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Grief and Your Critical Self

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Most experts on human behavior agree that just about all of us have a critical self. You know what I’m talking about: that part of your brain that jumps on you when you have made a mistake/blunder/error/slipup. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, “Gotcha.” Other times you feel it well up inside you. Either way, there it is speaking its unforgiving words such as, You screwed up. What’s wrong with you? You did it, again. What an idiot. The question is: If it’s so common, where does it come from? Since most of us have it in some form, it would seem that it must be inherited. However, there is yet to be discovered the “critical self” gene. Of course our next potential offender has to be our poor parents who get blamed for everything. Yes, it is true that our parents were critical of us during our growing up years—and some parents continue doing it to this day. (But we won’t mention any names, now, will we?)

However, beyond our parents’ influence is this apparently built-in tendency for us to judge ourselves. We often do this before others have a chance to do so. In a way, we’re doing it to ourselves before others can do so.

Furthermore, we convince ourselves that, in order to somehow make ourselves into becoming a “better person” or “learn from our mistakes” or because we “deserve to be self-punished,” we must be critical at every misstep.

How does all this relate to grief? Someone you love died—your child, grandchild, brother, sister, spouse, parent. You are left without this precious person in your life. You are in such pain that you are absolutely convinced you will feel this way forever. In the midst of all this what does our critical self say to you? See if you recognize any of these choice statements:

  • I should have done more to prevent the death.

  • Looking back, I was too hard on this person.

  • I’m not grieving right—I’m too angry (or) I should be angrier.

  • It’s been a while and people are wondering when I’m going to move on. What’s wrong with me?

  • I’ve got to pull it together—and I can’t.

Do you see the critical self rearing its ugly head? Here you are in the depths of despair and, rather than being gentle with yourself at the very time you need caring, what do you do? You beat yourself up. Let’s look at it another way (I’ve said this before in other articles I’ve written): If your best friend were in the exact situation, would you utter critical statements to him or her such as the ones listed above? Of course not.

Try this: When you start to fall into the critical mindset, catch yourself and say positive things to yourself such as, “I know I’m not perfect and have made mistakes.” “I need to let go of these negative thoughts.” “I need to be gentle to myself.” “My loved one would not want me to be so hard on myself.” “I am a good person.”

The question is: Can you begin to treat yourself as gently as you would your best friend? I bet your best friend and your loved one would want you to.

And, so do I.


Dr. Bob

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