Quieting The Inner Critic
With advice from Tan France. Plus, a satire about modern academia.
Remember Honesty Box? That brutal Facebook app that allowed people to leave their opinions about you anonymously. Most of the time, friends filled them with compliments to one another, but for insecure teens, it was a nightmare; a prime opportunity to bully others without consequence. I remember many tears came from reading the mean comments I received—from something as silly as the shirt I’d worn that day to more substantial attacks on my personality, every kind of criticism took me down.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then. That is one of the benefits of getting older—you start to care less what people think. Armed with a stronger sense of self, it’s a lot easier to brush criticism off my shoulders now. Or so I thought.
In the age of the internet, criticism lurks at every turn. And as a journalist, I subject myself to it more than the average person. I recently received a ton of angry emails and tweets in response to a story I wrote for Insider on what I don’t miss about the U.S. I know I should’ve just ignored them but criticism is too tempting to resist when it’s just a click away. I laughed at some of the responses, many of the arguments were unjustified. I thought I didn’t care. But then, later that day, I felt the air change, there was this lingering sense that I had done something wrong, that I was bad. Maybe their words had affected me after all.
The occasional negative feedback I receive is nothing in comparison to the hateful messages Tan France gets on his surrogacy, sexuality, race—the fundamental parts of his being. “You just need one bad comment and it ruins all those thousands of nice ones,” he tells me in a recent interview for Forbes. The Queer Eye resident fashion expert said initially when he became overnight famous, he kept checking his DM’s, he was curious to know what people thought of him. Eventually he noticed it taking a toll on his mental health and realized the only way to protect himself was to avoid them altogether. “I haven’t looked at them in three years, my assistants do,” France tells me. “That was the best decision I ever fucking made.”
“You choose to let it affect you,” a mental health coach tells me, when I ask her how to manage criticism. It was our first session together and without me telling her much about my life, she went at me with brutal honesty. She made assumptions about my life, but a lot of what she said were painful truths I didn’t want to hear, and it stung. It’s one thing when the criticism from people who don’t know you is unfounded, it’s another when they tap into your inner insecurities. It’s even worse when it comes from someone whose opinion you value or who holds more power than you.
Then there’s the even more painful form of criticism—that which comes from your inner circle. These are the people who know you inside and out. In the best of times, having people who know you so deeply can affirm your identity; give you a sense of belonging. In the worst of times, these people can act as a mirror, reflecting your ugliest selves back to you. How do we dismiss criticism when we believe it might be true?
That brings me to the worst critic of all—ourselves. Our inner critic takes all of these voices—from the passing comment from a stranger on the street to the feedback from a boss to the deeply personal criticism from a friend—and builds them into a narrative of who we are. This is where negative comments become harmful; when the behavior becomes inseparable from the self; when guilt transforms into shame.
“Guilt is ‘I did something bad,’ shame is ‘I am bad,’” says psychologist Kristin Neff. When I was a teenager, any criticism was taken as proof that I’m a bad person. As an adult, I know the difference. But my rational mind and emotions live in separate worlds; it’s hard sometimes to protect my inner child from not feeling wounded.
“It feels as serious as a predator chasing you because your self-concept at that moment is obliterated. It feels like a death because our ego is hurt and we confuse our ego with our bodily selves. When someone criticizes us it feels like a death. It’s a huge factor in suicidal ideation, alcoholism, eating disorders; dysfunctional behaviours driven by shame.” – Kristin Neff.
Criticism hurts because most of the time we exist in the world through our egos; we define ourselves by our self-image—by our appearance, our jobs, our relationships. Instead of leaning into our pain when our ego gets bruised, we turn to self-esteem to prop us up. We rely on external forces to define us, which can boost our confidence when the feedback is good, but tear us apart when it’s not, because we see our behavior as inseparable from who we are.
I’ve still got a long way to go, but I find hope in witnessing how I respond to each blow now compared to my younger self. The difference now, is that I have a stronger sense of who I am. My emotional response to criticism is no longer black and white; not all forms of criticism lead me to the extreme of shame anymore. And when they do take me to that edge—where I ruminate on my flaws; where I interpret the criticism as proof that I’m an inherently broken and bad person—I’m able to come out of that dark place sooner. How? By reminding myself to separate the ego from the self.
In the absence of a home or family to anchor me, I like to imagine myself as that home. I know it’s a bit woo-woo, but I do love what the wellness folks say about returning home to you. Because it means no matter where you are, or what people say, you always have the grounding force of a safe inner world to come back to. I put my hand on my heart, imagining it to be that of my mother’s, feeding my heart the love I need in that moment, reassuring me “you are not bad.” By stepping outside of myself, the rumination quiets, I’m no longer Anna but just a human being. Until I open up Instagram and it all comes flooding back…
A recent career highlight—interviewing Tan France on his new gender-neutral outwear line WASHIM! I was floored by his humility and that he generously gave me an hour of his time. There were too many nuggets of wisdom to pack into one article, so I’m sharing unpublished quotes here:
On going out…
“I love all my castmates, but me and Antoni are very similar, we don’t drink. We’re the grandmas of the group so we’ll stay in and cook. It’s so nice. Who has the energy to go out!?”
On the upcoming season of Queer Eye…
“We just won another Emmy, it’s not slowed down. It’s my favorite season of all of them, it was fucking incredible. The stories were really special because we were in the pandemic. I’ve only cried twice in the six seasons we’ve shot yet I cried almost every episode, not because it’s sad, but because it’s beautiful. Wait till you see this. I’m almost positive it’s going to be everyone’s favorite season.”
On staying grounded…
“Most people who knew me before will say, ‘he’s exactly the same.’ I live in the same home I lived in before all of this. I go to the same gym, I go to the same grocery store, I see my same twelve friends, I cook with them three nights a week like I always did before the pandemic. I still live my normal life, that’s how I practice self-care.”
On dressing post-quarantine…
“Regardless of what happened with your weight; regardless of what you do for a living—whether you’re out of the house or in the house—just find those things in the closet that make you feel good and gravitate towards them. You’re putting clothes on anyway, you might as well put something on that makes you feel good.”
💗 A guide to building self-compassion.
👌 Plus 3 tips to overcome your perfectionism.
“Perfectionism and the fear of failure go hand in hand: They lead you to believe that success isn’t about doing something good, but about not doing something bad.”
🤳 What Tik-Tok production houses and the influencer economy say about our desire for approval.
“If we sneer and snicker at influencers’ desperate quest to win approval from their viewers, it might be because they serve as parodic exaggerations of the ways in which we are all forced to bevel the edges of our personalities and become inoffensive brands.” - Barrett Swanson.
📱 Instagram is just the latest vehicle for carrying out the age old tradition of making adolescent girls feel terrible about themselves.
“The body positivity movement has helped, but girls still internalize that their success will rest upon their ability to be admired for their appearance. Instagram measures and gamifies that — creating a virtual high school cafeteria peopled by countless unreal bodies.” - Lindsay Crouse.
👧 But adult women are just as influenced and insecure about their appearance.
“We are no longer our eighth grade selves and yet still very much subject to the power plays of our eighth grade years, just with slightly thicker skin and better coping mechanisms and more distractions.” - Anne Helen Peterson.
🎤 On Miley Cyrus and using perfectionism as a coping mechanism.
👗 How much do you let arbitrary fashions rules (like thinking you only look good in certain colours or cuts) dictate what you wear?
📷 Calling all Annie Leibovitz fans, the un-fashion photographer has a new book.
🇰🇷 On how Korea became a cultural export. (Who knew there’s a Squid Game statue in Seoul’s Olympic Park!) Also, keep your eye out for the next Korean Netflix hit, Bulgasal: Immortal Souls.
🍣 The untold story of sushi in America, complete with fun animated illustrations.
🍩 Will you be eating timbiebs?
Finally getting through Amanda Peet’s The Chair: a satire that tackles the tough themes of today—sexism in academia, white elitism, interracial adoption, cancel culture—in witty, sophisticated rom-com form.
Academics who wish they were taken more seriously will love it, so will anyone who likes the work of the Duplass brothers (Jay plays the love interest). I love it because of Sandra Oh’s character Ji-Yoon. She’s a modern woman balancing taking care of her adopted Latinx daughter and elderly Korean father, all while trying to revamp the university’s English department.
But above all else, the rom-com suck in me loves seeing a non-stereotypical Asian woman getting the white heartthrob. Oh’s preteen-like excitement over Duplass’ advances warms my heart. I haven’t felt this way since watching Lane get Adam Brody in Gilmore Girls.
Everyone has an inner critic that manifests in different ways, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It comes from a desire to stay safe; it taps into our stress system—we respond by fighting ourselves, fleeing in shame from the fear of judgment or freeze, stuck in our worries.
The solution? Pause, tap into the present moment and cultivate self-compassion. How? Instead of being absorbed in shame, practice mindfulness: step outside yourself and separate the behaviour from the self.
On this episode of Hidden Brain, psychologist Kristin Neff suggests “self-compassion breaks” whenever you notice pain come up; practicing touch (i.e. a hand on the heart) and speaking kind words to yourself.
One surprising research find—You don’t need to be compassionate to yourself to be compassionate towards others, but to sustain compassion for others without burning out, you do need to be self-compassionate first.
You don’t want to know what I’ve been eating lately. But more on that later…