When the harshest critic is in our own reflection

Mirror by DualD FlipFlop, via Flickr Creative Commons

Mirror by DualD FlipFlop, via Flickr Creative Commons

“If you talked to other people the way you talk to yourself…” We’ve all seen many versions of the warning we need to be kinder to ourselves. We’re cautioned that until our self-talk is more loving and supportive, we can’t expect to have healthy relationships or accomplish what we could in the world. And yet, we keep taking out the clubs and giving ourselves a whacking on a regular basis.

Several Facebook friends have come clean about this lately, some in private groups, others openly. I applaud their being public about a mostly private phenomenon. If they can smarten up what Amy Ahlers calls their Inner Mean Girl (Reform Your Inner Mean Girl: 7 Steps to Stop Bullying Yourself and Start Loving Yourself), their lives will blossom in unexpected ways.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. As I gather stories and ideas for a memoir on my storytelling path, I am reading old journals and letters. Among all the juicy bits that will make delicious reading in the book are passages that make me cringe. I’ve been shredding them.

The oral history buff in me shrieks with every passage I turn into confetti. But, honestly, not every whinge or fearful confession deserves a place on a shelf, mine or anyone else’s. Even Anne Lamott, whose candour is legendary, doesn’t drown in her fears, disappointments and guilt trips. Instead, she writes with such deft humour I can relate to her foibles, laugh at my own, pull up my socks, and get on with my life. (If you haven’t yet read Lamott, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair is a good introduction.)

In 1991 I copied a poem by Erica Jong into my journal. I was going through a challenging transition and was reading Heroine’s Journey, along with a lot of other books about women, spirituality, passages and anything else I thought might cast a light on the path ahead. I know why these words resonated in me:

“For who can hate her half so well
As she hates herself?
And who can match the finesse
Of her self-abuse?”

(Find the whole poem, “The Myth of Female Inferiority”, here.)

What a lot of energy and time are wasted in self-loathing. I’ve mastered the art so well I qualify for a PhD in it. The good news is that I’m not as hard on myself these days. That’s not to say I have sent all my inner critics packing so permanently they can’t find their way back. But I don’t let them keep me from posting my photographs or sharing my writing. Oh, sure, they still throw me the “you’re not good enough” drivel on a regular basis. These days, though, they get frustrated because I keep producing new work in spite of their nattering.

Those Inner Mean Girls want to keep us permanently marooned in a spiritual underworld, where we stay small and invisible. That descent into the underworld of the soul is so common it is a theme in world mythologies. But the other part of that myth is the return, armed with new insights and knowledge, of ourselves and our path through life.

The reality is, of course, that we descend more than once into that underworld. Each time life whacks us with a harsh lesson, each time we stare into the mirror and see ugliness, we visit that dark world again. But we do so with the wisdom we acquired in earlier descents. We emerge stronger and more able to hold onto self-love. Our inner critics come back up with us, of course, but each time we re-emerge into the light, they loosen their hooks just a little.

This coming into awareness of the beauty of our own selves is the work of a lifetime, but it is crucial work. It opens us to be able to fulfill the promise of what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life”.

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2 comments for “When the harshest critic is in our own reflection

  1. February 1, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Right on – liked the poem by Erica, especially. I loved the song written and sung by Pete Seeger’s sister –I’m Going to be an Engineer”

  2. February 1, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    I’d forgotten about the “Engineer” song – it’s a gem. Now it’s running through my head. Thanks, Sterling.

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