Five Steps to Turn your Inner Critic into a Collaborator
Anger, frustration and loud voices were an everyday occurrence in my childhood home. My mother followed the kiss ‘em and kick ‘em approach to conversation, depending upon her mood at the moment. Some days she would kiss me and call me sweet names and try to feed me all kinds of goodies. The next day, she might be angry and call me a “fat, lazy slob,” and then suggest I go on a diet. It was hard to know who I was going to meet at any given time: Dr. Jekyll or Everybody Hide.
My mom was driven by her emotions. When upset, perhaps by my father being late or drunk, or some other thing, she would wash the dishes in the kitchen and talk to herself at the top of her lungs. Her monologue consisted of a list of frustrations combined with personal attacks, mostly launched at my dad, although no one in the family was immune. It often sounded something like this:
“You are so lazy. I am the only one who ever does anything in this house. And Mrs. King down the street, she has her hair done, her teeth fixed and I don’t know how she does it when she has eight kids to feed. I could have that too if you didn’t spend all our money at the bar. “
And so it went for hours at a time. How did she keep her energy up? More importantly, what return did she get from doing this?
It is interesting for me to reflect on, because I wonder if she was even aware of what she was saying. Did it aggravate her more, or was there some satisfaction and release from this vocalization? There was no one else in the room with her, although we could all hear her from down the hall. I was in the living room trying to get my homework done. My father was lying on the couch watching TV and my older sisters were off somewhere else entirely.
What I do believe, having now studied a lot about feelings and needs, is that it is helpful to our souls to express ourselves when we combine that activity with self-empathy. My mother only got half way there. What she was doing is called “jackaling” in the nonviolent communication (“NVC”) world. She was vomiting all of her negativity out her mouth. That’s a great place to start to try to find relief, but I find it does not usually result in clarity or resolution. Often, reiterating our negative thoughts just keeps us locked into them, fueling depression and hopelessness.
If I knew then, what I know now, I would have suggested that she follow her jackaling by naming her feelings and what she was wanting, also known as “name it to tame it” in NVC. When we jackal, we speak from our lizard brains, and that activates a biological response to get ready to fight, flight or freeze. Apparently, my mom was a fighter, but to no avail.
To get relief, and to calm down her nervous system, it seems to me, it would have been helpful for her to say, “ I am so frustrated by my situation! I’m angry that I don’t know how to change it and I really want more help and consideration from my husband and my kids.”
Brain research shows that when we engage with this naming process, we stimulate our frontal cortex and that allows us to begin to self soothe. This is the support we get from self-compassion. From a calmer, clearer place, she might have come to us and said, “Hey, this is what I need from you,” and made a request. Maybe we would have helped, or perhaps not. At least then she would know where she stood. And then, perhaps she could have made a different choice. Rather than keep re-living the same pattern over and over again, she might have decided to divorce, or to do less housework herself, for example.
Sometimes shame gets in the way of us asking for what we want and making change. Perhaps my mom felt she deserved this life and had no choices. When I write those words, tears form, because I resonate with that concept. I feel sad that we humans feel that we are not worthy, or capable, or lovable. We have so many constructs around unworthiness that stop us from pursuing our joy. That makes me sad, and yet I know that is our work, our human condition. We dance with these issues everyday. They don’t go away, but we can learn to work with ourselves, our thoughts, our fears and frustrations so that we can enjoy the beauty there is inside of us that we may share with the world.
I have learned to collaborate with my inner voices… both the positive and the negative. There are five things that I do when I get to that place of inner judgment and despair in order to transform it to a more useful energy.
First, I remember that I am not my thoughts. Biologically, I am an animal with a strong survival instinct. An intelligent animal that no longer works on instinct alone the way a tiger might, but rather, I have many random thoughts that influence my behavior. Just like my mother had, I have an inner monologue that keeps running. And I need to slow it down so I can look at it with curiosity, and then deconstruct it, so I can understand what my thoughts want me to know.
Second, I remember that all of my thoughts (because I am an animal) are there to aid me and protect me so that I may survive. I learned many of my negative thoughts, like “I’d better not make mommy mad, or she won’t love me,” as a young child. While they may have been helpful for a time, they may no longer serve me.
All those times, when my mother railed and ranted at me in negative ways, like calling me a lazy slob for example, I ingested those concepts and made them my own. Even now, I sometimes chide myself for being lazy, even when I truly need to rest. Am I lazy? I have to ask myself, or am I on the verge of exhaustion? And yet, I am grateful for the thought, because its intention is to serve me, even if it no longer does.
Because acknowledging negative thoughts can be scary, approaching them with compassion is key. That means knowing that they may no longer be true or perhaps they never were - but they can give me information that I can use. When I listen closely, I know that the voice that says I’m being lazy is the one that doesn’t want me to fail. It wants me to win momma’s love and approval so I can survive as a young child. That voice is still there, although I don’t need it for survival in the same way I thought I did when I was five. But my negative thought doesn’t know that I don’t need it now that I am grown up. It is still living in my lizard brain. I need to coax it out in to the open, invite it into my frontal cortex so I can transform its energy into something useful.
Third, I ask, “Is it true? Is it true that I am lazy?” (Thank you Byron Katie for this concept and the following one) and, “How do I know that it’s true?” Can I think of three ways (or evidence) that shows me the thought is not true?
Whenever I do this, I find that my negative thought is not true!
Fourth, if that thought is not true, what is it telling me? I ask myself,
“What do I really want?”
My mom wanted support and to be seen by her family. My “lazy” inner critic thought might be saying, to me, “I want to be successful!”
Fifth, I decide what I want to do about the information I gathered. Do I want to ask for what I want? Do I want to make a change in my life to assure that I get closer to my desire? Am I okay with accepting what is, and allowing myself to mourn for that which I can’t have and would love to have?
I dance with my inner voices almost everyday. I can’t eliminate negative thoughts, but I can appreciate them for their desire to keep me safe. With gratitude, I sift though their meaning and set a course for my life each day. It is truly an inner collaboration that leads to transformation.