Defeating the Self-Critic: Lessons of Self-Worth from the Myth of Theseus

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“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to our selves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”

– Joan Dideon

The Self Critic is the author of misery. It turns us away from the authentic self and creates a habit of self-abuse. It employs two tactics to lure us further from our heart’s guidance and into greater and greater peril. The first is to convince us that it is our best guide, in lock step with our highest interest. It assures us it will lead us past harm, through the uncertain terrain of our lives, and to a safe haven. We listen intently, triggered by a mistaken notion that we are unable to find our way through the maze of life. “Turn left, turn right,” coaxes the false friend. “It’s not much further… just around this next corner.” The further we go, the more hopelessly lost and utterly dependent we become. Then the voice turns cruel. “Look how lost you are! You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you ever get it right?”

The second tactic is to remind us we how vulnerable we are to our deficiencies, failings and mistakes. The Self Critic relentlessly broadcasts our faults to an audience of one. These assessments begin with gentle admonitions, but grow more malicious with time. Like dispirited hostages, we succumb to the insults of the captor. In this onslaught our perception of time is altered as well. Instead of setting a course forward to our preferred future, we turn backwards to face a distorted past. In selective memory our mistakes are chronicled for instant replay, the library of our failures resides. We stunt our future growth by clinging to our past mistakes

The price of the Self Critic’s control is steep. Our hopes and plans shrink and erode. We are on our own case; nothing is ever quite good enough and an unhealthy addiction to perfection takes root. We begin to shrink from leadership rather than embrace it. We second-guess ourselves, mistrust our instincts, question our knowledge and under-sell our skill. Worse yet, we mistrust the honest intentions and support of others. Even small mistakes – our own or those of others – become fodder for criticism. Satisfaction in a job well done is sacrificed to what went wrong. Overly critical, we are both harsh judge and jury. We misplace healthy pride and satisfaction in our accomplishments, affirmations that advance our goals. Like the eagle feasting on the regenerating liver of Prometheus, the Self Critic grows ever stronger on a steady diet of our attributes.

The Five Robbers

But we don’t have to lose ourselves in the critic. We can overcome it. The myth of Theseus proves instructive as a model for how we can silence the critic and embrace our true selves. The story helps us understand the ways we are vulnerable to self-diminishment by depicting five challengers, each representing a different test. Through these challenges, Theseus – our proxy – builds the strength and know-how to face the ultimate confrontation with the Minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth.

Long before his birth, Theseus’ father, Aegeus, King of Athens, hid a sword under a great stone. This ancestral object was to be retrieved if and when the boy was strong enough to move the boulder. It took Theseus many years of patient training to gain the strength required to even budge the stone. Finally, when he was eighteen, Theseus removed the stone and claimed the sword for himself. There, buried with the sword, he also found a pair of sandals. This inheritance helped deliver him to his destiny. He would need the sword for his fateful confrontation with the Minotaur. The sandals – the shoes he was destined to fill – made him surefooted on the mythic journey home.

The myth follows Theseus’ on the road to Athens to meet his father and claim his royal birthright. On his travels Theseus met five robbers who tested both his confidence and courage. By overcoming these challengers, Theseus proves himself capable – he builds himself up one step at a time.  At the same time, the robbers warn us of the psyche’s susceptibilities to the Self Critic. It is significant that Theseus’ challengers are robbers. Stationed at the entrances to the underworld, these villains are important archetypes. They sought to steal the same treasure from Theseus they would take from us: confidence in our gifts. Like Theseus, we must face and defeat them if we are to make the hero’s journey to our own throne of power in the heart.

The first bandit Theseus faced was Periphetes, “The Clubber,” known for beating his victims into the earth with a brass staff. This brass club represents the violence we use to bludgeon ourselves. It is a particularly brutal form of self-hatred. This is the preferred methodology of the inner bully who would dominate and control us. The Clubber’s attacks are relentless. No mistake is too small to escape a beating. Judgmental of faults, weaknesses, and failures, the Clubber launches wave after wave of negativity. Its mission is to beat us down until we have lost a sense of adequacy. We are left broken and humiliated, defeated by our own hand. Yet, most of us would be horrified by the thought of treating another person with the ferocity we inflict on ourselves. Despite its aggression we are not powerless to limit the Clubber. Like Theseus who confronted Periphetes, and used the villain’s own brass staff to vanquish him, we can take steps to disarm the critical voice. First, we must stand our ground. The Clubber is unused to meeting a strong counter-offensive. Recalling all of our positive character traits, abilities, skills, and successes provides us with a way to counter the attack. Rather than being focused on getting everything perfect our motto must become “Excellence over Perfection.” A focus on excellence allows us to hold our lessons as steps towards a goal rather than setbacks. The Clubber loses ground when we allow ourselves to continuously improve. Like Theseus, patience and practice help us build our strengths and the courage to stand against the tyrant within. But we must choose. Will we continue to feed the voracious appetite of the critical voice or engage in fair self-talk? The Clubber is defeated when we command the inner dialogue.

Sinis “The Bender” liked to tie his victims between two bent pine trees, and then launch them in opposing directions. His victims were, of course, torn apart. The Bender threatens our inner wholeness, a necessity for the journey home. When we are divided against ourselves, we become easy prey. Opposing thoughts and feelings battle for supremacy. We are either on top of the world, or at its bottom. Our thinking is black and white, all or nothing. Our relationships with others are also unstable. Our projections have us see others as either models of perfection or flawed and fallen depending on our thin-skinned moods. The ability to keep mind, heart and will in a state of unity is another sword stroke against the critical voice. But what is the binding agent that can ensure wholeness under such divisive pressure? The story of Theseus and Sinis provides a clue: the robber used a rope to entangle his victims. Theseus managed to maintain his footing by refusing to be “roped in”. When we succumb to inner doubts, second-guessing or hesitating we are easily destabilized. By focusing on our highest interests, and by being vigilant to the divisive critical voice, we can avoid the lasso of the divided mind.  Theseus undid Sinis using the pine tree catapult. We too can put an end to the divisive voice when we refuse to be ensnared by its siren call.

Sciron, “The Kicker”, promised travellers they could pass a narrow land bridge under his control if they knelt and washed his feet. Once they knelt before him, Sciron promptly booted them over the cliff where they were eaten by a giant turtle. This warns us to guard against subservient and self-diminishing behaviors. Subservience is the inability to stand up for ourselves. When we choose to give our power away we effectively invite others to boot us headfirst into an abyss of humiliation and shame. We fail to set limits and boundaries in relationship and uphold them with consequences. We allow others to abuse our trust and disrespect our needs. Even our romantic relationships become train wrecks. We choose partners who use, take advantage, lie, cheat, and dominate all in the name of love. Parents, spouses, children, bosses, co-workers and other relations are permitted to tyrannize us. It’s our own fault, we tell ourselves. If we could only do more, be better, or anticipate their needs. In this state of mind – the primitive, reptilian brain as represented by the giant turtle – we fail to advocate for ourselves. Setting limits and boundaries to the Self Critic – and in external relationships – is the lesson here. Respecting your own feelings and needs is an act of personal empowerment and a positive first step. Theseus ended Sciron’s life by feeding him to the turtle, a reminder that the inner tyrant’s dominion is over when we hold our ground, set limits on abusive behavior, and follow through.

Cercyon, “The Wrestler”, challenged those passing his kingdom to a wrestling match. The winner got the kingdom, and the loser forfeited his life. Cercyon’s cruelty and brute strength were legend and made him almost impossible to beat. Theseus uses skill, not strength, to defeat the Wrestler. He summoned a combination of gifts and talents – coordination, flexibility, balance, speed, strategy, tactics, and endurance – to defeat Cercyon.  In this challenge, the Self Critic promotes an inner wrestling match that is rigged against us. When we wrestle with self-doubt, we defeat ourselves. Looking backwards, becoming mired in regret, keeps us from moving forward. We become exhausted, sapped of our strength. The same holds true for fretting about the future, which is beyond our control. Theseus’ example teaches us to seize the present moment in order to command our inherent gifts and our accrued knowledge, skills and experience. Remembering and applying our skills in the moment of the challenge can defeat the critical voice within, even when its strength appears overpowering.

Procrustes was the final bandit. Known as “The Stretcher,” he operated a lethal bed and breakfast operation for unsuspecting guests. Procrustes’ had only two beds of different sizes. He guaranteed, whatever your size, the bed he selected for you would fit perfectly. Too short? He would stretch you until you fit. Too long? He would literally cut you down to size. The Stretcher met his match in Theseus who settled the matter by permanently right-sizing the thief. Theseus decapitated him and cut off his feet using Procrustes’ own axe. This encounter teaches us to beware of measuring ourselves against others. Where do we feel like we are too little or too much in our lives? The need to be better than others, or feeling inferior, signals an unhealthy relationship with the self. The encounter with The Stretcher also warns us about the need to fit in, and the need for acceptance and approval. We must accept and approve of ourselves without requiring the validation of others as the basis for self worth.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.

Posted on September 11, 2013 .