Making Nice With My Inner Critic
I have an inner critic. Her name is Mildred. Mean Mildred. Meddling Mildred. She likes to tell me things that make me feel bad. She points out that I look old or that I’m not the weight I want to be or that I have thinner hair than I used to. She constantly tells me that I can’t write. She’s always telling me that if I’m going to do something I need to it perfectly. You probably shouldn’t even try, she says. Just give it up, she says. You’re not good enough, she says.
She’s a bitch.
But she means well.
She doesn’t have many friends. I’m the only one who tolerates her. She knows this and sometimes she’ll quiet down when I get really mad at her. The thing is, she really loves me. She loves me like I’m her child – made from her own flesh. She is overprotective and wants to keep me from hurting myself or embarrassing myself. She HATES it when I get hurt. She doesn’t realize that she hurts me, too. In fact, she hurts me deeper and more often than anyone else I know. Her nastiness comes from a place of love, so she doesn’t see it that way.
She’s only trying to help.
After all, she knows best.
She is always watching, always measuring and comparing. She is always ON.
When I pass by the mirror in our living room and catch a glance of myself, she is right there to tell me that I look tired.
When I shop for tops that flatter my figure and hide my love handles, she is right in the dressing room mirror, telling me I need to lose weight.
When I sit down to write, she is there with a paralyzing bear hug, keeping me from writing down my stupid idea or WORSE, letting someone else read my stupid idea.
Most of the time she’s disgusted with me. Disgusted with my incessant poor choices and my sickening optimism. She doesn’t understand why I keep trying new things or why I keep at this writing thing. It will only lead to hurt and heartache and her main purpose is to keep me from feeling those things. If I’d only listen to her! She knows what she’s talking about!
Many years ago I told her I hated her. I slammed the door in her face when she showed up with an armful of pity and a basket of I-told-you-sos. I told her to shut the hell up and I locked her out of my life and with a simple nod of finality, she was gone. I killed her.
Mean Mildred was dead.
The next phase of my life felt great! I walked past the mirror in the living room and thought, “You look pretty, Shannon.” I accepted the imperfections of my body and loved myself anyway. I wrote a lot and shared it with others and they said my writing was good. Every life event thrown my way was a perfect strike and I hit each one out of the park.
Until one day I didn’t. One day I was thrown a curve ball and I swung and missed.
And then another curve ball, and another. Before I could knock the dirt off my cleats and re-center myself I had struck out at life and I was sitting the bench.
Mildred was right. I couldn’t do this without her. If I had only listened to her I wouldn’t feel so terrible right now.
I hung my head low, weighed down with the shame I cast upon myself for failing. I was a loser and a fool and I wasn’t good enough. Mildred would have told me this before I struck out. Mildred would have protected me. If I hadn’t killed her, Mildred would be here now criticizing my decisions while she condescendingly stroked my back.
You’re so stupid, Shannon.
You should have listened to me, Shannon.
You’re not good enough, Shannon.
And with a short series of missteps, Mildred was back.
I bet you’ll listen to me now, she said. I bet you won’t try that again. She was right. I didn’t try at life anymore because failure was waiting to knock me down. I know this because Mildred tells me every day. Be careful! Stay in the lines! Don’t dare! Mildred says. And she’s right.
When I mind Mildred she stops yelling at me. She sits quietly beside me, knitting or reading and looking up often from her busy work to make sure I haven’t moved. Sometimes she nods off. If I stay still long enough she falls asleep.
When Mildred is asleep Shannon emerges and wiggles her fingers free from the pile of negativity she’s buried under. Shannon shakes free the dirt and grime of shame and dares to step out of the grave of self-doubt. Without Mildred, Shannon feels bold and smart and kind and brave. Shannon is I and I am Shannon.
I don’t need you Meddling Mildred. I will be okay. You’re the meanest person I know and I won’t let you hold me back. I don’t care if you mean well, you’re an asshole, Mildred! I don’t need you, Mildred. Screw you, Mildred!
I don’t want to wake the sleeping beast.
I take a cautious step. Nothing. Then another. Nothing. I break into a sprint and Mildred wakes with a start and she’s sputtering and yelling at me to come back here right this instant but I’m free and laughing and it feels good to go outside the lines.
Mildred and I are middle-aged now. We’ve had our push-and-pull relationship for four decades and I think she’s finally learned that I’m in control. I don’t hate Mildred like I used to. She’s still there protecting me in her painful way, but I know all she needs is an acknowledgment, not acquiescence. Her nastiness is just a product of her own fear and she wants to be heard. She knows I will shut her down if she’s being mean. No more insults, Mildred.
Everyone has their own Mildred – an inner voice who tries to hold them back. Some people call theirs Shame, or Fear or Jealousy or Frank. Naming your inner critic helps humanize the part of you that inflicts so much hurt. We’d never let anyone treat us the way our inner critic does. Why not give it a name and then the middle finger? It worked for me.
Now I work with Meddling Mildred instead of against her. She can push me to do things I never thought I’d try.
And if I listen closely, when I’m running outside the lines I can hear her laughing, too.