“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame”
How often do we find ourselves listening to that self-deprecating inner voice that tells us we’re not good enough? At one time or another, we all have it – self-doubt – and we pay attention to it with a misguided belief that we could and should be a better mother, a kinder friend, more hard-working, bolder, prettier – anything other than appreciating the positives of who we actually are. We are our biggest critics and the list is endless. It’s a curse of modern womanhood that so many of us feel the need to hold ourselves to unattainably high standards.
We can look externally at why, comparing ourselves to other women and blaming society for the pressure we feel, but the truth is, the negative voices we hear are our own.
If a friend says she feels overweight, we’ll talk about it together, highlighting her positives and constructively looking at how she could boost her self-esteem to be based around more than her body identity. I’ll offer support, suggest a walk, join her for a workout.
I would never think: ‘I can’t believe you’ve let yourself go’, let alone say it to someone I care about. But how many of us talk supportively and positively to our friends and yet so critically to ourselves? I’m no different. I hold myself to ridiculously high ideals, never stopping to reflect constructively about myself, and always pushing for more, more, more.
It’s only recently that I have started to challenge that often negative and intolerant voice inside my head. Why do I feel the need to be better than anyone else? And in reality, what is this self-hectoring really achieving for me?
At 50 years old, I realised that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not in a good sense anyway. I recognised that this self-judgement was leading to anxiety and an elevated and unrealistic need for perfection. So I challenged myself to break the cycle.
Part of that challenge is in this community. My commitment to breaking the stereotypes around ageing comes in no small part from not wanting any woman to use getting older as a stick to beat herself with.
But the challenge is bigger than that.
According to Psychologist Rick Hanson, we all have two voices. It’s a fundamental part of our development as humans, and both have a role. Humans are innately tribal. Our inner self-critic was originally designed to keep us safe and to ensure that we behaved appropriately within our tribes for survival. Our nurturing self was the same, maintaining our position within our tribes with care and compassion.
Over time though, we’ve hyper stimulated our critical voices to the point of dominance, and that’s why so many of us struggle to say anything good about ourselves at all. Instead of keeping us safe within our tribes, our insecurities drive us to isolation and the belief that we’ll be safer if we hide away from the risk of tribal rejection.
This has led to an increase in anxiety, depression and loneliness, which is now considered as big a danger to health as smoking.
This is why I believe that the time to stop this negativity is in midlife, as we move into the later stages of our lives. Even if we’re not always sure about ourselves, we do know ourselves better now. And if we feel that we don’t, psychologists believe that this is the time when we start to find out.
I’ve spoken before about my travel abroad being a seminal period in my self-development. It’s not a coincidence that I had just turned 50 when I took that chance. I would never have challenged myself in that way as a younger woman, but I decided that if you can’t give yourself an adventure at 50, when can you?
Midlife is also the age when we start to lose people we care about. Parents, friends, partners. Death is a hard leveller. It comes to us all and the shock of grief tears at the fabric of our sense of normal, leaving an immense sense of perspective that the size of our bottoms or our bank balances is so much less important than our hearts and our impact on the world.
That said, midlife can also be the time when we start to resent the world. We know that the energy and boundless potential we felt in our youth has lessened, and we start to feel fear for the future and our control over what lies ahead. That fear can lead to driving ourselves harder, trying to turn the clock back or the need to make up for the opportunities we feel we have denied ourselves over the years.
If that means you head off to study that degree you always wanted to do, or travel to all of those places you promised yourself when you were younger, that’s fantastic. But if you feel that the voice inside your head has become disproportionate and that instead of making the most of your life, you’re actually using it to be harsher still, it might be time to put the blocks on yourself.
Instead, turn to your nurturer. Most of us have one – it’s the voice that cares for sick relatives and sad friends. Offer that voice up to yourself. Don’t challenge yourself to find the cause. Every time you find yourself being unkind to yourself, try to turn your comments around to something more positive, or at least more constructive.
If you find that you can’t do this alone, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can be a wonderful tool to help transform our negative self-talk into positive affirmations.
Finally, keep evidence of your achievements. Write it down – every time you get a compliment or feel a sense of accomplishment, keep reminding yourself of every positive message in your life.
I know without doubt that I’m none of the negative messages I sometimes tell myself. And I know that we’re not bad, or a failure, or ugly, or any of the other unkind things we might say to ourselves. Forget the bad, let’s just be brilliant – at every age, no matter what!