I’m reading Katie Roiphe’s book of essays “In Praise of Messy Lives” and her literary criticism has me feeling, all at once, the thousands of reading hours I’ve lost in the past 7 child-rearing years. I suppose the solution is in reading now, and in praising my messy life that preventind all that page turning, but I get the feeling Roiphe would not allow that domestic mayhem within an ordinary marriage is truly, properly “messy.” I probably should have had dealt with substance abuse/had an affair/had children out of wedlock/ published a scathing cultural commentary . Oh wait, I did that last one, marginally disguised as a self-help book. But whoops, Roiphe’s got me there too, in a different essay—trite confessional memoir masquerading as plotline. I can’t win.
In losing, perhaps, I score? Maybe I will not recommend this book to other mothers who already score themselves too often.
When my friend related the contents of a study she’d read linking high self-criticism to artistic and intellectual achievement we both groaned. We had the first in spades, but didn’t seem to be reaping any of the other. When I mentioned said study to my husband, he scoffed openly. “You really need a study to prove that?” His tone set off a bracing round of marital bickering about genial intellectual discussion, but within ten minutes I came around to embrace his point, if not its delivery.
Self-criticism gets an astonishing amount of bad press in women’s media. We worry about it causing eating disorders, self-hatred, bad haircuts, unnecessary plastic surgeries, poor role modeling, servile attitudes, passive-aggression and chronic depression. Self-criticism makes me think of teary confessions on daytime talk shows while, for my husband, it calls to mind “the practice of protecting and enhancing best assets in the current business model of paranoid self-reflection.” Self-criticism, according to my husband, is the best thing a project or business can have going for it. “What about a person?” I’d like to ask him now, but he’s not here.
I suspect the problem lies in the way many women think of themselves (or feel thought of) as product-project—physical selves inherently connected to external actions or work. Whether this is a gender-specific trait or an effect of acculturation or neither or both doesn’t matter. The question stands: what would happen if women thought more about what self-criticism could do for us instead of to us?
This would require a few things.
First, we’d need to recognize self-criticism for the firehose it is: Stand in front of it and it can kill you. Wrangle it expertly and you can keep your own house and business from burning down. You can save lives even, if you know what you’re doing and get there soon enough.
Second, women might need to draw a few more lines in the sand demarcating what is and is not fair game. Job choices, financial decisions, social or romantic alliances and injurious habits might be, whereas the shape of a nose or a taste for harp music might not. Health concerns do ride this line problematically, in men’s lives as well as women’s, but men seem more comfortable deciding: if it’s not killing me, I’m not going to sweat it.
Thirdly, if the positive psychologists are right and focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses truly makes us happy, then we might need to take a more Buddhist approach to happiness. Is happiness what we want in all corners of our lives? Affirmations and self-love alone will not free us from obesity, bad relationships, bad habits, weak prose (see above) or unrealistic expectations. Better decisions will. Nor will scathing self-criticism free us from irrational fears, insecurity, sadness or history the way a positive self-image will.
Today’s affirmation then:
My ability to spot weaknesses is one of my greatest strengths.
I vow to always use this power for good.