artwork by Robert Arneson
In the competitive and moral world that we live in, self-criticism, or rather self correction, is essential to evolution, development and betterment of both the individual and society. However, Some of us are so good at this that our desire the better the world takes priority over our own well-being, and we easily fall victim to an excessive version of self-criticism, a state of self-flagellation: a dangerous condition which fosters depression and creative sterility. We go beyond the self-corrective directness necessary for improving our shortcomings, and instead masochistically berate and destroy ourselves over foibles which are largely socially perceived flaws and inadequacies we assign to ourselves upon comparison.
Why do we do this? The problem arises when one embraces the concept of perfectionism. Perfectionism has no standard definition: it is an entirely man-made, or rather subjectively formulated, fluid doctrine of self-divinity. What we want for ourselves is never a definitive idea; our passions, dreams, and ambitions in life are subject to change as easily as our tastes in music or clothing are. We see this in everyday life. Under most circumstances we are willing to allow ourselves to adapt to what makes us feel happiest, i.e the emotional equivalent of perfectionism, which means some days we eat vegetables and other days we eat pizza.
Our perception of perfection also changes with the sphere of society. As we grow older and experience the world more, who and what we measure ourselves against changes, thereby making us move the yardstick of perfectionism with the tides of consciousness. New people come in and out of our lives, inspiring or repulsing us accordingly, and throughout the criterion for perfectionism alters. When you were child you are likely to have wanted to have been a vet or an astronaut, by your teens you may have worked towards a liberal arts qualification or a computer science course, but then by your thirties realise that your passion is in the theatre, be that a dramatic one or surgical one. Perfectionism changes on both the large-scale and small-scale; you may soon discover that your perfect family involves goldfish rather than children, and I can guarantee you that your idea of the perfect fringe or bangs today is very different from that from when we were thirteen and listened to angsty emo music.
Perfectionism isn’t just a 21st century problem; it’s been around for centuries, only social media makes it far more prevalent a notion. Perfect bodies, perfect relationships, perfect jobs, perfect families, perfect pets, perfect fame and fortune bombards our imperfect lives, pressing on our bruises which mark our already deep set insecurities. The ignorance of what we lacked was bliss until we flicked on our phones in the morning and scrolled through instagram, logged onto Facebook or watched another youtube video whilst brushing our teeth. Suddenly we realise all of that we do not have: how unsuccessful and unaccomplished we are at our meagre age, how little effort we put into our appearance and relationships, how we could have done that if we weren’t us but them, if we looked and acted that way, if only we’d written our novel by now.
Excluding the narcissistic, psychopaths out there, the rest of us would never treat anyone the way we treat ourselves. We treat our friends and family with a sympathy and kindness we seldom apply to ourselves. If our friend wasn’t a size zero or didn’t achieve the grades they wanted to in-school or University, or doesn’t match the societal standards of beauty and success: we don’t hound to them about it. We don’t send them texts reminding them of their shortcomings, picking and pinching away at their belly fat and taking multiple unflattering pictures about half naked body, spending hours of our lives zooming in and out of these photos, analytically dissecting their flaws with disgust. we don’t do this because we’re good people, we have good intentions and good hearts, we care about other people’s feelings and are compassionate and empathetic. But for some strange reason we choose not to see our friends and family through the same excruciating micro lens we do ourselves, and we love and care for them so much that we wouldn’t let them look at themselves through it if they tried or wanted to!
How is it that we became so enchanted by our own self-hatred? Why are we akin to judgement without a jury; trusting more of autocracy than consensus?
Adam Phillips examined how “our virulent, predatory self-criticism [has] become one of our greatest pleasures” and pointed out that we live in a world in which celebration is more suspect than criticism. Our Masochistic impulse to self-criticism arises from the superego; and you guessed it: of course this essay is going down the Freudian route. It is time to address the id, the ego, and the super ego. A brief rundown of these psychic apparatuses for those unfamiliar with them are as follows: the Id is the unconscious, instinctual, primitive self, the super-ego is an entirely man-made artefact which plays a criticising and moralising role and is prone to variation depending upon time and place, whilst the ego is the organised, realistic part that mediates between the two.
As I said earlier self-criticism derives from the superego whose intention was to make the Id into the ego. You see, according to Freud as the human mind developed the Id was a painful surprise to the civilised superego who took on the Id has project to form the ego we are today. The superego was essential to our Evolution and adaptation into civilised society, for we only became civilised due to the super ego’s judgemental fury piercing the ego’s defences and harshly repressing instinctual drives of the Id.
It seems appropriate here to quote Kafka himself:
“There is only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.”
Self-criticism is essential to our sense of ourselves, and we have become so indoctrinated in the conscience of self-criticism, both collectively and individually, that we have grown reflectively suspicious of the alternative possibility.
Though you see; whilst psychoanalysis explains the pain —Philosophy explains the pride of self-criticism. According to psychoanalysis, the Id is the Universally understood self, assuming instinct is part of all humans on earth, whilst the super ego is its own creation, varying from person-to-person as well as by place and time. Philosophy reverses this theory: what is varied and parochial In Context is the chastised self, the Id, whilst it is the critical “I” of the super ego which aspires to be in touch with the universal standards. If we look at the idea of self-criticism philosophically, the super-ego strives for perfectionism which it has deemed a universal, quantifiable State of being; so what is needed to counteract this is the fourth dimension of self.
In order to work against destructive self-criticism of the super-ego one must create a meta-critic which we can refer to as a super-agent, which serves as an extended criticism of the critical “I” that is the super ego, and a partial vindication of the chastised ego (emphasis on the partial). Whilst the super-ego may be ministerial, it still internally represents moral value and one cannot live in a civilised society without it.
So let’s break this down carefully so everyone’s on the same page: The newly created super-agent serves the ego philosophically by objectively critiquing the super-ego’s criticism of the ego. A very simple comparative metaphor for this is imagining the ego as yourself (which it is) with a positive and negative fairy on either shoulder. The negative fairy being the critical super-ego and the positive fairy being the super-agent who is breaking down and analysing the negative fairy’s feedback, drawing from it what is constructive and brushing aside what is too harsh. Freud would be proud his theories were being approached in such a magnificently artistic way.
Whilst the super-agent, like the super ego, speaks for morality itself, it differs from the super ego in its philosophical approach. It projects onto the ego the same criticism it projects onto everyone. All are critiqued by the super-agent equally. The super-agent intends to merely dethrone the super ego rather than destroy it, and win the internal war the crown itself supreme of the self.
This whole concept is parallel to Satre’s discussion and account of the self-creation of the intellectual. He argues that the intellectual achieves his guardianship of fundamental ends (i.e. universal values) “by constantly criticising and radicalising himself.” Whilst Satre’s self is a very particular self, a self-confessed product of a “petty bourgeois conditioning” it is still, as are all selves, susceptible to the devastations of self-criticism.
Self-criticism should never be eradicated; it is an essential recalculating tool of civilisation. There is a time when self-criticism is needed, but excessive self-criticism isn’t an over interpretation, it’s a dogma, a self hypnosis. What should be encouraged is not the relinquishing of interpretation but psychological hygiene by multiple interpretations in order to counteract the artificial authority of the super-ego and loosening its tyrannical grip on our existence of ourselves. Whilst we can never fully reach the happy condition of the deconditioned self, we should always strive towards healing, even when our divided consciousness can knowingly never be healed: for to nurture the art of over-interpretation leads to a less jaded and spiteful understanding of the self.