I am sitting down to write, and I have started and deleted everything four times already. I am sure that you’re not going to be interested in what I’m writing. I’m really not all that interesting.
Never mind that I’ve received a slew of messages and emails in support of the last article I wrote. Nope…that was a fluke. I have nothing original to offer, and I’m realizing that there is no way that life as a professional visual artist and writer is sustainable.
I’m not even in the same realm of talent as ALL of the other artists out there. They get all of the attention and accolades, and rightly so. They will always be more successful than me. I should just go and eat a tub of ice cream.
The above three paragraphs are Big. Fat. Lies.
I have two people living in my head. One is my authentic self: a painter, writer, mother, wife, and adventurer. The other is a judgmental Critic that tells me I suck at all of those things and that should pack it in and go home to sulk and eat sugar.
I don’t always know who is talking and if what I’m feeling is true or not. When my husband asks me if I can please clear the sink of dirty dishes more often than not, what I hear is “you don’t clean often or well enough.”
If he is in a quiet mood, I search my brain for every possible thing that I did over the past couple of days that could have made him angry. Obviously, he’s pissed because he’s not being gregarious and overtly joyful. Right?
The Critic is sure to point out all of my flaws, everything I’m doing wrong, and knows how to dial in and erode my self-esteem. She knows my Achilles heel is my fear of failing. She makes sure to point out all of the ways that I’m absolutely making all the wrong choices and that I’m sure to let down those I love.
I am always waiting for what is inevitably going to go wrong.
I’m absolutely sure that it’s just around the corner and the anticipation of it can make me nervous, anxious and jumpy. I put my walls up in preparation for the blow, and now I’m trapped behind them, in my head with The Critic; uncomfortable in my own skin and unsure about what I should do next.
This leads to stagnation. When I’m wavering on decisions, the result is that nothing gets accomplished and The Critic and I hunker down and wait for something or someone else to make it better. The result of this strategy is that nothing gets resolved internally, and the walls make sure that no one outside of me is actually aware of my unsettled state.
Why are my loved ones, those who are closest to me, not abreast to what’s happening in my head? Because I am also a skilled master of disguises. I show outward calm and continue smiling, sometimes even bigger. Successful people are not balls of insecurity and nerves. Nothing to see here. Move along people.
In the meantime, I stew in the unsettled state, allowing it to chip away at my confidence minute by minute. Grinning like a crazy person and laughing at jokes that I’m not even listening to, but everybody else is laughing, so I might as well.
I have hidden this part of myself from everyone, including those who are closest to me, my entire life. It hasn’t been that easy for the people who love me to know that I have always lived with anxiety and that they didn’t see it.
It’s not their fault. I am a master of masks.
Identifying The Critic was also challenging, as I had to admit that some of my feelings are fiction. I mean, how can something that feels so real and intense be false? I was so reliant on my feelings as guides that admitting they weren’t correct was like being handed a map, using it for 35 years and then having someone step in and say, “Sorry, we gave you the wrong map. Our apologies for you feeling lost your whole life.”
I do believe that The Critic was born from a place a self-preservation…a defense mechanism of sorts. A way to pass the steering wheel to someone else when the anxiety made decision making too difficult.
But over the past couple of years, I’ve grown exhausted from all of the back-and-forths and so I have started conversing with The Critic. Yes, sometimes even out loud. I’ve heard that the first sign of insanity is talking to oneself.
If that’s true, call me certifiable. Life as an artist can be isolating at times, but the quiet has given me the opportunity to call The Critic out on the BS that she spreads around my head. That doesn’t mean that she has stopped speaking…oh she does that plenty, but I have a few strategies to make sure her voice doesn’t get too over bearing:
1. I identify that the thought in the head may, indeed, be coming from The Critic.
Sometimes this is harder than it sounds. All of these thoughts seem perfectly logical and normal when they start. But if I find that I am fixating and feeling anxious about it, it’s most likely coming from The Critic.
2. If I’m still not sure, I ask if the thought is true.
Western Buddhism teacher Tara Brach says that if the answer is yes, then ask if it’s REALLY true.
3. If I still can’t make a determination, I ask someone I trust if it’s true.
That person is usually my husband, but it could be anyone that knows me and genuinely cares about my struggle. Now when I say something like “So three days ago when I asked you to please close the toothpaste after you use it, did you get mad at me?” He doesn’t get angry or laugh. He just looks me in the eye and reassures me that our marriage isn’t going down the tubes due to my request about the darn toothpaste.
4. I talk to myself the way I would talk to my best friend.
Instead of cowering and feeling defenseless, I shift and say things to myself that I would say to my best friend if she were to come to me with the same worry. “You’re doing great and making so much progress. Look how far you’ve come! No one is angry with you. Everyone tells you how awesome you’re doing. Keep on kicking ass, Girl!” And yes, I say these things out loud. It feels good to hear them.
5. I am honest that this is a real thing and that it’s ok.
It is so easy for me to beat myself up over these feelings. The “woe is me” mindset tells me I shouldn’t feel this way, I could have done things differently and that there is something wrong with me. The pity party has no curfew around here.
But there has been a change. When I’m feeling sorry for myself and wondering why this happens to me, a quick answer manifests: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHY IT HAPPENS. That’s like asking why it had to rain on my wedding day or why my plane had to get stuck in Seattle.
I had to stop whining and start doing something about it. Man, I got sick of hearing my own blubbering about the “why.” It is what it is. The real question is: What am I going to do about it?
We all have self-doubt, insecurities and that deep dark fear that can take the steering wheel sometimes. The problem is that when I let that drive, I make worry-driven choices that are usually based on my projections of what others will think of my decisions. Dialing in what is true versus what is fiction is a road to finding clarity.
It’s like spamming out junk mail or muting the commercials on TV. I ain’t got time for all that noise. By putting a system in place to determine who’s driving this thing, I’m kicking The Critic out of the captain’s chair and deciding to not let anxiety have so much control in my life. I don’t know about you, but I’m sure tired of being a back-seat driver.
Do you feel like someone else is running the show sometimes? Please comment below. I would love to know your strategies for dealing with your inner critic.