How we see ourselves… (and how others see us)

When the words loyalty, courage, honesty, wisdom, and compassion born of deep experience were all used to describe me in the same sentence, I had to fight the urge to go hide under a table. No way could I look anyone in the eye and say, “Sure, that’s me.” Even though I knew that the person speaking was not being flattering but was absolutely sincere.

SparrowIn the same vein, I complimented a friend on looking lovely in a photograph and she hastened to tell me everything that was wrong with her looks. Another friend, whom I complimented on taking wonderful photographs, did pretty much the same thing. But she caught herself doing it and said, sheepishly, “I’m my worst critic.”

Sound familiar? We are our worst critics and this is not only true for women. Men just tend to go quiet and change the subject when they receive a sincere compliment.

I asked a client to list her core qualities. Each word she thought of was followed by “but…” and a disqualification. “I am supportive of others, but that’s why I don’t take proper care of myself.” We spent a long time working on the concept that qualities have value in themselves. But each one of them has its own trap if you take it too far. (This is the Dutch concept of kernkwadranten, first described by Daniel Ofman.) She was then able to list her own qualities without getting upset.

This can make for difficult relationships. I’ll never forget (and I describe it in my book, Passage of the Stork) how I came to The Netherlands as a shy and socially awkward young woman. I was doing my best to mask my shyness and show acceptable behavior. So I was totally shocked when someone described me as arrogant. It took years for me to understand that my uncomfortable mask came across as arrogant in the eyes of Dutch beholders. In the meantime, the pain and frustration of not being seen for who I am (in my eyes) was great.

Most of us have a strong Inner Critic, whispering criticism in our ear whenever we’re tempted to be proud of ourselves and our accomplishments. And it’s not a coincidence that these are often criticisms that we heard as young children. Whether it was an over-critical father, teacher, or grandmother, someone lived on in our inner voices and is still telling us that we don’t measure up.

The Inner Critic tends to prevent us from seeing ourselves as the truly beautiful person we are. And so we spend a lot of time and energy trying to be the beautiful person that we would like to be. And we wonder why it isn’t working, why people disappoint us. Making the mask as perfect as possible can even cause stress in our lives and loves. And all that time, we are actually… simply… perfect.

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