Self-criticism Silences My Authentic Self

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by Matt Lafleur |

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For some reason, the huge tome of American literature that served as my textbook for high school English always opened to the poem, For the Dead, by Adrienne Rich. Probably because the page was dead center in that hulking paperback book, that poem would stare at me almost every time I cracked it open.

Even though almost 20 years have passed since that class, Rich’s poem is burned into my memory. It echoes unprompted in my mind every few years, reminding me of its uncanny wisdom. The words haunt me still, like the somber song of a benevolent shade.

“I dreamed I called you on the telephone/ to say: Be kinder to yourself ”

Even as a 16-year-old, I was moved by this poem. It was almost formative to how I learned to view my relationships with others. After all, having compassion and being understanding of others — understanding their failures and encouraging them to persevere — is not only necessary, but it was easy for me to accept. But treating myself the same way? Being kinder to myself? I didn’t even consider that.

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My self-talk patterns at that point in my life were pretty despicable. Never in a million years would I criticize anyone the way I did myself. And in some twisted sense of morality, I thought it was noble to berate and belittle myself for every failing.

After all, my failings were showing up more and more. I was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA) just a few years before I turned 16, and I wanted to pretend my disorder was invisible, but by my junior year of high school I could no longer ignore its symptoms. I ridiculed myself for no longer being able to play sports. I cursed myself each time I lost my balance. I abhorred myself for being awkward in group settings. And I thought thinking such things made me noble, even holy.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Regardless of FA, all of us tend to magnify our failings. If doing that serves as motivation to do better next time, then it can be healthy and appropriate. But the way I talked to myself was discouraging and belittling; I wanted to hide in shame after failing, not try to do better.

I lived with this mindset for 20 years. I hoped to be compassionate and encouraging to others, but in the privacy of my own mind, I was anything but that in the ways I talked to myself.

Earlier this year, my favorite podcast, “Hidden Brain,” released an episode called “Being Kind to Yourself.”

The episode is filled with nuggets of information, such as how being compassionate and not too self-critical leads to better performance on college exams, and allows us to relate better to others. The most striking piece of wisdom I learned from the episode is quite basic, but it’s something I had never thought of.

Be genuine to yourself.

One of the most valued traits to me is authenticity. I’m not always going to be genuine and authentic, but it’s a quality I want to strengthen. The episode reminded me how inconsistent it is to treat someone else differently than we treat ourselves. If others deserve compassion in their failings, maybe I do, too.

Those of us with FA aren’t known for being patient with ourselves. Failing at activities we used to easily do is frustrating beyond words. Yet, maybe next time I spill my full bottle of water or lose my balance and end up falling on the floor, my mind won’t automatically start belittling myself. I hope we can all do the same. It’s not exactly self-compassion yet, but it’s a start — a little victory. 

If I want to be genuine, maybe that begins with how I talk to myself.

“I dreamed I called you on the telephone/ to say: Be kinder to yourself ”

I’m listening now.


Friedreich’s Ataxia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Friedreich’s Ataxia News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Friedreich’s ataxia.


Jean Walsh avatar

Jean Walsh

love this Matt! I am always working on this myself. My thing when I catch myself, sometimes I don't because it is so ingrained, is to ask myself if I would say what I just said to myself to a friend.

I think we have very similar podcast favs! Try On Being if you haven't yet. Love that too.


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