“…sometimes when we are beating ourselves up, we need to stop and say to that harassing voice inside, ‘Man, I’m doing the very best I can right now.’”Brene Brown, Rising Strong
If you read my very first blog post, you know that I confessed to having a teenaged girl living inside my head.
First – I don’t just have a teenaged girl in my head. There are others. There’s my dad, the therapist who counselled me through cancer treatment, a woman who has been a business mentor to me, and a handful of others who have had a significant impact on my life. These other voices, for the most part, are reasonable and rational advisors. They steer me towards what is right and good, encouraging me to weigh my options thoughtfully and act with consideration and care. They speak words of wisdom. They are kind and constructive. The adolescent girl, however, is the opposite. She is reckless and impulsive. She is quick to anger, to blame others and it is her mission to convince me that life is a zero sum game that must be won at all costs. She’s critical, immature, and cynical and she has gotten me into trouble more times that I can count.
Second – I didn’t always recognize my mental antagonist as being a pubescent bundle of hormones and emotions. Up until a couple of years ago, that voice was, quite simply, always there. It was the dominant monologue in my head, wreaking havoc, relishing in failure and fuelling the fire of anxiety. It was a faceless, nameless, dictatorial figment of my imagination. So how and when did this change? How did I begin to differentiate this voice from the others? Perhaps more importantly, why would I single her out and give her an indentity? To explain all of it, I need to tell you a story.
On a Sunday afternoon in November of 2020 I had a meltdown. I don’t mean the kind of bad day where you throw your hands in the air, wrap up in a burrito blanket and cry yourself to sleep in a pile of tissues and self pity. I mean a “Sweet Mother of God, get in your car and start driving yourself to the psychiatric hospital” level of meltdown – I suppose “breakdown” might be a more appropriate description. You might assume that this kind nuclear event was triggered by a significant trauma or perceived injustice and I wish I could say that was but the truth is, it was not. The entire event was precipitated by a completely benign comment from one of my kids. The innocent remark tapped something deeply rooted in my insecurities and it sprung from its dormancy with such force that I was unable to stop it from exploding to the surface.
I’m not quite sure how to describe what happened but it’s like I left my body. I was standing outside of myself watching this person I did not recognize cross the line of rationality and charge full throttle towards absolute absurdity. The emotion spewed like hot lava and only thing I could think to do to stem the flow was to leave the situation, get into my car and drive away as fast as I could.
So that’s what I did. It was my intention to drive myself to the nearest medical facility but as the snowy road advanced under my tires I began to recover some reason. My breath drew me back into my body and suddenly my hot rage was replaced with freezing shame and panic. Sobbing, I knew I wasn’t ready to go back home but the hospital no longer seemed appropriate, so I went to the place a lot of people go when they want to pay for therapy but don’t want to talk – I went to the mall. I remember roaming around a locally made goods store, picking up items I thought would make great Christmas gifts and piling them into my arms. There I was, blending into the throng of holiday shoppers who had no idea they were in the presence of someone who, only moments before, had been a complete raving lunatic. When I inevitably took my place in line at the till I had a moment of proper lucidity and I realized the ridiculousness of what I was doing. What was the plan here? Buy presents, pretend nothing happened, go home and sit down for dinner? Nope. That wasn’t going to work. This was big – too big to ignore. In that instant reality slapped me in the face, HARD. “Holy shit.” I thought. “I AM NOT OKAY.”
A lot of stuff happened following that moment, the details of which I will spare you, but to sum it up I calmly slid my credit card back into my wallet, stepped away from the trove of locally made wares, and returned home to apologize to my husband and kids. Then, I sat myself down to mull over what the hell had happened that afternoon and what I was going to do about it. The next morning I woke up and booked an appointment with a therapist.
Several days later I met Carolyn, a psychologist not much older than me, with large expressive eyes and a kind smile. Because this was 2020 and the height of the pandemic, we met over Zoom, which wasn’t as weird as I thought it was going to be. Carolyn had a nurturing, warm disposition that extended beyond the limits of our physical distance and she began the session by gently probing about what had brought me to that moment. Through tears, I explained the event and all the aftermath. It was the first time I had described it to anyone and embarrassment narrowed the passage of my throat, making the words like daggers in the soft tissue lining my esophagus. Carolyn was patient, listened to my story and then asked me a question. “What would you like us to accomplish in our time together?”
I was ready for this question. I had practiced how I would answer it time and time again in the days leading up to the appointment. “I don’t want to talk about things. I want to DO things. I am a great student and I want to have concrete work that I can do to FIX this.” A knowing grin glimpsed the corners of Carolyn’s mouth. She’d clearly worked with my type before. “Janice,” she said, “I can give you assignments to help you make sense of what you’re going through, but you are still going to have to TALK about it in order for this to work. There is no way around that”. Once she secured my agreement to participate in both the “doing” AND the “feeling” parts of therapy (ugh) Carolyn gave me my first piece of homework. It was an assignment called “The Inner Critic”.
We all have a voice our heads that is critical, negative and sometimes downright cruel. This phenomenon has long been studied – Freud referred to it as the “superego”, asserting it’s presence is necessary for humans to suppress their socially unacceptable base desires and to strive for moral perfection (often at the expense of rationality); neuroscience argues that it plays a part in our innate survival mechanism sometimes called the primitive or “reptilian brain”, scanning for and warning us of danger, thus priming our “fight or flight” response; and Cognitive Behaviour theories contend that these thoughts are driven by our core beliefs about ourselves and are a symptom of dysfunctional self-evaluation and rigid negative assumptions.
As a long ago student of psychology, I find the underlying psychological/scientific theories fascinating. The exploration of these, however, is not the point of this particular piece of work, so I’ll leave the academic debate to the experts and conclude this brief explanation by saying this – whatever you want to call it and for whatever reason the inner critic exists, WE ALL HAVE IT. And I, for one, find tremendous comfort in knowing that this is a “human being problem” not a “Janice problem”.
The exercise Carolyn gave me was simple but it was not easy. I was to interview the negative voice that lives inside my head as if they/he/she were their own distinct individual, and to do so with curiosity and respect. She explained the benefits of such an exercise:
- The process of assigning a name and face to this “anti-self” would allow me to create distance between the stories they tell me and how things really are.
- By diving into the creation and desires behind my inner critic perhaps I could reveal their purpose and find some space to practice self-compassion.
- By giving life to the omnipresent nay-sayer I might find the strength to confront it head on and maybe, just maybe, bring some light to what felt like tremendous darkness.
Carolyn provided me with specific questions to prompt the conversation and sent me on my way. Here is the assignment she sent to me:
Like I said earlier, I am a good student. Give me a task and a timeframe to complete it in and I will get it done. After Carolyn and I parted ways at the conclusion of that first session I devoured the assignment. I honestly didn’t have to think very long or hard about who my inner critic is. It was almost immediately apparent to me that my “Itty Bitty Shitty Committee” is led by a 15 year old hot headed tyrant. Her name is my name (nee, Miller) and she is volatile, emotional, fierce, strong, independent, and she does not take shit from anyone. What was less obvious but became more apparent as I muddled through the interview is that this youthful force, although severely lacking in emotional intelligence, serves a very important purpose. She is there to protect me, to warn me of potential danger, and to fight for me when I am threatened. And she is damn good at her job.
That, my friends, is the story of how I came to know that I have a teenaged girl living inside my head. This process taught me many things about the pubescent personification roosting in my brain. Yes, she is manipulative, mean, crass, immature, and self-absorbed. She’ll say anything to get her way and she really doesn’t give a shit who she hurts in the process. BUT she is also vulnerable and afraid. She wants so badly to be liked, to be heard and to be recognized. She hates to be embarrassed or insulted. She wants to succeed. She is easily overwhelmed by her emotions and when triggered she will grasp at the nearest weapon of opportunity – usually anger – and strike with unyielding ferocity.
As odd as it might sound, I find the knowledge of her presence comforting. Giving her a name, face and world of her own has enabled me to identify her triggers and offer her guidance and compassion. When she says things like, “You’re a shitty mom” like she did on that November afternoon when my son made his casual comment, its because that’s the only way she knows how to motivate me to do better, to be better. It’s not right, and it doesn’t excuse any of the resulting behaviour on my part, but it has given me a place of understanding to start to heal.
Just as Carolyn had hoped, building a relationship with my inner critic has allowed me to create space between her voice and my actions. I can ask her questions, be curious about what evidence she has to support her comments and decide if what she is saying originates from a place of fear or love. Most days I offer her a laugh and a smile. I let her know that I hear her and gently request that she back down. On other days, she requires more of a firm hand and I have to lovingly remind her who the actual boss is around here. Either way I find it easier to face her with loving kindness because I know that she is just like me – she is doing the best she can with what she has and when she is offered empathy and understanding she is willing to let her defences down and begin to grow.
What About You?
Who is your inner critic? What purpose do they serve? Is there an opportunity to build a relationship with them/him/her? Like I said earlier, it’s a simple assignment but it’s not easy. I’m curious to know what might happen if you sat down to have an honest, respectful conversation with your inner critic. What will you discover and where will it lead you in your journey?
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