Here are two sentences that are very similar, but describe very different people:
Person A) “He is totally in love with himself.”
Person B) “He has a great sense of Self-Love.”
You read them in completely different tones, didn’t you? Person A is someone we could classify as an ”ego-maniac”. Person B is happy with who he is, but I think the difference is deeper. There is something going on in these two characters’ heads that I view as the defining difference between Self-Love and being in love with oneself. I believe the difference lies with their “Inner Critics”.
Now I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure most people have an “Inner Critic”. It’s more than the conscious. It’s the conscious in moments of introspective critical thinking. If you don’t have an Inner Critic, or a conscious for that matter, you may be a sociopath and you should seek some help. Or don’t, I’m not you Dad.
Anyway, the Inner Critic is the voice in your head that draws conclusions about the past and predicts the future. It is your thinking that excludes the present moment and current experience. That’s You experiencing the moment as it happens, not the Inner Critic. I’m not saying these definitions are objective, but they are helpful parameters that help me describe the difference between persons A and B. I have been both of these people, and some days I am still either of these people, but to spend more days as Person B, I need to understand who they are. Let’s start with Person A.
The following is how I believe Person A interacts with his Inner Critic:
His Inner Critic isn’t making a lot of noise. In fact, depending on the degree that this person is not analyzing the past and future, he may have his Inner Critic gagged, bound, and locked in the basement. This person is primarily living in the present moment, but I don’t blame Person A. Living in the moment feels fantastic. It’s not just enjoyable, it’s chemically addictive. More on this in a moment.
The Inner Critic often tells you that you screwed up, people think you’re weird, or you are going to fail. It can often persist and nag. In fact, authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal researched just how much money is spent every year in an effort to escape that nagging Inner Critic in their National Bestseller, Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALS, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. They refer to this money as the “Altered States Economy” and it includes drugs (legal and illegal), alcohol, social media, pornography, and events like EDM Concerts and IMAX movies where we pay to feel more and think less. All in all, the Altered States Economy makes $4 Trillion dollars a year. We clearly want to silence the Inner Critic, and Person A is just successful at it. And I don’t know if he could turn up the Inner Critic’s volume so easily if he tried.
Kotler and Wheal continue to explain that “…altered states can silence the nag. They act as an off switch. In these states, we’re no longer trapped by our neurotic selves because the prefrontal cortex, the very part of the brain that generates that self, is no longer open for business. Scientists call this shutdown “transient hypofrontality.” Transient means temporary. “Hypo,” the opposite of “hyper,” means “less than normal.” And frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that generates our sense of self. During transient hypofrontality, because large swatches of the prefrontal cortex are turned off, that inner critic comes offline.” (Kolter/Wheal, pg. 38)
Transient Hypofrontality floods your brain with feel good chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and endorphins. It’s not surprising that silencing the Inner Critic is not only pleasant, but addictive. It gets you hella high.
Side Note: Intense experiences of Transient Hypofrontality when overcoming a challenge and achieving peak performance is referred to as “Flow State.” I recommend The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance also by Steven Kotler before reading Stealing Fire to learn more about it.
Silencing the Inner Critic through habit and addiction is one path, but fear is another. The Inner Critic can be a real asshole. He can say some harsh things. But silencing self-judgment because the words aren’t always nice is like staying indoors everyday because the weather could be bad. You have to go outside to experience life. You have to listen to your self-judgment to experience personal growth.
Sure, being in love with oneself conveys confidence, but it’s not grounded confidence. Real confidence comes from seeing what you have faced, overcome, built, and finally, reflected on. Once you’ve taken note of the person who has earned confidence, your Inner Critic’s opinion along with anyone else’s, doesn’t seem to carry as much weight. They are worth listening to, but other opinions are only worth consideration.
The Inner Critic is not always right either. He may be wrong, because he is human. He is human, because he is you. The only way to know the truth from the lie is to give your Inner Critic back the microphone and judge your self-judgment. Once you start to listen, maybe you can train him to be more honest.
Which brings me to Person B:
Person B made friends with his Inner Critic. They go out to lunch and get beers after work. Person B listens to his Inner Critic not because the Inner Critic always has nice things to say, but because he sees the value in his Inner Critic’s voice. He judges his own self judgment and pulls the truth out. To build this skill, you have to put yourself in a position where you can’t ignore the Inner Critic’s voice. That means pursuing struggle and embracing failure.
Struggle and failure suck. Life can suck. It can beat you down and take anything and everything from you. And your Inner Critic speaks when things go wrong. If you listen, you can hear a whisper of hope, but it doesn’t often sound like hope.
Let’s say your significant other dumps you. Your Inner Critic may say, “You aren’t good enough. You weren’t good enough to her. She was out of your league.” You can run from that by chanting the opposite, but I suggest an alternative. You aren’t good enough? True or not, you can be better. You weren’t good enough to her? Be better to everyone. She was out of your league? You were not right for each other and that’s okay. It’s your job to realize your Inner Critic speaks dramatically and to learn to translate his dialect. At least, that’s the language mine speaks.
Getting dumped is a struggle. So is being abused as a child, fighting a disease, or launching a business. There will be moments when you feel like you’re failing because your Inner Critic is telling you so, but ignoring his voice is not the path to overcoming. You are not learning anything from the struggle if you go deaf. Person B embraces his struggles, his failures, speaks the language of the Inner Critic, and is wiser for it.
Now let’s bring it all back around to Self-Love versus the love of self. Person B stays humbled by failure and doesn’t panic in the face of struggle. Person B loves all parts of himself, even that judgmental bastard talking inside his head because Person B can use the Inner Critic’s self doubting words as weapons in future battles. Person A loves a part of himself. He does not accept his Inner Critic, and thus, he does not accept himself.
Everyone’s Inner Critic speaks differently. Mine is dramatic and loud like a drill sergeant. Others have explained to me theirs is sweet and nurturing, like a soft-spoken mother. All types of Inner Critics have pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, just like us. Accept them and you will be closer to accepting yourself.