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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

Why Most of Us Feel Like Losers

Some of us are continually haunted by a sense that we are losers. Acquaintances may speak well of us. Colleagues may praise us, but there is an inner critic inside who has a very different verdict: you are a piece of nonsense, you are laughable, you are repulsive. This critic is extremely assiduous and determined, they are a world champion of sorts. They’ll get into an argument with our best friend to insist that no, despite what they think, we really are awful; they’ll disregard the evidence of a promotion or surprise birthday party and keep returning to the same theme: you are repulsive.

Why does this inner critic exist? Why are they so remorseless? If they are inaccurate, why do they go on as they do?

Paining of a naked and faceless young man standing on a beach.
Edvard Munch, Young Man on the Beach, 1908

To find an explanation, we have to go back in time. Let’s posit the following scenario. Early on in our lives, those of us with a harsh inner critic are likely to have faced a very troubling situation: someone close to us – it might have been a mother or a father – didn’t seem to especially like us: they were cold and forbidding, they often got angry, or they simply disappeared (and maybe married someone else in another country). Or else they fell into depression or became an alcoholic.

Why did all this happen? This is the question that would have faced the younger version of us, though we forget this now. 

It’s very hard for a child to deal with a vacuum of explanation. The mind has to try to find some way of accounting for things because otherwise the mystery threatens to be unbearable. Better some answer than a void.

Unfortunately, the childish mind doesn’t have an accurate grasp of adult psychology or the workings of the grown-up world. Nevertheless, it’s an energetic and vibrant machine and eventually, it is likely to land on an explanation that feels very powerful – and that in time ceases to reveal that it is just a good guess rather than an iron truth. And that explanation runs as follows: the bad thing that has happened to me has done so because I am bad. Father has left home because I suck. Mother is screaming because I suck. My sibling died because I suck.

It’s almost certain – we hasten to add – that this is not the right answer to why things unfolded as they did. But that’s not the point. This was the answer we landed upon and that felt most plausible. A child will prefer to think that it lives in a rationally ordered world where things happen for logical reasons – even if this means having to think that they are bad than to take on board the terrifying notion that things happen that are entirely unfair, entirely undeserved, and utterly reprehensible to the interests and hopes of a child. Better to insist that one sucks than to have to believe in an amoral chaotic senseless universe.

It’s easy from here to see how the child who decided that they suck – to be precise, who had to conclude that they sucked in order to make sense of an unbearable pain – then grows up into an adult who continues to maintain, in the face of any evidence to the contrary, that they are dreadful, that all good news about them is merely a cover for hatred, that everything nice is underserved and that they are, despite key bits of evidence to the contrary, a piece of excrement.

The way to break out of this prison is to realise that we are made up of parts. The inner critic is not the whole of us, it is a part that was formed early on in response to a particular situation. We might now thank it, very politely, for its work, because – at an early stage – it did in fact do a very good job of making sense of life. At a cost, it was responsible – we might say – for getting us to the next stage, it tided us over, it was very clever (for a six year old).

But at the same time, we can now afford to take our leave of this helpful but profoundly mistaken part. Thank you inner critic, we might say. You did something bold and you meant well. But now, you threaten to ruin what remains of the rest of my life. 

It’s time to say goodbye to the critic and assess reality through a fairer, less biassed, less uninformed lens. We don’t suck, something awful happened to us. We aren’t bad, something bad happened to us that we tried to rationalise by blaming ourselves for it. We aren’t awful people and we don’t deserve an awful future; we just came from a very difficult place.

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