Tim Squirrell – Just try your best
This week, TIM SQUIRRELL plunges into the sinkhole of insatiable self-criticism.
“It doesn’t matter, as long as you try your best.”
Do you remember being told that when we were little? I think it was meant to be reassuring, but it always had the opposite effect on me.
I would do some piece of work – finger-painting, drawing an archetypal nuclear family, trying to pretend I did something interesting with my summer so that I could write about it – and I’d give it in, and I’d worry that I hadn’t done my best. I didn’t give that felt-tip drawing of a house my all – I was a phony, and they were going to find me out and Tell On Me.
The worst was when they gave us our own work back and made us reflect on what we thought we’d done well and what we could do better. I took self criticism to the extreme. I would fail to find any merit in my own work, it was offensively bad, worse than a supervision essay written at 3AM whilst drunk and sleepless on jagerbombs, or a gratuitous Cambridge reference shoehorned into a perfectly good article.
I’m not sure where that feeling came from – that nagging idea that whatever I’d done wasn’t good enough. When I had counselling they tried to draw it out of me – when did it start? How did it make you feel? I don’t think the root really matters. All I know is that no matter what I do, how many things I achieve or accomplish, it will never be enough. I will always be dissatisfied. Nothing will ever be the ‘best I can do’ – even if, for all intents and purposes, it is.
You open up your GCSE results. Nine A*s. Why not eleven? There’s a fucking B in there, you useless piece of shit. How could you let that happen? Your parents are proud, your school is proud, but you just lie in bed thinking about how you could have done so much better. What if you’d just revised a little harder, spent a bit more time on your sketchpad, used a bit more colour or different media or some fucking tinfoil? It couldn’t be a lack of ability. Never that. Always just a matter of not trying hard enough – if you’d just applied yourself you could have been more than you are.
Two years later. A Level results day. Open the envelope. 4A*s, one A. Where’s the other star, you shit? You got into Cambridge, this is brilliant! Rejected by two of the other universities – pathetic. The world is your oyster, but all you can see are the ghosts of fuck-ups past.
It’s selfish. You know it’s selfish. Self-absorbed. Self-obsessed. Narcissistic, even. You’re the brightest academic star around, all the doors keep opening up to you even as they close on your friends. Be grateful that you were lucky enough to be born clever, even luckier to be born with the motivation to use it, luckier still to have a stable upbringing and parents who loved you and made sure you didn’t turn out too fucked up.
But no matter how far you go, how well you do, you can never stop focusing on your faults. It’s not something you can control. They won’t leave you alone. You could be captain of your sports team, president of the drinking soc, have a great group of friends, top tripos, finish the college challenge and have an internship at Goldman Sachs, and you’d still spend your quiet moments thinking about how you screwed up your last relationship, forgot to call your mum on her birthday, didn’t spend enough time on your degree this year (again).
When I started writing, I wanted people to know my name and I wanted them to enjoy what I had to say and most of all I wanted them to like me. I don’t know why. I’ve always drawn a large amount of my validation from other people’s opinions of me. Maybe because I’ve always hated myself, deep down. The problem is, no matter what I write, and no matter how many great people say wonderful things to me, I can’t take my mind off of the negatives.
There was a point where I used to go through the deleted Tab comments – the ones that were too horrible for us to keep up on the site – and find the ones where people really laid into me. I couldn’t help myself. I had to find out what people really thought. I needed to hear from other people what I knew all along: that I was a shit writer and not funny and 0/10 would not read again and one of the worst Tab contributors of all time.
A single negative comment outweighs everything else, and it plays on my mind for days. I think I might be broken, but I’m not sure if it’s something that can ever be fixed.
I can’t be the only one, though. I have to believe that I’m not, although I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. It’s like being haunted inside your own head.
My art teacher once told me, ‘Tim, only you could add colour to something and make it look colourless’.
I can’t remember the nice things my teachers said.