A terrible problem that afflicts many
of us is that we are almost permanently anxious,
self-critical, self-hating and afflicted by
a sense that we don’t deserve to exist.
We are definitely not good enough. Ever.
Psychology points us to a part of the
mind termed our conscience, a faculty that
keeps an eye on how well we are doing in relation
to duty, to the demands of the world and to
the regulation of our desires and appetites.
Our conscience monitors how much effort we
are putting into our work, our ratio of relaxed
rest to anxious labour. It’s our conscience
that tells us when we’ve probably done enough
gaming, dating or eating.
However useful this function may sound,
for many of us, our conscience has grown very
unbalanced. Rather than occasionally gently
nudging us towards virtue, it is permanently
screaming, denigrating and attacking us for
perceived failings: it tells us that nothing
we do is ever good enough, that we have no
right to take a holiday let alone an afternoon
off, that we have no business relaxing or
enjoying ourselves – and that the worst is
coming to us because of our sinful nature.
Anxiety and self-contempt are our default
It was Freud’s simple but brilliant
insight that our conscience is formed out
of the residue of the voices of our parents,
in particular (usually) of our fathers. Freud
called the conscience the ‘superego’,
and proposed that this faculty continues to
speak within our minds as our father figures
once spoke to us.
For the lucky ones among us, we had reasonable
father figures and therefore our consciences
are broadly benign. If we fail today, we can
try again next time. If we’re unpopular,
we can be valuable anyway. We deserve a rest.
Sex is allowed. Treats are part of life. We
can do nothing for a while. We’re OK as
we are. But for others among us, our conscience
rehearses the worst lines of punitive parental
archetypes. When things go wrong, we swiftly
conclude that it might be better if we killed
One of the steps we can take towards greater
mental health is to realise, properly realise,
that this drama is going on inside us. It
sounds strange to say, given the significance,
but usually, we have no clue; the self-criticism
has become too familiar to be noticeable,
it’s just how things are and who we are.
We can’t draw a distinction between the
fierce inner critic and any other part of
A crucial first move is therefore to learn
to put some distance between ourselves and
our conscience. We should see our conscience
as a character. We should tell ourselves:
I have a punishing inner critic and it’s
very unfair to me, it’s even trying to kill
me. It is speaking to me, within me, but it
isn’t all I am: it’s someone I sucked
in from childhood and might learn to expel
from my mind in time.
We can then start to question the critic.
Is it really fair to say that our lives are
wholly worthless? We’ve messed up for sure,
but do we really deserve no compassion and
no forgiveness? Is nothing about us in any
way good? Would we ever think of treating
a friend (or even an enemy) the way we’re
We had no choice about who we had to
listen to when we were little, but we do now
have agency. We can retrain our minds, by
getting better spotting how they were indoctrinated
in the first place. We have picked up some
extremely cruel and questionable habits. No
one needs to be hounded by a sense that they
are excrement; this feeling has a past and
it doesn’t have to be the future.
To retrain ourselves, we need other people:
people who can love us and fill our minds
with other kinder perspectives. We need to
dare to lean on them (not an easy move for
people who feel undeserving in the first place)
and ask for their help in taming the nasty
sound-track inside. We should stop trying
to be brave about the inner attacks we host.
We might explicitly say to others: ‘you
are here to help me with my inner critic,
and to give me new perspectives on my self-punishment
and despair.’ We should at times get incensed
that we have to live with such a critic, and
question why our first impulse is so often
to forgive the critic and the parental figure
who inspired it and blame ourselves for our
We need to feel sorry for ourselves and
annoyed with those who didn’t know how to
show us tenderness. Of course, we occasionally
need to upbraid ourselves and try harder;
but the real achievement is to know how to
remain gently and generously on our own side.