Most of us don’t talk about our inner critics. That constant source of negative thoughts.
That voice saying, “People don’t want you here. You don’t really belong.” Or wonderful advice like, “You aren’t good enough. You never will be. Everyone knows it. Everyone is looking at you and thinking it. It’s time to give up.”
I see people laughing and I assume it’s about me. Someone doesn’t say hi to me in the hallway and I assume they’re angry with me.
Anxiety makes us all do funny things.
I’m probably not alone in this. But few people share these details on social media.
Most days these voices are manageable. A quiet murmur in the background. Recognizable, but also fairly easy to tune out. But lately they’ve been getting louder. And more difficult to ignore. Because I’m feeding them.
Scariest Movie Ever
“A mind too active is no mind at all.” – Theodore Roethke
Brene Brown would refer to these voices as “shame tapes.” The reel of self-doubt that plays in our heads and keeps us from putting our true selves out there.
In Daring Greatly, she also likens them to gremlins, the manipulative monsters that Steven Spielberg created for the express purpose of terrorizing a six-year old me.
As anyone who shared this horrifying experience will remember, you can’t feed the mogwai after midnight. I’m not sure when it officially becomes a next-day acceptable feeding, but I do know that from 12:01 to some unspecified early morning timeframe, food intake turns a cute little mogwai into a diabolical nightmare-inducing gremlin.
Oh, and water multiplies them. That image of the gremlin leader Stripe jumping into the pool is still with me to this day.
Our internal fears follow the same behavior. As we feed and water them, they become more powerful. When we feed our minor worries, we give them more credibility. They become serious doubts. When we water our insecurities, they multiply and become a stronger presence in our head.
And soon we have a whole pack of gremlins running through our head, causing mischief. They won’t leave us alone. They interrupt every thought and discourage every action, debilitating any chance we have to make a positive impact.
Exposing Our Fears to Light
I had to watch the movie again to remember how you actually destroy gremlins. Some pretty brutal stuff for a PG rating. But between death by blender, microwave, movie theater explosion, there’s one sure-fire way to destroy a gremlin.
Stripe, that diabolical SOB, is finally destroyed when Gizmo exposes him to sunlight. And just as gremlins can’t survive the exposure of light, neither can our self-doubts.
Our shame tapes thrive in darkness. Their power relies on it. The light exposes them for the weak, frail things that they are. We can see their lack of depth and recognize that the authority we’ve given them is seriously misplaced.
So I could tell you it’s important to discuss theses fears with others. And it undoubtedly is. But if you’re like me, you’d nod your head in agreement and we’d both know that neither of us is going to follow through on that action.
Maybe sometimes we would, but most of us aren’t that comfortable with the vulnerability that this dialog brings. So I’d promise you and I’d promise myself that I’m going to talk to someone. But when the time comes, I always seem to keep my mouth shut.
So I had to find a different solution.
Inviting Our Fears to Tea
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of it’s furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
– Rumi, The Guest House
In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach tells the story of how Buddha handles the Demon God Mara’s appearances. Instead of fighting with Mara, the Buddha would invite him to tea and calmly acknowledge his presence.
As Tara tells us, “When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, ‘I see you, Mara,’ and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully drive him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.”
When we recognize these fears, we don’t need to run or lash out at them. We can invite them into a discussion. Suddenly they’re not so scary.
They become that annoying friend who complains all the time, but we keep inviting him along for some reason. Or maybe they become that other friend who always has a new conspiracy theory. Annoying? Absolutely. But scary? Not so much.
Once we can gain a method of sitting down with our internal fears, we’re ready to recognize and move past them.
Trap Your Fears on Paper.
“Roland produced the eraser at last, and held it out to Patrick. ‘Make him gone,’ he said. ‘Make yonder foul hob gone from this world and every world. Make him gone at last.'” – Roland Deschain, The Dark Tower
When Roland of Gilead finally arrived at the Dark Tower, he found his archenemy, the Crimson King, waiting for him. Setting up for a final showdown to end the series, Roland needed to get past this last challenge to gain entry into the Dark Tower.
What looked to be a stand-off was finally broken when his companion, Patrick, was able to draw the Crimson King on paper. He tied him to the page before erasing him and destroying him for good.
This summary doesn’t do the series ending justice. I promise it’s better than I made it out to be here. But I do love the idea of capturing my fears on paper.
I started journaling earlier this year. I had to overcome my own ignorance-borne stereotype that journaling was reserved for poets and the unemployed. I’ve previously written about the Five Minute Journal by Intelligent Change. It helps me practice gratitude and realize I control my vision of success. I’ve since customized the daily reflections to better represent areas where I want to focus and it’s probably the most valuable five minutes of my day.
But it didn’t do much to bring light to the gremlins. Then I listened to Brian Koppelman discuss this issue with Tim Ferriss. Koppelman recommended the morning pages journaling practice that Julia Cameron describes in The Artists’s Way. It’s the practice of writing out three longhand pages by just putting down whatever comes to mind. Keep the pen moving, don’t worry about censoring, formatting, or sounding the least bit intelligent. There is literally no wrong way to do it.
As Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way, “We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth.”
Morning pages help me get past the Censor. They help me quiet Pressfield’s Resistance. They help me sit down with Mara for tea.
They take all of my confusion, worries, and fears and commit them to the paper so I’m free to move on without them holding me back.
I’ll echo Koppelman’s thoughts that “it’s the closest thing to magic I’ve come across.” It’s incredibly therapeutic to write down these thoughts. By writing them, I recognize that these are thoughts that are bothering me and they’re worth considering. But this is all the consideration they deserve. The only point to thinking about them further is to work out a solution. It’s time to move on.
To quote Tim Ferriss’s experience with the practice, “Morning pages don’t need to solve your problems. They simply need to get them out of your head, where they’ll otherwise bounce around all day like a bullet ricocheting inside your skull.”
(Photo by Marion Michele on Unsplash)
We All Fight This Battle Everyday
As Steve Chapman points out in his TEDx talk, there is no end to this battle. It is a constant dance with our internal critics.
As the light destroys today’s gremlins, our internal critic will be ready with more tomorrow. But we can begin to recognize the limits of their power. And see their lack of depth. And know that tomorrow we will beat them again.
For me, morning pages let me sit down and address my fears. They helped me see them for the weak complaints that they truly are. And they helped me realize that when I can face them straight-on, they’re not nearly as powerful as I was making them out to be.
Maybe this solution will help you. Or maybe there’s another one that will be better. But the biggest step is just trying something. Start a conversation. Give journaling a shot. Send me an email and we’ll chat.
None of us are alone in this. And you don’t need to let those gremlins keep eating in the dark. Because they’re really not that scary once you see them clearly. (And you’re older than six. Seriously, don’t let your kids watch that movie.)