A reader constantly doubts her own abilities. Ignore your inner critic and dare to be yourself, flaws and all, says psychother­apist and Red’s agony aunt Philippa Perry


Our agony aunt shares her advice

Q I really struggle with my inner critical voice. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, but as I’ve got older, it’s become even louder and more harmful. It cancels out any compliment­s I receive or achievemen­ts I make, and instead focuses solely on every time I ‘screw up’. I feel like I constantly wear a mask around other people, trying to be what I think they want me to be, always feeling like a fraud and that I have no idea who I am or who I want to be any more… I’m not sure I’ve ever really known. How can I stop this and learn to be me?

A First, I don’t think you are a fraud. What you say rings true to me and I think would do for many others. We all struggle with impostor syndrome, thinking that other people are too good-looking for us, or that we aren’t clever enough for the company we’re in. Honestly, if a room full of us got together and let out our inner critics instead of the faces we put on for other people, there would be a cacophony.

What I’m saying is that the face you put on for others may be as true a part of you as your inner critic. It’s just that the inner critic is telling you it’s phoney. Arguing with your inner critic never works, so try a different tactic. How about treating it like a veteran on a Pacific Island who is still fighting the Second World War, although it ended in 1945. The Japanese, when they found one of these old soldiers, didn’t laugh at him; they gave him a parade with full honours. Then, very, very gently, they told him that the war had ended decades ago and there was no need to fight any more.

In a similar way, you could tell your inner critic: ‘Thank you, I know you are only trying to help. You are trying to rescue me, trying to stop me putting my head over the parapet so I don’t get shot at, but there is no one there to shoot me. These other people? They are just as broken as me (trust me, we are). They aren’t going to shoot. They are trying to find out who they are, too, and we can make friends and do it together.’

As for finding out who you are and what you want, don’t expect to solve this straight away. It is your life’s work, just as it is my life’s work. A way to make inroads into this is to keep asking yourself these questions:

l ‘What am I feeling right now?’

l How do I use those feelings to work out ‘What do I want?’

l How do I go for it/ask for it?

Start small with these questions. So the answer to, What am I feeling? might be, ‘Thirsty’. What do I want? ‘Water!’ And then drinking it. Get used to practising this and gradually you can move on to bigger things: ‘What am I feeling? Lonely. What do I want? Connection. How do I get it? By daring to be all of me.’

When we’ve over-adapted to other people throughout our life, we can get lost. The trouble with over-adapting is that if you try to be who you think the other person wants you to be, there is no one within you for them to have a relationsh­ip with. That means, however inadequate the inner critic declares you to be, you will always be better than the person you think you ought to be. So, don’t be who you think you should be – be who you are, warts and all. Then, there is someone there for other people to connect with and, more to the point, you will begin to connect with yourself.

In my book How To Stay Sane, there are a lot of exercises to help you find out more about yourself, how you talk to yourself and ways to tweak it. The great thing is, you are aware of your inner critic – and that is the first and most important step.

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