The enemy within

man-looking-in-mirror

It comes up pretty early on in my English 11 class: “Can you be your own antagonist?” The question seems tricky until the students start to think about it and realize that of course the answer is yes.  There is a measure of truth to the old cliché of being one’s own worst enemy.

Imagine two friends about to go to a movie.  The following dialogue ensues:

PAUL: Let’s get going.
STEVE: Okay.  Oh wait, I forgot my keys.
PAUL: What, again? Are you kidding me?
STEVE: I’ll just run upstairs and get them.
PAUL: I can’t believe you forgot your keys again.  You are such an idiot.
STEVE: I got them! I’m coming! Hang on!
PAUL: You’re pathetic.

It’s hard to imagine this ever taking place; if it did, we would certainly think that there is something really wrong with Paul (and with Steve, for putting up with it). The relationship here seems abusive, or at least highly dysfunctional. Yet let’s change one minor detail and the scenario becomes strangely more plausible:

PAUL: I’ve got to get going.
PAUL: Oh wait, I forgot my keys.
PAUL: What, again? Are you kidding me?
PAUL: I’ll just run upstairs and get them.
PAUL: I can’t believe I forgot my keys again.  I am such an idiot.
PAUL: I got them! I’m coming! Hang on!
PAUL: I’m pathetic.

People who would never speak to another person this way will sometimes harangue themselves without mercy.  Athletes do this (I recently watched a recording of the 1982 Wimbledon final; after missing an important serve, John McEnroe yelled out, “You’re a disgrace!”), business executives do this, parents do this, neurosurgeons do this, grocery store clerks do this–we all do this.

Recently, a former student of mine sent me a simply astonishing cartoon on the destructive power of the so-called “inner critic”–a concept that is widely acknowledged in contemporary psychology and a principle force in clinical depression.  I plan to talk more about this inner critic in future entries, but for now I pass on this superlative cartoon commentary in which a girl’s inner critic is, well, see for yourself:

Inner Critic Image

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