April 12, 2013
Since 2007, my inner critic has been extra busy. Sure, he's always been a really, hard worker but since HIV moved in, he's been pulling extra shifts. First one in, last one out, and rarely takes a sick day. In fact, he does his job with such consistency and dedication that most of the time he goes unnoticed. Until recently, that is. My newfound awareness, after observing him in action, has brought me to the conclusion that it's time for him to take a much-needed vacation.
After all, he has been with me since the very beginning. Well, almost. Granted, he didn't have a lot to say in the first several years. Back then, he was mostly watching and observing. Collecting information through experience that he believed would help to keep me safe. He listened to praise and to scolding, from those who surrounded and loved me, carefully selecting the ones that would serve me best as I moved through life.
As I moved into childhood, my inner critic began to use the information he had acquired up until then. At first, it was about basic stuff. Was something good for me or bad for me? Did something appeal to my sensibilities or did my eyes, nose, tongue, ears or skin give it two thumbs down? In those days, he relied mostly on direct cues from my body to base his analyses.
Then, I left the daylong care of my loving "first teachers" and started school. Being around kids my age and the competition that naturally follows, my inner critic constantly assessed what I was better at and what my shortcomings were. Like a mental report card, he kept a meticulous record of how I was doing and what others thought of my results.
As I grew into adolescence, my inner critic got a promotion. As he mastered his craft, he soon discovered the protection and insulation that he could provide me. To ensure that any emotional pain was kept to an absolute minimum, he would often jump in, quickly examining a situation to see what "truth" he might reveal. The self doubts that consumed me during those teenage years provided the perfect training ground for my inner critic to thrive and to grow more powerful in my sub-conscience. Every time I felt less than enough, he made careful note, so that I wouldn't forget to stay clear of similar experiences. (I told you he was dedicated.)
As I entered adulthood, I started my career, cultivated friendships and experimented with sex and relationships. Proving his allegiance, my inner critic was never far away. He believed the best way for me excel at any of those was to be made aware of what part or parts I wasn't good at, and try to improve them. Even when I heard praise for my ability or effort, he was quick to tack on that if I had tried a bit harder, I could have done something I'd really be proud of. He knew the difference between sweet talk and the truth, and reminded me often that people were probably "just being nice."
Over the years that followed, I sometimes noticed that my inner critic wasn't always right. However, I did excel in my career. I did cultivate strong friendships and had at least a few men who came back "for more." In some ways he helped me, so I let him continue to do his thing. However, I grew increasingly wary of the power he seemed to possess at times, and feared I let him run amok for too long, rarely questioning his slant on the truth. Looking back, that was my biggest mistake; looking forward, my biggest opportunity.
As I began to look deeper, I noticed that my inner critic, in a valiant effort to keep me safe, was running the show. Since testing HIV positive, I have felt much more vulnerable. He has responded by putting up extra shields, keeping me well warned of my limitations, to prevent further emotional pain and discomfort. Many of the negative feelings I mentioned in my Anniversary post have "inner critic" written all over them. Uncovering this cycle, I have become aware how often he shows up to do what he does.
As my awareness grew, so did my understanding of him. I've come to realize that self-compassion and not the determination to silence him or make him go away, will serve us best, in the end. Although he will probably never quit, it is time for him to chill. After forty-eight years of faithful, although sometimes misguided effort, my inner critic has certainly earned some time off.