My inner self-critic has played a starring role in my life for too long. I delved into that in Saying No to My Inner Self-critic, Part 1. I also promised in that post to take you through my process of evicting the critic. Well, here’s where I am right now in the process.
“They” say in 12-step programs that the first step in making a change is to admit you have a problem. Anytime “they” is evoked I’m skeptical about who “they” is and the validity of what “they” have to say. But this seems like a pretty good start for me at the moment. In the spirit of admitting stuff in order to move forward, here goes! I have a bunch of tendencies that tie into why my self-critic enjoys so much power in my life:
- I quickly push away less “acceptable” emotions and default to more comfortable ones. I try to look like I have it all together, and certain emotions don’t fit with my mental image of what it is to “have it all together.” Hurt, inadequacy, helplessness, insecurity, insignificance, loneliness, selfishness, and shame all fall into this category. I feel a lot more comfortable dealing with emotions like excitement, cheerfulness, hopefulness, confidence, anger, and irritation. When everything isn’t fine, those last two often show up (especially the last one). In most of those cases, however, I could look deeper and find at least one of the less “acceptable” emotions lurking below the surface.
- I try to rush through my emotions. People in the mindfulness world talk about “sitting with” your emotions. That means noticing and allowing yourself to feel them rather than judging them or acting on them before you even notice they’re there. I don’t do that very well much of the time, particularly not with those emotions I find less “acceptable.” For example, I might come home to a messy house and snap rudely to my partner that I can’t stand the mess and can we just clean up before we even sit down?!* What gets left unsaid is that I’m tired from the day and perhaps grappling with a situation at work where I’m feeling somehow unsatisfied, isolated, or inadequate.
- I have a history of distracting myself in free moments rather than allowing space to reflect. I have found an endless array of socially acceptable, even encouraged, ways to fill my time: dreaming up ways to decorate or upgrade the house, rearrange the furniture, do an awesome new work project, climb the career ladder, have chickens in our backyard, set up play spaces for the kids, and on and on and on. None of these activities leaves much space for self-reflection. This blog acts as a funny mix of distraction and reflection, by the way—it’s tempting to go down wormholes of learning new skills so I can tinker with different aspects of the blog, like whether it should be self-hosted and how to make it so. For me, succumbing to these types of temptations wouldn’t be in-sourcing to do something practical and necessary (that would be good!); rather, it would be part of a longtime habit of thoughtless consumption of information and, in the end, my time.
My inner self-critic isn’t the same as a valid emotion
Intellectually, I know better than to perpetuate habits 1-3 above. Pushing away emotions, no matter how unpleasant they may be, helps nobody, least of all myself. When I do it, the emotions simply come out later in destructive ways. But in the heat of the moment, my knowledge that these habits aren’t helpful often goes out the window. Pushing “unacceptable” emotions away feels like the path of least resistance—especially because I have loads of practice doing it! Once I do that, though, there’s a void where the emotions I just pushed away were supposed to be.
That void leaves space for my inner self-critic to barge in and tear shit up. The example I gave when describing habit #2 above is a perfect illustration of this; another good one is the dialogue between myself and the critic that I wrote in part 1 of this series. In both examples, I react either immediately or eventually to my inner self-critic as if it were a useful emotion. It’s not, though; it’s an impostor, a voice of mindless anxiety.
Reacting to the critic as if it were a valid emotion means I’ll act in ways that are not truly connected to the moment at hand. The critic comes up with stupid ideas (like snapping at my partner to clean with me!) that have nothing to do with how I actually feel (exhausted and ready to snuggle on the couch with my partner!). Nor do its ideas line up with what’s important to me—like my relationships with my loved ones and taking care of myself.
Looking at all of the above, I can see that my inner self-critic is actually unprocessed emotions bubbling up to the surface. This means evicting the critic will require me to start dealing with (er, FEELING) those emotions I keep trying to push away. Including the “unacceptable” ones. I’m going to have to notice these emotions happening, find a way to not push them away, and get comfortable sitting with them. If I can get that far, I think it’ll give me room to make a conscious choice as to how to deal with even the toughest emotions as they arise.
* The messiness thing is a pre-kids example that used to happen often. Mercifully I’ve since made peace with living with what can get to be a pretty impressive level of mess at times.