The first moment I realized—I mean, really got—that another human could hurt me for reasons I didn’t understand happened on a school bus. I’m not sure how old I was precisely, but I think I was in second or third grade because I started wearing glasses right around that age.
On an especially chaotic afternoon, dozens of kids were packed into the seats. Some were yelling obscenities at no one in particular, while others hunkered down and tried to avoid becoming a target of said profanity. I had been part of the latter group, but when the bus began to sputter toward my stop, I had to get up. Several boys had scrambled into the aisle before me, each one pushing his way toward the front exit. I wasn’t paying them much mind; instead, I was focused on keeping my balance as we bumped along a road that had seen better days. My attention finally turned to the rowdy group in front of me when one of the boys turned around and shoved me. I looked up from my pink and grey sneakers, confused by what had just happened. Was the push an accident?
He—along with pretty much everyone else—was laughing uproariously as I climbed to my feet and hurried off the bus.
No. He spit in my face and shoved me again, hard enough that I fell backward. I crashed into the girl behind me and landed on the bus’s floor with a thud. This boy, who had harassed me before and whose name I no longer remember, then shouted something about me being a “four eyes” before rushing toward the door. He—along with pretty much everyone else—was laughing uproariously as I climbed to my feet and hurried off the bus. And that was that. I cleaned off my face with my shirtsleeve, walked home, and went about whatever you go about when you’re in grade school.
I’m not sure if that kid got in trouble. I don’t believe so. I think the driver missed the bullying in the midst of the afternoon’s bedlam, and I don’t recall telling my parents or teachers about what happened either. In fact, I don’t think I spoke about that moment very much at all, not until I was well into adulthood. When I finally did talk about the event, it was part of a larger conversation about why I had, for so long, been carrying this subtle but pervasive feeling that I simply didn’t belong.
The Songs We Write For Ourselves
I don’t know what prompted a young, spiteful boy to spit on me and push me to the floor of a bus one afternoon. Just like I don’t know why my 5th-grade class circulated a survey entitled “Is Rebecca a Snob”? (Results said “yes.” Bummer.) Just like I don’t know why a few people I have liked, admired, and even loved began ignoring me completely. Maybe I hurt that boy’s feelings. Maybe I was a snob. Maybe I did something so egregious that I didn’t even warrant, “I can’t talk to you anymore.” I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that all these instances where someone hurt me or shunned me for reasons that weren’t (and aren’t) entirely clear to me have formed this low-key melody that plays in the back of my mind. And not the good kind of melody either. No, more like the Muzak rendition of a 1990s grunge band. (You know the type—they sang about the world turning black or being alone all the time.)
Whatever I’m doing, wherever I’m going, the music plays. On endless repeat. “No one wants you here. You don’t belong. You don’t even deserve a proper good-bye.”
Psychologists call this song (or voice if you prefer) the Inner Critic, and sadly, pretty much all of us have one. We hear its accusations throughout our lives, all too often believing the whispers that we really are stupid or that we really did deserve to fail. And, without necessarily meaning to, we end up perpetuating the Critic’s existence. Sometimes, the damn thing ends up dominating every single thought that goes through our heads.
If that happens—if the Critic begins controlling the very way we think—our actions and our relationships with ourselves or others are inevitably affected.
We limit what we do, we deny ourselves respect or care, and we may even unleash that relentlessly harsh voice onto the people around us.
Maybe Just Try Being Confident Instead?
With the right support and an enormous amount of persistence, we can eventually overcome the Inner Critic or at least learn to disregard its malicious barbs. However, getting to that point—where you can rewrite your song or reconfigure your narrative—is a slow-going process. Especially because we don’t always notice how our self-criticism shapes our world views, attitudes, and behaviors. We lack the awareness or skills to isolate and address the voice’s distortions, so we end up just assuming there’s something wrong with us.
We probably all play the fake-it-to-you-make-it game at one point or another, and sometimes that works.
One of the ways I’ve attempted to deal with my song is to pretend I don’t hear it. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing that too. If you were to see me give a lecture on history or perform in a play, you’d probably have no idea that I struggle with feeling like I don’t belong there or that I wrestle with a lack of confidence. I suspect that this strategy is not something unique to me. We probably all play the fake-it-to-you-make-it game at one point or another, and sometimes that works.
In fact, I’ve managed to have some pretty awesome experiences because I was able to convince myself (and others) I was self-assured enough to be doing whatever I was doing. The issue is that the “just be confident instead” mindset functions as a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Because eventually the song’s volume increases, the Inner Critic revs back up, and I’m left wondering why I can’t get my act together. I imagine for a lot of people, myself included, the reason for our inability to tame the voice is that the narrative we’ve written for ourselves is fundamentally rooted in a fear of pain.
This Story Ends With You Getting Hurt
In its own weird way, the Inner Critic is trying to protect us from whatever hurts us the most, whether that’s rejection or failure or a loss of control. After all, if we think we’re not capable, we don’t try. (Thus, no failure.) If we think no one wants us around, we don’t bother forming meaningful bonds. (Thus, no one there to leave us.) Then, as we proceed through life, incidents of ostracism, humiliation, or disaster become proof that the Inner Critic can wield to persuade us the world is not safe. That we ignore its warnings at our peril.