When Observant asked me to continue writing columns for the upcoming year, I debated what I should say. I felt a discomfort about the prospect, and I tried to put my finger on why that was. The time investment, in an already full schedule? Maybe. Overwhelmingly, though, the main reason for my hesitation was the negative voice in my head: Who cares what you have to say?
Where did that voice come from? I’ve always been a perfectionist and prone to self-criticism. It’s part of what helped my eating disorder to thrive. At the same time, I’ve always felt it was important to boldly advocate for causes I believed in. Even as a child I wrote letters to the editor about animal rights, and as a teenager helped manage our high school’s newspaper.
A turning point was when I moved from Canada to the Netherlands, where I learned the Dutch sayings “Wie zijn hoofd boven het maaiveld uitsteekt...”, and, “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”. I befriended someone who spoke negatively about North Americans and their tendency to “over-share” and put themselves out there, as if it was a show for attention and self-promotion. In her presence, I would feel my own voice shrinking. Still her words come to mind when I write a column, or even when I write a research proposal. I believe many people have someone like this, who has helped them to internalize the question, “Who cares what you have to say?” In the end, you feel small, and may decide not to share your thoughts with others.
Two experiences this year have helped me to resist my inner critic.
First, one of my interns struggled with her thesis, due to her own inner critic. “I worry that I don’t have anything valuable to say, and that you’ll think what I wrote is stupid.” My first instinct was to jump to her defense, to remind her that what she has to say is meaningful, and she has something to contribute to the research on body image. I realized I wouldn’t be setting a very good example if I told her one thing, and yet treated myself differently.
Second, I listened to a fascinating interview with Professor Brené Brown, who researches vulnerability. She says that when we dare to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there, we give other people the permission to be themselves. Even if I feel uncomfortable with sharing my own thoughts and experiences, I know that it is worthwhile it if I can impact at least one other person. I thought of the times when I have shared vulnerable parts of myself, such as my history with an eating disorder. Many people shared their own experiences with me, and felt inspired to get help for their mental health as well.
In the end, I told Obersvant that yes, I would write for another year. Because I am fighting back against my inner critic, and I believe each of us has something meaningful to contribute, including you and me. So, who has shaped your inner critic, and how can you overcome it?
Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience