On Being My Own Worst Critic

Photo via Unsplash

The first thing I did this morning was criticize myself. Skipping the gym again, I see, as I rolled over and pressed the snooze button on my phone for the third time. Pathetic, as I drifted off to sleep again. This internal dialogue happens often.

More recently, though, another, gentler voice has begun to permeate my thoughts. James and I had a fun date night, it says. And I haven’t had a full night’s rest all week, so I’m going to sleep in.

I deserve to rest.  

This voice doesn’t completely drown out the negative one. It’s a work in progress to accept myself as a person not capable of doing it all.

I am my own worst critic. I have written at length, for years now, about how, as a Black woman, I need to work twice as hard to get half as much as my white counterparts. My perfectionism manifests itself in ways that are ultimately detrimental to my self-esteem.  

It is only recently that I have reached some kind of breaking point. It may be burnout, it may be an awakening, but I am just very much fed up with myself. My own damn self—the one setting these unrealistic expectations and the inevitable self-flagellating when I don’t immediately excel. I’m tired of this vicious internal cycle of unrealistic expectations, ultimate failure, abuse. I have the whole damn society to do that for me, and here I am, doing the work. Typical.

For example, I often think to myself Jenika, you can totally:

  • get 9 hours of sleep
  • work your full-time job
  • go to the gym
  • read for Book Club
  • edit those pieces for Obvi
  • finish that damn poem!
  • clean the entire apartment
  • and have time to spend with James if you actually tried!

And this all sounds easy enough, but here is what happens every time without fail:

  • I hit snooze three times after five hours of sleep
  • The train is late because it’s always late and I’m too irritated to crack open my book on the platform
  • I get to work and everyone is asking different iterations of the same question which I answered three emails ago
  • I stay later than I want to because my boss gave me yet another project and I can’t help but feel punished for being an exceptional employee
  • The bus is late because it’s always fucking late
  • I’m late to the gym: I squat, squat, squat until my legs feel like jelly
  • I wobble home (all the way home because the bus is, again, late)
  • James cooks me dinner while I wander aimlessly around the apartment reorganizing our tchatchkes for the umpteenth time
  • I go to bed later than I intended because I enjoy every silly moment with my husband when we’re home together
  • I never get around to finishing that poem
  • I wake up and think to myself, what happened to the poem yesterday? pathetic!

Even in the example given, I accomplished a lot and still beat myself up over not excelling in everything. I struggle with the need to be the best. To hit every note and be the Strong Black Woman my loved ones need me to be. To be The Dependable One. But when I look at myself I don’t see how striving to be the very best has been detrimental to my physical and emotional wellbeing. All I see is someone who fails constantly.

I realize now that this is a cage I have built for myself. I finally feel strong enough (or at least fed up enough) to break free and to knock down every bar of expectations I put up. Rewiring my brain to acknowledge all the ways I actually succeed is not easy, but it’s necessary to create space in my brain, my life, and my heart for all of myself. Yes, I’m a strong Black woman. I’m The Dependable One. But I’m also still learning how to be a wife, a gym rat, a frustrated straphanger, and an imperfect person. Despite all of my imperfections, I succeed at all of these things, even if I stumble along the way. The gentler voice that permeates my thoughts is getting stronger each day, and so am I.