A few weeks ago I had one of my sleepless nights. Longtime readers may know I am basically a recovering insomniac; I’ve long struggled with sleep troubles. After some major efforts and serious discipline I finally got it under control, but I still have spots of trouble, particularly in the summer when the sun sets so late.
So, sleepless once again. I tossed and turned, feeling like my skin was too alive and sensitive to everything touching it, my head whirring with a million thoughts folding and coiling against one another. I guess it was to be expected: I’ve spent the past few weeks taking a lot of risks, big and small: true confessions, putting it “out there” professionally, telling long-dormant truths, shedding skins, taking names, all while trying to keep my game tight.
In other words, I was feeling extremely confronted. And all my little nest of fears were stirring up, buzzing around. You know those thoughts: You’re not good enough. Your work is dumb. You don’t have talent. That dress looks stupid. People will laugh. People will think you’re lame. That’s not cool. Only a loser would do that. It’s not ready. You’re not ready. The usual drain when you do anything outside of your velvety little comfort zone. My cabal of inner critics were making their voices hear, and there was barely any room left in my head to hear my own luminous childlike innocent self think.
There are a few options when I get all scaredy-cat inside, of course. Inner critics are gatekeepers: they are basically voices of fear, and they pop up you’re doing something you want very, very much, but involves possible rejection, loss, judgment. They basically start clanging at the gates of your personal hell when you’re ready to bust out and explore new horizons, new worlds.
So, trick #1, ladies and gentlemen, to quell your inner critics: Don’t challenge yourself. Don’t be bold and take risks. Stay safe and quiet.
Wait: is that really an option? For anyone? Of course not. But then, how exactly do you tackle that inner buzz of criticism, naysaying and doubt and move beyond them to live the life of adventure and liberation you are meant for?
Hiding out from your challenges and risks is what inner critics want, though. As specific expressions of fear, they’re sort of just doing their evolutionary job. In the past, fear warned your ancestors against, say, making friends with saber-toothed tigers. See tiger: run like hell from tiger. Useful in the fight to stay alive and not get eaten in prehistoric times. They’re the brain’s way of making sure you avoid pain and death. Avoiding death is a good thing!
But of course, not everything is a life-or-death situation anymore. Sometimes it’s more like soul-or-death. Or growth-versus-stagnation. Here, fear actually cripples you from living fully and liberating your spirits and dreams. And that sucks, and that’s when you have to reckon with those fears and inner voices of doom like a good ninja. Because while fear is a universal emotion that everyone experiences, it’s most problematic when it fuels persistent patterns. In other words:
Learn the difference between fear as an emotion and fear as a behavior.
Everyone feels fear, but it doesn’t mean we have to act fearfully.
I really don’t have any secrets on dealing with my inner critics — that is to say, the voice of my inner fears. I’ve learned a little better to be more aware of when they pop up, kind of a combination of somatic awareness (my chest tightens and my breathing becomes a little more shallow) and creating enough space in my life to be more precisely aware of my emotions (chilling out, fake-meditating, resting.)
And I’ve also learned to detach myself from my inner critics and regard them as kind of a scientific experiment, which lessens their charge a bit. Everyone’s inner critic is extremely specific. For me, they almost all have to do with some aspect of my background and history; I’m guessing that some of your inner fears and critics have their origins in your own personal history as well. Because I like to write stories and invent characters, I like to imagine them as a little cabal in a dark chamber of my brain, hanging out in a darkened room, playing cards and drinking whiskey while they plot ways to derail me. Kind of like a mafia of inner critics.
The funny thing is, this actually works for me; maybe because it feels playful and a bit silly. But getting super clear on what these specific fears and critics’ roles and agendas are — and where they could be put to better use — helped immensely. The more precise you can hone in on who your inner critics are, the easier it is to put the suckers in their place. Or better yet, make friends with them and make them serve you. Because in the end, they really want to protect you and keep you safe, and that’s a nice thing — though it’s a misguided use of energy. The trick may be to repurpose that a bit and redirect that energy: to acknowledge the good intentions that fear has, give it a proper sphere in your life, and put it in its rightful place.
I took a bit of effort to delineate what that chorus of mean people in my head were saying. Here’s a few of the characters from my lineup of nagging inner voices of doubt, along with a few notes of where the inner gatekeeper would be useful and where she would not. Who’s in your lineup, and where would they be of better service to you?
Inner Bitter Punk
I chalk this one up to spending tons of time reading too much Marx in college, dating punks, reading Punk Planet and MRR, and listening to certain 7-inches in my peripatetic youth. Inner Bitter Punk is cynical, kind of sneering at everything, likes to rouse the rabble and can be really mean. She’s also super-concerned with being punk and being a poser.
Where She’s Not Useful: My love life and sometimes my writing (esp. when I have to go for sincerity) and anything involving nurturing my spirit. Wearing girly clothes. Or nurturing in general — Inner Bitter Punk is a cynical warrior, not a hearth-tender.
Where She’s Useful: Arguing with Republicans, reading articles in The Economist, fighting and agitating for social justice, writing scenes of anger and fire in my stories. Interestingly enough, when I give Inner Punk a place to put her fight and her might, she’s a lot less likely to be all judgy about my super-cheesy, popped-out girly workout music, for instance.
This one is slightly related to Inner Bitter Punk, but is way more of a party girl and fashionista. Basically, Inner Hipster has one partyline she likes to toe: coolness. As in, “That’s not cool enough” or “Man, that is dorky” or “OMG, that is so freaking lame!” Nothing is cool enough for Inner Hipster. She doesn’t like rampant enthusiasm, nerding out, she doesn’t like sticking her head out in any way. She just wants to look hot and live cool.
Where She’s Not Useful: In social situations. Shopping, because sometimes she tries to seduce you into buying stuff you shouldn’t that will only make you feel guilty about it later. Writing, because sometimes you just have to be cheesy and sincere, you know?
Where She’s Useful: The thing about Inner Hipster is that, if you divorce the hipster stereotype from its consumption patterns, she has a curiosity and an openness to new experiences and ideas and objects. She is interested in what is happening now, in the zeitgeist, in what is contemporary and current. So I think of her as my innovation research assistant, so to speak, and I send her off on epic magazine dates to trawl for cool ideas and images. I call on her when I’m talking to someone interesting and want to know more about what they are up to. Inner Hipster can be a great creative ally and a surprisingly strong business partner.
I suspect a lot of you have a Dutiful Daughter inside of you as well. I think you know what I mean: the good girl, basically, obedient, toes the line, replicates the ruling ideology. It’s not a horrible thing to have an inner Dutiful Daughter, really — it’s the thing that makes me a good family member, and helped me to realize that I was a happier person when I was in closer orbit to my family. But it’s a problem when she starts piping up about what I should do for a living or who I should be loving, for instance.
Where She’s Not Useful: Dating, livelihood, when writing saucy, steam sex scenes in novels. When it comes to who you love and how you make your impact on the world and how you express your art, Dutiful Daughter is a proverbial wet blanket.
Where She’s Useful: Family relations, inner life and rootedness, love and devotion. The great thing about Dutiful Daughter is that she wants to be a good person, and that is a moral impulse I can get behind. If I appreciate how she fuels my impulses to cultivate close ties to my family and make my relationships better, then she doesn’t pop up so much in other areas of my life.
Inner Dalai Lama
Okay, so the Dalai Lama is not really one of my inner critics. He seems like a sweet, very enlightened, very evolved human being. I once had the privilege of being in his presence briefly and it was truly a beautiful thing: a tiny island of genuine serenity and inner peace that comes from sharing presence with a person who experiences the time-space continuum in a totally unique way. Rather, I mean sometimes there is an inner Buddhist in me who is constantly questioning my responses to situations and asking if I’m spiritual or compassionate enough, whether I should just let something go. You know, am I being effin’ Buddhist enough? (In case you couldn’t tell, I grew up Buddhist.) You know, like when I think something bitchy, and then I can feel my inner Buddhist monk pop up on my shoulder, shaking his head and giving me that mournful look. Some people have a little angel on their shoulder — I have an Inner Dalai Lama, and he is just so disappointed in me!
When He’s Not So Useful: When I’m being screwed over in some way. That’s when I have to call on Inner Bitter Punk to fight for my rights. But it’s still nice to have Inner Dalai Lama on the sidelines, playing referee, making sure you don’t do or say something you’ll regret later. Then, he stands for a kind of skillful equanimity that is useful to have in times of tension and conflict.
When He’s Useful: With my loved ones. Big-sky thinking and questing, because the inner Dalai Lama is in touch with spirit and the bigger picture of life. Curiously enough, he’s great to have around during the creative process as well — he makes sure I have the best of intentions.
That’s my inner mean girl crew! I’m sure there are more, just lurking out there in the dark, waiting to make themselves known. But it’s interesting to write them all out, to figure out their agendas, their drives, where they pop up and where they could be useful. Everyone’s lineup will look different: maybe you have an Inner Sorority Girl, an Inner Catholic Nun? The possibilities are endless, but they don’t have to be all-consuming, and they certainly don’t have to run the show.
I’m gearing up to send out my next newsletter in a few days: the big topic will be ANXIETY, which is funnily enough making me so anxious to write about! Mostly because the writing is more honest, personal and intimate — yep, my inner critics are out in full force. (Especially Dutiful Daughter!) If you’re interested in reading it, make sure to sign up for the monthly missive. It will be good — and there will be a nice literary treat in the next edition, too!