A detached but curious observer

“Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.” ~Diogenes Laertius, 3rd century AD Greek author

I think I have a reasonable amount of self-awareness; in fact, I probably have more than most people do. That’s not to say that I don’t have my blind spots. I do, of course—more of them than I like to believe possible—but I’ve put a lot of effort into self-analysis and self-knowledge over the years, and I think that has made me more self-aware than most people realize.

The issue with this self-awareness is that it has always been pre-filtered through my inner self-critic before being processed in any way. Naturally, this has tainted my self-awareness with a rather warped view of who I am and how I function, and this warping is in a consistently negative direction.

As hard as it may be to believe, my inner self-critic actually has my best interests at heart, and that is precisely what makes this voice so hard to combat. You see, if I can be the first to find a fault, then

  1. I have a chance to fix it before anyone else notices and comes to criticize me for it, and
  2. if someone else does criticize me for it, it hurts less if I have already found that fault first myself.

The problem is that this protective strategy just isn’t working. I never manage to fix my faults well enough to avoid the criticism of others, and people still find so many things to criticize about me that I had not considered to be faults. So I wound up with this constant stream of internal criticism wearing me down without it providing any protective benefit.

Therefore, I’ve decided that it’s time to change my approach. First, there is no protection from criticism from others, especially not for someone like me who tends to wander outside the lines of “normal” for our culture. Nothing I do will ever stop the flow of criticism. The only thing I can do is learn to let it be the criticizer’s problem, not my own. I’m still not there yet, but I can at least see the goal. That’s a start.

Second, I am learning to set aside the inner critic and pay more attention to what I call my inner observer. This observer is detached but curious watcher. This part of me simply observes what I do, what I say, how I feel, what I think with no agenda other than curiosity. When an emotion arises in a situation, she simply observes the emotion and what prompted it and seeks to understand the connection. Why that emotion and not another? What is the emotion telling me about this situation? About me? About my needs? There’s no judgment of good or bad, just curiosity.

The lack of criticism and judgment in this approach has allowed me to be “open to all the questions” that arise from my experience of life. When my self-critic was in charge, there were questions I was afraid to go near because of the self-criticism that might result, and there were questions that I simply never considered because looking for faults was always the primary concern.

There are still moments when my observer notices my self-critic taking over, but even then the effect is muted because my observer-self is able to approach even that circumstance with a detached curiosity. “Hmmm … my self-critic just showed up. I wonder what in this situation prompted that response. What benefit am I hoping to gain in this moment from my self-criticism?” Even this much detachment is already beginning to slowly un-warp some of my self-awareness.

I am learning much from this approach to life. I still often find that I don’t know the answers to the questions that my observer-self raises, and I will likely never have all of the answers. More importantly, I think, is that I am asking questions that I never thought to ask before. I am pondering others that I once would have shied away from.

Assuming Diogenes Laertius is right, this increased openness to all of the questions should lead toward an increased confidence. In this case, self-confidence.  My observer-self is already curious to see where this approach will take me. Curious in a detached kind of way, of course. Kind of like a scientist studying the phenomenon that is me. Maybe that early training as a scientist will prove to be useful after all!