There are days I wonder if any of us would wrestle with anxiety much if we were not so stinkin’ HARD on ourselves. We who have battled with anxiety tend to be pretty fiercely self-critical, self-evaluative – in a very real sense we are our own worst critics.

I know that it was a huge self-revelation in my history when I began to understand just how many rules I had in my thinking, and how often I failed myself in meeting the standards of those rules.

It is a little disturbing to look back on my thinking in those days, and it makes me wonder how I didn’t see the extent to which I was slamming myself, beating myself up for not measuring up to all my rules.

Let me suggest in today’s blog post that in taking on this work of challenging and sorting out our anxious thinking we have to be willing to examine our personal standards for success and failure. We also have to be willing to reassess them, call them into question, and make some very conscious decisions about what is useful about those rules, and what is only serving to make us anxious/afraid.

Who in the HELL Gave Me All These Rules?!?

We are definitely not born into the world with a massive rulebook. Little kids tend to be pretty easy-going, for the most part living in the moment. They seem in fact to be puzzled by all the rules that most adults carry around – one of their favorite questions when adults state (what seems to them to be) obvious truths or rules is “why?”

That’s a great question to ask. What we usually say back to that curious kid is “because”. But that’s not good enough when we reach adulthood, and that goes double for us anxiety-fighters.

A couple of posts from now I’m going to start a series on what would have been useful to me early in my fight with anxiety. One of the things I’m going to discuss is all the freakin’ rules I had in my life about who I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to accomplish, what is right and what is wrong, etc.

I will discuss some of the rules I identified in that early work in those posts, but what I want to focus on in this post is just how hard, how self-abusive we can be to ourselves when we fail to meet our own standards.

So here’s an example of one of my rules from the stressful, self-oblivious younger days: “I should always be cheerful and happy.” Not a bad rule, right? Shouldn’t everyone have this rule? And what’s so wrong with it anyway?

Well, for starters, who in the heck is happy or cheerful ALL the time, whatever they think they should be? Happy and cheerful are both emotional states, and emotions vary – they are never constant. The happiest person in the history of the world gets grumpy occasionally (just like even our blackest days with anxiety see occasional sunny spots.)

And for another the words happy and cheerful are hardly precise measurement descriptions! One person’s happy is another person’s content, and still another person’s just OK. Some of us bubble and babble when we’re happy.

Some of us just go about our business with a small smile on our faces. And still others don’t give much or even any external clues when we’re happy. Emotions are both variable AND subjective.

But wait – it gets worse. When we use terms like “always”, or “never”, or “invariably” we are setting ourselves up for failure. Which then means that we’ve failed, ANYTIME we are not happy or cheerful (according to our subjective measure of what the heck that means.)

And perhaps darkest of all is why the heck I would think that I HAVE to ALWAYS be happy and cheerful. What bad thing would happen if I DIDN’T? Because if I wasn’t afraid of something bad happening then why would I be concerned for this in the first place?

Nope, there had to be a concern/fear/worry here in the first place, and THIS is where our Internal Critic steps in and starts to wreak havoc on us…

Hey – You’re a Human Being – Not Superman

Without launching into a long discussion on this point it is important to remind ourselves that we learned most of the rules we learned from someone else – parents, friends, teachers, the culture in general that we live in. We learned those rules to cope with/live in the world we grew up in.

But in learning those rules for our survival we also created this creature I’m calling the Internal Critic. That Critic came into existence to keep us safe – to be our own personal policeman, reminding us of what we were SUPPOSED to be doing to stay on the straight and narrow.

The hard truths about the Internal Critic, however, are these:

1) However much we needed those rules in our growing up (safety from family ridicule or punishment, fitting in and not sticking out as weird or wrong, physical safety, you name it) a lot of those rules were only possible to keep all the time if we are Superman (or Superwoman.)

And certainly as kids we were not Superman or Superwoman – so we must have failed then as well. Which in turn helped grow that Critic in our minds…

2) We’re not kids anymore! We’re adults with our own minds and our own lives. What only made limited sense back when we were kids now almost certainly REALLY doesn’t make any sense – however much our fear and anxiety would like us to believe that they do. And heck, even they could or do help us now we still desperately need to throttle back our self-expectations to more human levels.

3) A lot of our anxiety – perhaps for some of us ALL of our anxiety – has roots in those rules and personal standards that our Critic is on our butt about, all the time.

I am not Superman/woman. Neither are you. A healthy, not-dominated-by-anxiety life is one where the Internal Critic is challenged, where we examine our rules and standards and start making adult decisions about which ones makes sense, and which ones need to be retooled – or dumped altogether.

And It Isn’t Like We Only Have One or Two Rules We’re Carting Around…

I have mentioned in other posts here that I when I began this process of self-review I had literally PAGES of rules that scrolled out of my thinking. Holy crap!

So it is important to remember that we who deal with anxiety often have a LOT of various beliefs/personal standards/measures of success or failure that are evaluating us ALL THE TIME.

Is it any surprise that when we first turn to face our fears that we can feel completely overwhelmed? And that this feeling can return again and again as we wade into the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place?

T. Isaac Rubin, therapist and thinker, has written a book I’ve referenced in this blog before, titled “Compassion and Self-Hate.” In that brilliant and essential book he outlines how most people have unconsciously absorbed the rules and standards of their family and culture. These rules are often, literally, inhuman – they can’t be maintained over the course of time.

He further discusses how we won’t, simply, allow ourselves to be HUMAN – to do better some days, to do worse other days, but still doing our best with what we have each day. We instead set a standard that, while we might achieve sometimes, or for a period of time, we can’t maintain over the long haul.

Let me reference you back to the rule from my earlier life about my thinking that I should always be cheerful and happy.

Who in the world can make such a commitment? And what potential, terrible self-abuse and self-rejecting thinking and feeling am I creating for myself when I believe such a rule?

I can tell you that I was pretty damn hard on myself. I was hard enough on myself to make myself physically ill with worry that I had wrecked someone’s day with my less-than-stellar cheer/happiness. I was afraid that I had offended and/or hurt people with my failure. I worried about friends and total strangers this way.

In other words I generated a ton of anxiety for myself with just this one failed standard for myself. NEVER MIND how stinkin’ cheerful and happy I was most of the time! Never mind how hard I worked to make other people cheerful and happy!

And, maybe worst of all, never mind how rarely anyone else even noticed I wasn’t being unfailingly cheerful and happy, and how rarely any of them cared if I wasn’t!

It’s Scary to Challenge Our Internal Critic

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing those of us attempting to review and assess those internal standards is the nagging suspicion that we’re somehow slacking off or giving up by doing that questioning. We have learned to be savagely self-critical of our own behavior, and we are afraid that if we stop that savage self-criticism we will fail, be found wanting, be seen as selfish or as slackers.

This might have been a great survival trait in our younger days, when failing to be a strong self-governor of our behavior might have gotten us into serious trouble. Now that we’re grown-ups that self-governing (translate: attempt to constantly measure up to impossibly high standards) can turn into self-destroying.

WE’RE ONLY HUMAN. That it is necessary to remind ourselves of that is just one indicator of how much we DON’T get this basic truth.

The bottom line is we MUST take on our Internal Critic. That mental policeman has had way too much control over our lives for too long. Taking him on will be scary at first – no question. He could be enough to stop the show by himself for a period of time.

But as Rubin says our healthy, natural selves are invariably stronger – stronger because self-care is what we want to do naturally – like any living creature on Earth. Self-care doesn’t mean self-absorbed or the standard definition of “selfish” – self-care means that you are AT LEAST as the other people around, you caring for yourself is anything but selfish.

More about that in later blog posts. For the moment, consider that Internal Critic (whom I sure has raised his voice a time or two during this blog post, yes) needs to be challenged on the way to getting free of the tyranny of anxiety and fear.