kindness in the desire to write about something that could help some of you to feel better, to nurture your self-loving3 and your well-being. My care remains. The kindness and love in my heart remain. I genuinely want to do good. I genuinely want to help you as individuals to face and heal from your suffering and customise your life around your needs and desires, your identity and values. That’s why I became a Counsellor in the first place.
So what? Am I gonna let my Inner Critic convince me that I am a failure because I might not have the unrealistic productivity and endurance to create what my imagination gets excited about? Am I gonna let it tell me how to perceive myself? Someone not intelligent enough, lazy, procrastinating, not resilient, not hard working… Yes, sometimes I might be those things. Yes I admit that I would love to create in quality and quantity in the blink of an eye because it would be so much easier and because my imagination has more ideas than I could chew in a lifetime.
But if I have the humility to admit the impatience in my personality and the limitations of my intelligence and knowledge, I can also admit and recognise my intelligence and emotional intelligence as they are. Recognise the richness of my imagination, the generosity of my heart, and all the good in my intentions. Those are the things I want to build my self-esteem on. I don’t want to deny my flaws and my shadows. But I sure don’t want them to hide from me my qualities and my lights.
I may or may not come back to creating my well-being alphabet. Today, I realised and made a conscious choice that something else mattered more to me. Admitting my struggle to myself and to you. Listening to my struggle with compassion. Admitting my shame with gentleness and kindness. Mirroring to you what it is to accept my human hood and work through it.
I am not finishing this article unharmed by my Inner Critic. I am not finishing my article healed from my crushing shadow. I am finishing it in a space of ‘acceptance in progress’. Accepting the processes within me and that they take time. I am finishing with being proud of myself for letting go of an unreasonable expectation, for facing my demon and deciding to face it publicly. I am proud of honouring myself and my goal through all the well-being posts I can write by exposing my vulnerability and extracting strength from it.
I exposed myself today to honour my goal to allow myself to be who I am, to let my being shine, and to help some of you do the same whether it is within yourself, in your relationships with others, or in the world you navigate in. Be attentive to yourself, be kind, be gentle, be patient… You are more than your shadows. Be proud of your bravery, because very often the bravest thing we can do is B for Being.
1 The Power of Vulnerability, Brene Brown
2 The Gift of Therapy, Irvin D. Yallom
3 The Self-Love Challenge: Why Loving Ourselves Should Be Trendy, Lucas Voclere
Nowadays social media tend to dictate trends. So-called challenges like the #IceBucketChallenge continuously fill the web. Sometimes, though created for a good cause, they put people’s health at risk. If we add to that a modern culture of alcohol, smoking, drugs, chemsex and of a toxic obsession about body image & weight, it seems to me neglecting or abusing our Health is unfortunately trendy. I write Health with a big ‘H’ as I see the wholeness of mental/psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual health to be the equation of Well-Being.
We live in a society praising more than ever unrealistic role models and lifestyles with unreachable body proportions and egomaniac stardoms of people who have no other talent than being self-absorbed. When you look online for health advice, the trend is to be a vegan gym addict obsessed by food and weight. Is this healthy? Isn’t it the other side of the same coin of those unrealistic role models? Doesn’t it create or reinforce shame, body image issues, eating disorders, lack of confidence and self-esteem for individuals who can’t or don’t relate to this modern archetype of health? I wish not to dismiss the perks of gym and veganism but to highlight a concern about associating health with body image, food and weight obsession. Like pretty much everything in life, Health is about quality & quantity, the quality being about attitude & perspective whereas the quantity is about regulation & balance. As a Counsellor, I believe self-love is a necessary focus for Health.
I already hear the critics about the danger of our society being already too selfish, narcissistic and that self-love is the focus of this toxic societal coin I just criticised. But self-absorption, unhealthy narcissism or unhealthy selfishness are nothing but distortions of self-love. I associate self-love with self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-respect and self-esteem which I like to perceive as an integrated whole called self-care:
How can we consider self-love without self-care? Can we love ourselves without caring for ourselves, and vice versa? And how can we love and care for ourselves if we don’t accept, respect and value who we are while being compassionate about our psychological & emotional experience, struggles, mistakes and failures?
I believe self-love is the key to self-realization (1). Self-realization is integrating consciously all our personality components as a whole, to come to terms with and accept who we are; acceptance being a component of self-love (2). On another hand, it is realising our soulful potential, our Higher Self (I mean that in a non-exclusively religious spiritual way). This might not be the only meaning of life but I share the belief of humanistic and existential psychologies that we all have ‘an inbuilt propensity toward self-realization’ (3) which represents a universal life meaning and purpose. As a Therapist, I consider facilitating self-realization for my clients as one of my core functions, helping them notably to become aware and remove obstacles (4). I don’t see how any self-realization would be possible without self-love, nor what could be healthier than realising our life meaning and purpose while and by loving ourselves.
With that in mind, I wish to challenge common conceptions about narcissism and selfishness. Through various contents and conversations, I noticed how narcissism and selfishness are strongly pathologized and only considered as negative toxic behaviours or personality types to avoid or “cure”. Though I wouldn’t contest that in some extreme cases they can become pathological, I think seeing them only in unhealthy extremes is a widespread misconception that focuses on distortions of self-love. I believe both narcissism and selfishness aren’t necessarily unhealthy and might even be desirable for our mental health. I would suggest that heathy narcissism represents the quality and healthy selfishness the quantity of self-love.
In my practice, I often invite my clients to reflect on, practice and nurture what I call healthy narcissism and healthy selfishness. It took me years of personal & professional process and witnessing others to articulate a non-definitive and evolving conceptualisation of those as spectrums, with at their core my model of ‘Self-Care equals Self-Love’. I need to empathise that those spectrums aren’t to be considered as a rigid way of perceiving someone’s identity but more as an invitation to reflect on the constantly evolving behaviours of one individual and how those behaviours are sourced by and impacting on their evolving identity and environment. Every human characteristics can be conceptualised into flexible and mutable spectrums within which it would be desirable to develop and nurture our unique healthy balance.
I believe well-being requires the healthy balance between the unhealthy ‘not enough’ and ‘too much’ self-love; hence my Narcissism Spectrum below.
Note I didn’t create the vulnerable and grandiose types of narcissism (5), qualified as narcissistic disorders by the DSM (6). I suggest to consider them as the two opposite extremes of the Narcissism Spectrum. Healthy Narcissism is self-consideration and humble confidence as the balance between the ‘not enough’ self-devaluation and the ‘too much’ self-idealisation.
Though quantity is involved, for me healthy narcissism is the quality of self-love because it is about learning how to love ourselves properly and to give ourselves the consideration we deserve. Partially caused by the inheritance of religious guilt, it appears to me that “I am a good person if I beat myself down” is a collective unconscious belief of what humility and self-esteem should look like. Auto-flagellation is self-hatred. Self-hatred isn’t humility. Owning everything we are, feel and do is. Healthy narcissism is owning both our strengths, weaknesses, qualities, flows, mistakes, struggles, failures and achievements, with the same ‘unconditional positive regard’7, empathy, respect, acceptance and compassion. Learning when to praise ourselves and when to face adversity with openness is real humility.
Healthy narcissism is letting go of our fantasies about who we should or would like to be, and learning to love ourselves for who we truly are and could become. It is knowing when and how to look and focus inward, outward or both. A healthy narcissism allows empathy and selflessness, because it is about balance and because self-love isn’t exclusive but intricate with loving others.
I see healthy selfishness as the quantity of self-love because it is learning to know when and how much to give ourselves, others or both in terms of time, treats and efforts. Healthy selfishness is our existential freedom that stops where the freedom of others starts8. It is about healthy self-indulgence and interconnectedness. Here again, no healthiness without balance and regulation. If we constantly behave too selfishly, we might fuel egomaniac/narcissistic tendencies. We may push people away, not receive love and end up not loving ourselves. Like for many extremes, we might adopt them alternatively. And not enough selfishness is also harmful.
Healthy selfishness and good will9 are inextricable. Good will is about aiming the welfare of others and/or humanity without being detrimental to ourselves. Too often I see individuals putting their sense of self-esteem and self-worth into devotion and self-sacrifice. Note that helping others solely to value ourselves may demonstrate a misplaced ego and unhealthy narcissistic tendencies potentially inherited from guilt, religious or not.
Self-sacrifice, - no matter how pure one’s intentions can be -, is a distortion of good will and by extension a distortion of self-love through a lack of selfishness. This lack is the unhealthy selfishness I often work on with clients identifying with being ‘The Loyal Child’, ‘The Dedicated Parent, Partner or Friend’ etc. I try to help them learn to use the qualities of being responsible for and loyal to someone for their own benefit. I facilitate their reflection by questioning them. Don’t we need to be loyal to ourselves? Responsible for ourselves? Wouldn’t it be preferable or even necessary to be responsible for and loyal to ourselves before others? If we see ourselves as the tool helping others, how can we help them with a damaged tool and how will we help them if we come to break it? Would a Driver neglect their car? Would a Therapist neglecting their well-being be able to take care of their clients’ well-being? (That is a funny one.)
THE REGULATING ROLE OF OUR INNER CRITIC
Now, finding your healthy balance of narcissism and selfishness to develop and nurture a healthy self-love can be very difficult and challenging. As evoked, both narcissism and selfishness also require a certain quality and quantity to constitute the same traits for a healthy balanced self-love. It entails trying, experiencing, failing, finding a balance, evolving, losing that balance, and working on finding a new one. It necessitates a constant and renewable introspection, exploration and regulation.
A regulation that can be facilitated by communicating with our Inner Critic. A negative and controlling self-devaluating and self-sabotaging Inner Critic is incredibly common if not universal. By communicating adequately with them, we may reduce their negative impacts.
We need to learn to listen to our Inner Critic without considering they tell the truth, hear what they have to say, and through introspection and exploration get to understand them and the value their messages might hold. Sometimes what they hold is why and how fragmented our self-love still is. Listening to them with a compassionate and empathic dialogue may well be the key to restore our self-love. I say restore because we are born with it and it gets wounded even before we realised we had it. It is a very hard practice to listen to our Inner Critic without taking on board their negativity. I encourage my clients to listen to their Inner Critic, thank them for what they had to say, and tell them if and maybe even why they won’t be taking something on board.
When The Inner Critic is too loudly negative, refuses to be dismissed, I sometimes invite my clients to tell them to “F*** off”. My clients generally report how empowering the latter can be. Note that dismissing quietly or with the latter after an active listening is completely different from repressing or denying our Inner Critic. It is facing them, controlling what we do with them, whereas repression and denial are a good guarantee of being controlled by them; hereby the importance of dis-identifying from them through awareness10.
Hopefully, a healthy communication with our Inner Critic will allow us to grow, turning negativity into constructive feedback, but also discovering their positive side. Note that positive and healthy are interchangeable adjectives that we talk about Inner Critic, narcissism or selfishness. I hope by now positive narcissism or selfishness won’t feel like an oxymoron. As a Counsellor, I seek for my clients to become partners with their Positive Inner Critic in their quest for self-love and self-realization.
I have so much more to say about the stigmatising conception of self-love, narcissism and selfishness, and I am aware I haven’t given any practical tips on how to develop them in a healthy way, and develop this regulating and enriching partnership with our Inner Critic. I will say it is a personal journey, with or without a therapeutic support. I just wish here to make the challenge of self-love an everlasting health trend. Well-being through self-love and self-realization, wouldn’t it be the greatest challenge of all? Let’s practice self-love as our daily self-care hygiene. #TheSelfLoveChallenge.
1 A Psychology of the Spirit, by John Firman & Ann Gila.
2 Loveability, by Robert Holden.
3 & 4 The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin D. Yalom.
6 “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.” Definition by The American Psychiatric Association. [https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm/feedback-and-questions/frequently-asked-questions].
7 Psychosynthesis: Counselling in Action, by Diana Whitmore.
8 Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, by Walter Kaufman; lecture by Andy Blunden [https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm].
9 Unfolding Self: The Practice of Psychosynthesis, by Molly Young Brown.
10 Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings, by Roberto Assagioli.