Sally Brampton: The inner critic

Sally Brampton on how to silence our inner critic

I was standing in a changing room the other day, struggling to get into a dress. It was one of those changing rooms in which high-street stores seem to delight – the fat mirror imported from the funfair, the harsh overhead light that picks out every dimple of cellulite. You know the ones? I guess every woman does.

So I’m looking at myself and saying, ‘You’re so fat. Your arms are disgusting and that jelly roll around your middle is revolting.’ Now, if somebody had walked into that changing room and said those words to me, I would probably have decked them with a swift right hook. But me saying it to me? I averted my eyes and said humbly, ‘Yes, you’re right.’

I can turn into a bully at the blink of an eye. One glance in a shop window and that mocking inner critic kicks into action, sneering at me like a kid in a playground. Some days, she simmers down a bit, and I can look in the mirror and think, ‘Huh, not bad’, but it doesn’t take much to upset her and she’s off again.

Some people call this kind of behaviour low self-esteem. I call it normal, in as much as I don’t know one woman who doesn’t possess it. Or man, for that matter, although it tends not to be changing rooms that set them off.

I wouldn’t dream of saying to my friends what I say to myself. I love my friends. I love their frailties and vulnerabilities, their lumps and bumps, the bits they hate about themselves. I love all the things that make them who they are. I am kind to them, and they are kind to me, in a way that we are all too rarely kind to ourselves.

"Some people call this low self-esteem. I call it normal behaviour"

I was once sitting in a group therapy session and a woman was berating herself for crying. ‘Shut up,’ she said, ‘you’re pathetic.’ The therapist asked if any of us had anything to say. I said to the woman, ‘If I was crying, would you tell me to shut up because I was being pathetic?’ She lifted her tear-stained face and looked at me in astonishment. ‘Of course not.’

I try to remember that woman every time my inner critic pipes up. She is not easily silenced, but she is quieter if I make a conscious decision to ignore her. She is quieter still if I can get out of my own head enough to look at the people around me and remember we are all human, all fragile and all vulnerable to doubt and fear. The woman who looks as if confidence bounces off her like light off a laser can all too easily crumple into a sodden mess in the small, lonely hours of the morning. The man, bragging and shouting, powered by testosterone, might be trying to silence the small, pimply boy cowering in the corner of his mind.

It is a game I sometimes play if I feel anxious or lonely or scared or, indeed, fat. I walk down the street and look at the faces of the people passing by and wonder what’s going on inside their heads. What inner critic is knocking at their door? What doubt or fear are they struggling with? It is only then I remember to remember. I am not alone. We are all imperfect. And that’s OK. We are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.

Come and meet Sally at our event, at 6.30pm on Thursday 3rd May 2012 – she’ll be in conversation with editor Louise Chunn, discussing life, love and how to survive it all. More information here.