For most of my life, I was a perfectionist. A love of reading, coupled with parents who placed much stock in a good education and strong grades, gave me the reputation of being a perfect student. With more A’s than anything else, I was pretty close to being the perfect student.
Quiet, respectful, smart, and a teacher’s pet, I grew used to being considered perfect, and so I made myself live up to these expectations. Even if I had rebellious thoughts, an imperfect grade, or a streak of laziness, I was hard on myself, too hard. I bullied myself into striving to be better, into striving for perfection.
Halfway through high school, I swung in the other direction. Bored with trying to be perfect and with a rebellious streak that became full-fledged as a teenager, I stopped pushing myself to be perfect and did the bare minimum in many of my classes. I rested on my laurels and relied much on my “smart girl” reputation instead of actually putting in the work.
Luckily, I did sail by without hurting my GPA too much, and was able to go to a great college, where I did much of the same: sailing by, letting myself slack off because I was sure it wasn’t going to be that hard, and only doing the bare minimum of work. Unfortunately, in a much more academically challenging environment, my grades did suffer — a lot.
Especially in my core classes, i.e. the ones that I wasn’t interested in and thus the ones that didn’t come easily to me, I struggled. In college, I learned that I’d stopped pushing myself to be better, smarter, more successful. I had stopped pushing because I knew what it was like to constantly feel anxiety about being perfect. In an effort to stem that flow of poor self-esteem and the unattainable desire to be perfect, I had inadvertently swung in completely the opposite direction: I had become, by my definition, a slacker.
If I didn’t do homework, I rationalized it with, “The professor won’t check it anyway.” If I got a bad grade on an exam, I scoffed. If I didn’t study for finals as much as I should have done, I told myself I knew it all anyway, that the exam wouldn’t be that difficult. But it was, and I got back the exactly what I should have expected all along.
Instead of being hard on myself, and instead of slacking, I recognized that there had to be a middle ground. That middle ground is a healthy habit of constructive self criticism.
We live in a world of instant gratification, where the common practice is to praise people for just trying something, where kids are taught that they’re special at the expense of other children, and where hard work is becoming less valuable. It’s becoming more common to dismiss criticism as hateful, without having the self-awareness to recognize that there may be truth in criticism. It’s when we dismiss healthy critiques that we stop growing, and when we become too egotistical to learn our mistakes.
The best place to receive criticism from is ourselves.
You’ll see a lot of inspirational quotes online that tell you that you shouldn’t be hard on yourself, that you’re doing your best and that’s all anyone can ask of you. They’re right — up to a point. But these quotes and this philosophy can also make you — and me — complacent. They only work if you’re significantly too hard on yourself. But not if you’re just looking for excuses not to work, like I did.
It’s easy to say “Oh, I’m doing my best” when you’re totally, completely not. It takes a little self-criticism to recognize when you’re not doing your best, and to kick yourself into a higher gear. It’s important to call yourself out when you’re slacking, when you’re being cruel, when you’ve done something horrible to someone, and when you know you’re capable of better behavior.
That doesn’t mean dragging yourself over the coals. It doesn’t mean being mean to yourself, or drowning in self-pity. It doesn’t mean having expectations higher than what is practical and burning yourself out in the process. It simply means knowing yourself well enough to tell yourself when you’re not being your best. It means forgiving yourself for making poor choices, but then resolving to do better in the future. It means learning from mistakes and recognizing when you’ve been self-destructive, stupid, or weak.
Self-criticism is healthy, and should be practiced more often. It’s constructive self-criticism. It’s building the person you’re going to be. It’s constructing your character. And it’s a very good thing.