I Am My Own First Critic: The Power of Self-Examination

( Introspection  | Imageation)

(Introspection | Imageation)

"It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

A Healthy Dose of Criticism

I give myself permission to criticize anything I do or any group I belong to. I don't go out of my way to do this but if there is something a bit off or something worth looking into, I look into it. It is dangerous to criticize harshly and dwell in self-blame, but there is even greater danger in lacking introspection. It becomes cultish, an echo chamber, conformist, authoritarian, arrogant, and ultimately oppressive. I benefit from a healthy dose of criticism, especially when it comes from within.

In the poem "Who Makes These Changes," Rumi writes:

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious
of what I want.

Indeed. If you can't examine the depths of your own soul, then who? And if someone else, it might be too late to undo the damage.

If the rational don't call out the extremists in their group, the extremists will drown out the rational voices. Then criticism can only come from the outside, and when it does, it will be viewed as us vs. them and met with resistance. (Bad guys never know they are the bad guys, they only think they are defending themselves.)

You can form an opinion but once you believe your opinion is beyond reproach is when things become fatal. There is this unspoken belief that you should not criticize anything you belong to. That whatever you do or whatever you are a part of needs to be flawless.

W. B. Yeats writes:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Perfection will never be the case. Hypocrisy is about holding moral beliefs you don't hold for yourself. Then holding yourself or your in-group to the same standard as you would for everyone else wouldn't be hypocrisy, but not holding to the same standard would be.

Not Looking Too Carefully, Not Thinking Too Deeply

An in-group might discourage discourse and say: don't ask questions and don't allow any "negative" thoughts. You may even at times say this to yourself. You might conclude anything, including objective feedback and truth, can be "negative" if it is unpleasant for you to hear. We can and do brainwash ourselves. This is how we can knowingly do things that are wrong. This is how we remove our sense of wrongdoing.

Just because you are offended does not mean you are right. Just because emotions feel like facts does not make them so. Base reality does not care about how you feel. It does not revolve around your feelings. It just is.

Outrage can drown out reason when reason is quiet. Critical thinking is about seeing the whole picture, if you are only allowed to think partially, what you see will never be reality. You can't call this happiness, for happiness just like courage is a mindset that you hold in the face of other feelings, not in their absence.

Even Memory Requires Proof

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus pioneered research in the 70s about the inaccuracy of memory. Now widely accepted as the proper understanding of memory (our minds constantly change and edit memories), but when Dr. Loftus first released her studies, she received threats against her life. Even a bomb threat. Up until then, people believed memory was like the Bible—flawless and perfect, only capable of truth. Any recalled or repressed memory, then, was considered the absolute truth (unless they were intentionally lying). And though we have the evidence, we know from experience that people can spout out bullshit, not because they are lying, but because they believe their own bullshit. (Bullshit is actually an academic term.)

Dr. Loftus did not prove that all memories are wrong, her studies only proved that they were not absolute, they could be up for debate. This research is one of the reasons why we hear so little about alien abductions and Satanic kidnappings in comparison to the 70s and 80s. Bringing up repressed memories and activating imagination were one and the same. But people lashed out against the research, not because Dr. Loftus said they were wrong, but that they could be wrong.

"How dare you!" For some, memory was beyond question and for Dr. Loftus to challenge that meant she challenged a belief system. Not only are beliefs not real, but what we think isn't always real. That things can be fallible, that we can be fallible. But our egos convince us that we are gods, incapable of human fallibility. Her research said that we were human, and as humans, we were frail. But does human fallibility need proof? Don't we already know this? Perhaps the backlash was a defensive reaction to guilt, that we might have to answer for any damages caused by our over-confidence. As humans, we tend to do that.

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.
— Carl Sagan

A Priori: Does Not Require Proof

In Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant used the Latin term "a priori," which is a type of knowledge independent of proof, evidence, or experience. And this is how we argue, as if whatever we are saying is self-evident and does not require proof. What I am saying is automatically true. This is your ego playing tricks again. In logic, this is known as the circular reasoning fallacy, to assume your argument proves the truth of your own argument. (E.g., ghosts are real because how else could they exist? But how do we know they exist? Because they are real.) This extends to never questioning your bubble and making the case for your bubble from things within the bubble. Like a video game character trying to prove the video game is real by taking measurements from within the video game. But objectivity is measuring against something outside of itself. (I'm six feet tall because I feel six feet tall vs. using a ruler to measure height. Which is more accurate?)

Religion is not the only dogma, we can be dogmatic about anything. We can confuse social reality for reality. Our points justified not by science or evidence but determined by politics, rhetoric, ideology, social reality, political correctness, emotion, and even politeness. Freeing yourself from one form of dogma gives you the illusion that you are free from all dogmas, and that whatever you speak is objective truth. But there are many ways to leave a dogma, and not all of them are based on rationality. And even if you were rational about one dogma, you might have blindspots for others. Perhaps your dogma is race, or politics, or worldview, or nation, or culture, or inner circle, or any other in-group bias. Perhaps you have a dogma of the self, an illusion of superiority. And when we share our biases with our inner circle, they will nod their heads and agree with us because we are only giving them something they already believe and letting them know why they are right (confirmation bias).

Gaming Social Conventions

We can make a point without valid proof, expecting it to be accepted, not on grounds of merit, but due to the unspoken threat that if it is not accepted, there will be repercussions. "I will get mad if you don't accept my personal truth as the absolute truth." A type of logic fallacy called "appeal to force."

Rather than facts, persuasive language, voice, and gestures are used as the support for our arguments. Verification is replaced with intensity and passion. Whoever is loudest and maddest is right. Who needs proof when you can get a good reaction? In pro-wrestling, which relies on basic psychological tricks, this is called getting a "pop."

In many circles, a claim will be accepted if no one wants to make a fuss. The intransigent person making the point is leveraging decorum in the absence of reasoning (political correctness is a form of politeness, but the list of what is impolite is subjective and can grow infinitely). That is not truth, that is strategy. The aim is to win; a game where only truth and discourse are the losers.


It's self-brainwashing, a rejection of the wholeness of a group, person, or idea when the totality is a mixed bag. We are aware of the dangers of only seeing the "wrong" in ourselves or our in-group. What we don't see are the dangers of denying the "wrong" in ourselves and only seeing the "right." Willfully turning a blind eye, ignoring warning signs, suppressing information, and voluntarily embracing apathy. "It's only bad when they do it." Allowing ourselves and our group to get away with murder (and sometimes literally).

British philosopher John Stuart Mill was best regarded for his ideals on individuality and nonconformity. In 1867, he delivered an inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews in which he said:

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

Bad things happen because good people allow them to happen. But if we allow bad things to happen, how can we remain good people? We can live blissfully blind in this contradiction by denying the existence of bad when it conflicts with ourselves or our group. This denial of precision and wholeness allows extreme situations to arise. This unbalancing of our views skews our actions and deflects culpability. When "we" are all good, "we" do not see the wrongs we do. When "they" are all bad, we do not see all the wrong we do (and the good "they" do). An intolerance to nuance and ambiguity can only create ego, absolutism, and a "you must do what I say" totalitarian mentality. Thinking something is all good is just as subversive as thinking something is all bad. Classic propaganda is binary when humans are shades of gray.

1984 and Brave New World

See your good qualities, embrace them but do not ignore your warts, they may grow large and infect other areas. Do not judge others by their worst, be as charitable as you are with yourself. Do not judge yourself only by your best, be as skeptical as you are with others. In this way, you will find more accuracy.

In George Orwell's 1984, the people were controlled by a military state.

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Someone will attempt to pass something off as a priori by stating that "this is how it's always been," so it needs no evidence. If we revise our history, we don't need to defend our arguments.

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, people were controlled by a cult state.

‘I’d rather be myself,’ he said. ‘Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.’

If it's not pleasant, it can't be true. "Happiness" becomes more valuable than free will, but without choice, how can you call this happiness? No authenticity, where group ego replaces individual identity.

There are many ways to subvert; when we only fear the possibility of one, we run towards the other. A guru says, "Do not criticize, it is not for you to understand." A general says, "Do not criticize, it is not for you to understand." In both instances, we are told we shouldn't think, we are incapable of thought, to neither question nor criticize authority. Authoritarians wear many clothes, and a population that thinks is a danger to their authority.

1984 and Brave New World are works of social criticism. Criticism has and will always be the primary weapon for justice. Throughout history, it has steadily improved the lives of people around the world. Yet criticism is seen as "bad" and that all depends on where you are standing.

If you are criticized for stepping on someone else, then you may consider criticism a bad thing. And if you are no longer superior to this other person, criticism may be regarded as an even worse thing. To the person being stepped on, however, without any power, all he or she can do is criticize those in power. Criticism can band people together, possibly persuading some of the ones already in power to join their cause. This is why books that criticize society get banned, burned, or lately, have discretionary warnings put on them by that very society. Yet, when we look back on history, these same books are often considered the greatest of books, as they have changed human history. Hence, their inherent danger, they challenge the status quo.

However, criticism can be used in a way to create more oppression. Don't believe everything you think. There is nothing more dangerous than a group in power with a persecution complex. It becomes power filled with hate. (They should be more critical of themselves.)

The problem is not criticism, it is when criticism is misaligned with the truth—when it is selective. When we believe everything we think. When we flee from self-examination. When criticism plays to our fears and biases. The most intelligent and educated of nations can fall into selective beliefs. History has proven that. But when they do, world wars are fought.

To Grow as a Person, We Must Observe All of Our Nature

Sometimes we militantly deny faults. We just don't see it—but we're not going to see it unless we look for it. And we're not going to look for it unless we think faults can exist, that we are fallible. We must fight this self-absolutism; we mustn't allow self-righteousness to defeat self-examination.

The unexamined life is not worth living.
— Socrates

So sure of ourselves: "I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing," followed by, "I'm sorry. What have I done?" Why are we so certain? Where is our doubt (our natural checks and balances)?

There is no greater delight than to be conscious of sincerity on self-examination.
— Mencius

Believe in the possibility that we are unreliable narrators. Be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. We must allow for the possibility that things may not be what they seem. We must give permission for criticism. It is the first line of defense for citizens. When we look at any powerful institution with a critical eye, it is called investigative journalism. When we do this with ourselves or our in-groups, it is called introspection.

Imagine a country where no one is allowed to criticize the leader, where journalists are to be ignored, and truth is whatever the leader tells us. This is not a democracy, but an autocracy; this is not a leader but a dictator. Just as we should be skeptical of criticism, we should be even more skeptical of those who tell us to never to their critics and to only listen to them. Imagine a world where truth is biased, where it does not need proof or third party review, but only what someone tells us? Why do we assume this is benevolent? Why do we believe them? Because when critics are silenced, there is no other truth to believe. And this is the danger.

Novelist Anne Lamott writes:

The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.

Being objective gives us a roadmap for growth. Without objective feedback, there can be no progress. Without progress, you become blind to the need for progress. (You don't know what you don't know.) The objective approach begins with unobstructed observation, followed by evidence, then change.

W. B. Yeats writes:

It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.

I had a conversation with my friend Rene, a tremendous martial arts teacher, on his method for productive teaching. As someone who puts a lot of thought into himself and his actions, he said:

I am constantly reevaluating what I teach, the way I teach, and trying to look at the evidence before me. I’m my first critic.

In this context, criticism is a very powerful and helpful tool. How is productivity or any improvement possible without it? How would we not stagnate? If we are all our own first critics, is it not better to tame criticism rather than silence it? Is it not our built-in alarm system?

When I write a rough draft and give it to someone for review, I don't say "Tell me what you think." This avoids criticism and encourages confirmation bias. I say, "Can you tell me what's confusing? What can be clearer?" Or sometimes I hand it to someone I trust with writing and say "Please tear this apart for me. I want to know how I can make this better." And that's what asking for criticism is, it's asking for help in making something better. You have to have the courage to be vulnerable if you want to make anything good. Otherwise, you will stay in a rut of mediocrity, and you will know what you are putting out is no good. Which makes you fear criticism even more. You have to get over that. And to do that, you have start by looking at yourself or your work and asking yourself, "How can I make this better?"

The Best Criticism Should Come From Within

Many groups form around the basis of self-improvement yet paradoxically, it is often these very groups that are most resistant to criticism. We ourselves can resist criticism when self-improvement is our purpose. (And if the self is the focus, we may only want to hear praise.) This is the chasm between intent and behavior and it must be bridged before positive change can occur. When we choose resistance, we deny resilience and self-reliance. Criticism is a form of evaluation, self-criticism then is a necessary part of self-improvement and group care. People who want to improve should be the most receptive to criticism. Otherwise, how do you know what to improve? Our intent may be to improve, but we may not behave in ways that helps improvement. We want to pretend, and surround ourselves with other pretenders, and then defend our illusion from all criticism.

I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.
— Socrates

Who really has the most access and insight to you but you? And if it's about an activity or group, then who knows more than its participants? Why is it the job of the outsider to take a critical look? The first burden should be on ourselves. The best criticism should come from within. As a group, our individual efforts should combine into a collective endeavor of continuous improvement.

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
— Richard Feynman


It's not about being your worst critic, it is about being your first. It's a vital step in the learning process. Introspection has always been the backbone of improving yourself, developing the group, and improving the world. Reason should never be beyond doubt, for doubt is reasonable.

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