I’ve always really identified with the song “Call and Answer” by the Barenaked Ladies.
I realize that the song is about a romantic relationship, but I’ve always thought of the song as somewhat of a metaphor for the warring parts of myself. These lyrics particularly speak to me.
But I’m warning you, don’t ever do
Those crazy, messed up things that you do
If you ever do, I promise you
I’ll be the first to crucify you
Before I mentioned I am my harshest critic, and that that critic is a real shithead. As the song says, I’m the first person that will crucify myself if I do something wrong or, as is more often the case, if I perceived that I did something wrong. Many people with depressive conditions like mine judge themselves very harshly, often cripplingly so. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half depicts this self-destructive tendency brilliantly in her post “Adventures in Depression“. I’m no psychologist, but I think my harsh criticism of myself is amplified in my weaker moments by a warped form of projection bias, namely in that I project my own harsh judgments of myself into other people’s heads; they’re judging me as harshly as I judge myself. My perceived slights against humanity are then amplified, as I fear not only the assholish observer’s judgment, but also the criticism from all of those other people who feel the same way he does.
This feedback effect comes through in my work. When my dysthymia is largely under control, I would say that the criticism is more “tough love”; it makes me work harder, better, faster, stronger, driving me to shut that asshole up and do work about which I can be proud . When I’m not in a good place, though, nothing that I do is right. Case in point from this week: I recently re-designed the website of a local organization with which I’m involved as part of my job. I emailed the membership about the changes and requested suggestions. Someone responded back with a good suggestion. So what do I do? Rather than seeing the suggestion as it was – a good idea that I didn’t happen to think of – I started mentally kicking myself about it. That was so obvious, I said to myself, how could you have missed it? What an idiot.
I’m not an idiot, of course. Or at least I wasn’t in this specific instance; I make no claims on my idiocy in other contexts. I’m human. Sometimes I miss things, and that’s okay. What I am is recovering from a bout of major depression from last month, and hints of it still rear their ugly little heads. Fortunately, since I’m recovering, the better angels of my nature prevailed. That’s what happens when I’m a good state: self-criticism still arises, but the more logical part of myself quickly determines that most of those self-criticisms are crap.
If I give credence to all of those self-criticisms, though, my productivity plummets. Those criticisms suddenly don’t just originate from me; they originate from everybody. All of the membership thinks I’m an idiot for missing that obvious suggestion for the website (a suggestion, I’ll add, that was only sent to me and one other person, but far be it from my addled brain to bring in that fact). Everything I write is awful. I handle every staff interaction horribly, and the staff know it. I don’t do things quickly enough, and everyone notices. I don’t get enough done, and everyone again notices. The self-replicating cycle of criticism gets to the point where I’m only really comfortable doing the things I’m pretty sure that I can’t screw up: getting rid of unneeded items from the collection, going through donations, and getting the bills paid. I’m good at those things. Even I can’t screw them up too much. I hope I never, ever have to go through my rather involved evaluation process when I’m in this state; I’d be suggesting a demotion for myself.
These judgments aren’t based in reality. Everyone is not judging me as harshly as I am. My work isn’t as terrible as I think it is. If my work is suffering, it’s because of the negative feedback loop being created by my diseased mind that makes me scared to even try. As I further learn to recognize when I have valid criticisms of myself and when it’s the dysthymia talking, I’m coming to a better state of mind and a better approach to my work life. It’s proven much more challenging in my social life, but I’m working on that, too. Partly why I enjoy “Call and Answer” so much is it encapsulates many of my experiences into a mere four minutes. It encapsulates not only my tendency to crucify myself, but also my tendency to pick myself back up and keep going. And it’s that tendency that allows me to continue to succeed despite my illness.
I think it’s getting to the point
Where I can be myself again
I think it’s getting to the point
Where we have almost made amends
I think it’s the getting to the point
That is the hardest part
If you call, I will answer
And if you fall, I’ll pick you up
And if you court this disaster
I’ll point you home, I’ll point you home