I was looking forward to working on a piece I’d left unfinished in favour of other things for too long. However, when my butt hit the seat I found myself struggling to flow despite desire. I sat staring. I’d found a window of time, so why couldn’t I seize the moment?
Two noisy, wrestling dogs vying for my attention under the desk highlighted a similar noise in my body – an irritating throb behind my eyes, a whingey, whiney tightness in my neck and shoulders. That’s the first obstacle I thought, feeling unwell steals freedom. Even if you’re not sick, feeling less than great physically, is a vibe killer.
Just do your yoga, I told myself. That one’s easy to resolve. Get up and stretch out the animal side of myself – dog stretch while the real dogs jostle around my ears, warm and furry, just don’t lick my mouth…but of course they do.
When the dogs wander off and I get into doing some spinal rolls, I become aware of two familiar inner-world stalkers of my freedom and creativity, lurking within. These two, I know them well, are standover girls from an ancient place in me. They’re getting old but they’re still up for a day out.
I’ve dealt with a lot of these characters over the years, not just these two. They won’t get me.
The first is Self-criticism, crippling, badass and shady. This lady can shut me down like no other. To recognise her so quickly nowadays is empowering. She gets to you when you’re unaware, when you’re working hard, and you start to edit and second-guess yourself and lose flow in her nasty whispering; a Gollum femme behind your ear.
The other is the yearning for external validation. She’s a hollow, fearful creature, empty of answers and full of anxious questions. She has no substance or self-esteem of her own and sucks it wherever she can. She’s starving but can’t find satiation, no matter how many bones she’s thrown.
External Validation seeks approval, to be lorded, or even just to be loved. She worries and wails that there’s no point, that even success is a failure if nobody likes it, if nobody reads it, if nobody loves us. She cries in pre-emptive angst that it’s better not to try if…if…if…
Today they’re at me around writing, but they come sniffing around many aspects of life. Some of their other favourite topics are appearance, any kind of performance and of course, ageing. After so many times falling prey to their lines, I know how to deal with these two now.
I sit back, close my eyes and wait for them to approach. Here they come, tough Self-criticism Lady and thin, wiry External Validation Girl.
‘Hey friends, welcome back.’
They sit down in front of me warily, forming a shaky triangle, but carefully averting their eyes. They’re sly. They don’t want me to see them too clearly because it diffuses their potency.
Self-criticism draws her dark hoodie forward to obscure her face like a sneery grim reaper and External Validation crosses her spindly arms over her heart and snivels to herself a little about how people won’t like this at all, no, not at all…
I know just what to say to them. We’ve been here before.
‘Hey, I know you’re here to save me from making a fool of myself, from writing badly. I know you want to block me from failing. I understand you both believe that failing is too great a risk so we shouldn’t try. You want to be sure to stop anything sub-standard before it even gets going.’
They both nod wildly. This they like. It gets them interested.
I want to say ‘But, you know what…’ and tell them off, put them in their places, exile them, but I remember. It feeds them.
It doesn’t help any of us to get in a fight. We’re a team.
‘I appreciate you Self-criticism because you keep me honest and humble and check my grammar. And you External Validation, because you keep the reader present in all I write. You both make sure I’m on task at being helpful and relatable and caution me against self-indulgence. I love you for caring and for being on my team’.
That always confuses them.
They wriggle uncomfortably, but make eye contact with me for the first time. They’re not mean, not at all. They’re on my side; they’re just so damned concerned and angst-ridden. Obviously, I mean a lot to them – so much that the thought of me being ‘not good enough’ is unbearable for them.
‘How about you let me write today and if it isn’t good enough, I’ll write it again tomorrow. It doesn’t have to pay, it doesn’t have to win anything. This can be for enjoyment and practice if nothing else’.
‘So if it’s just for fun, you don’t need me right now?’ asks Self-criticism, shaking back the hoodie and getting up to go. Then to keep her dignity intact adding “I will be back to look over the final edit, right?’
‘Of course, that’s your thing, but I need to get something down first’.
‘Yep’ she says ‘but try not to suck too much’.
‘OK’ I sigh. She’s a tough cookie but on the flip-side, I respect her high standards.
‘External Validation, will you let me just follow the joy of my own experience right now? Self-criticism is going to give it a solid read before anyone else sees it so you don’t need to worry that I’ll embarrass myself.’
I always give her a kiss on the cheek because it makes her feel better for half a second, until she needs more.
“OK, so long as you don’t show it to anyone until we get back’.
‘See you soon.’
And they wander off and do whatever it is they do when they feel confident that I’m not in immediate danger.
They’ll be back and I’m OK with that. It’s better to embrace self-judgement and fear of failure as inevitable companions, rather than try to hide from them. It’s better to make eye contact and find an uneasy sense of teamwork where everyone knows their role, rather than waste energy fighting parts of myself.
Giving some love to Self-criticism Lady and External Validation Girl makes them kinder, and a whole lot quieter. They’re not the enemy. They’re inevitable parts of each of us and they’re on the team for better or worse. Harness their strengths and release the struggle.