Author: Jim Schneider
Like many people, I have an annoyingly loud inner critic. And when I say “loud,” I mean I he walks around in my head with one of those bullhorns that has flashing lights and sound effects, just in case I miss his latest clever way of saying “you suck.”
It’s something I’ve been dealing with for as long as I can remember. I’ve spent a lot of time, focus and therapy trying to silence that critic. Or if not to silence him, at least to marginalize him. In a chapter of my recent book (shameless plug alert: Fencebat: A Big Kid’s Guide to Parenting, Personal Growth, and Play…get your copy on Amazon today!) I name the critic and talk about my struggles with this negative voice. In the book, I said that I call him Carl. It seemed like a harmless enough name, and I wrote that to me his voice sounds like Tim Curry in The Hunt for Red October. Persistent, but kind of annoying and whiny.
That made for some funny banter in my book, and indeed I have gone down the road of trying to minimalize the negative voice in my head. But I’ve come to realize that really isn’t being honest about it. Whether I like it or not, the critic voice is a powerful one. If I’m being truthful, he sounds less like a British actor playing a whiny Soviet doctor and sounds more like Darth Vader. Powerful and intimidating with some reverb.
In recent months I’ve started doing some work with a somatic therapist. Somatic is a type of therapy intended to deal with deep issues like trauma and post-traumatic stress by approaching the process through both mind and body. One somatic therapist I spoke to described focusing only on the mind as being kind of like a guy at the gym who spends hours a day lifting weights but never does any leg work. You get someone totally ripped up top but with skinny legs.
In the work with my somatic therapist, we’ve been focusing on my inner critic. My therapist is helping me see that the best approach isn’t to marginalize, minimize or ignore it, because in the end that is impossible. She is helping me to understand the critic, its motivations and where it’s coming from and approach it from a place of empathy.
That’s right, empathy. This seems counterintuitive because to me this voice is a mean bully. But my therapist pointed out that indeed the voice came into being as a defense mechanism against something. It might be that it thinks or thought it was defending me from outside criticism by beating it to the punch. There’s a lot to sort out there, but we worked on my talking back to the critic…not with harsh words, but with kind language. “I see you, and I know you’re trying to help. How can I help you?”
I felt like I was making some small progress on this front, and last week I had a setback. Interestingly enough, in my very first Small Batch meeting, we got talking about this topic and I got some helpful perspective from the men on the call. But that very evening, I had a stumble that showed me that knowing something and putting it into practice are two different things.
It was the night before my birthday, and I decided to indulge in a little pre-birthday glass of wine. Red wine. Yadda, yadda, yadda, I reached for something on the side table, and that delicious but highly staining beverage wound up all over a light grayish-whitish carpet that we just had installed about 6 months ago.
This was the kind of moment my inner critic lives for, and he leapt right into action, shouting “Look what you did! I knew it!” Inside I caved and went into what I would describe as a total meltdown, desperately trying to clean up the mess with towels, cleaners, a Bissell machine and oodles of white-hot panic.
My wife came in and asked if she could help. I was so deep in my own head that I told her no, I have this. I didn’t have it. Had I been calm, I would have asked for help and my wife could have prevented me from making it worse, which I was most assuredly doing. She left me alone for some period of time and finally came back to bring me to my senses. At this point nothing I was doing was going to make any difference.
Looking back on this mindless panic, I’m reminded of an early episode of Happy Days, where Fonz is furious and convinced someone is after him because his motorcycle was broken into several parts and scattered around. He even found the muffler in a mailbox. It turned out Ralph Malph had accidentally backed into Fonzie’s bike. He got so freaked out he kept backing over it time and again. After confessing this to Richie, he asked Ralph, “why did you put the muffler in the mailbox?”
“I thought if I could just hide it…”
Like Malph, I wasn’t making great decisions. Eventually, I settled down, came back to earth and put myself back to some kind of regulation. At that point I was feeling less embarrassed about the spill than I was about how I acted afterward. My wife was concerned about how hard I had been on myself, and so was I. From there I started to ask a lot of questions about why my inner critic reacted that way and why I crumpled so quickly to it.
Going back to what my therapist talked with me about, it led to a real heart-to-heart with this voice inside of me. Looking at my inner critic not as an enemy, but as someone who was desperately trying to help me, even if he didn’t know how to anymore.
I remembered that when I was a kid, my family went through some financial tough times, and when something would get broken or stained, it would stay broken or stained. Turns out I still carry some shame about that, which is why this voice freaks out so much when I stain or break something.
But my reality as a kid is not my reality now. I will get the carpet cleaned or replaced, and it will not be the end of the world. What I discovered was that I felt tons better after having a dialogue with my critic, not as a fight but instead saying, “Thank you. I see how hard you’re working and what you’re trying to do. I know you mean well. But trust me, it’s going to be OK.”
That was a rough night for me, but sometimes the best lessons come from the biggest stumbles. Since then, I’m really trying to see and understand this voice inside of me. He works so hard and wants so badly to do good for me. I think if I keep working on him, we can be pals in the end. Maybe I’ll even have a glass of wine with him sometime.
WHITE wine. Definitely white.