I Am Enough. (Am I?) Listening to the self-critic.

beach walkin

I have this pattern. It’s as much a part of me as my leg, or the fact that I still sleep with three dogs and a sheep (Spot, Spotty, Tracker and Argyle. Five year old me really liked the name Spot, I suppose).

And The Pattern goes like this:

1: I get busy. I’m working or in school, I have deadlines. People are expecting me to GSD (Get Shit Done).

2: To be able to effectively GSD and meet these timelines, I write lists, organize my time, prioritize, cross things off the lists, be efficient with much less down time.

3: I do all of the above things. I achieve the deadlines. Sometimes I get told “well done”. I do it all again.

Great! This is an awesome pattern, right? This is what we’re taught to do, this is how successful people are successful, this is how you get results: do what you’re told, meet the deadlines and generally GSD with efficiencies and on-time. Employers love me.

That’s the external pattern, the pattern that’s presenting on the outside. The internal pattern, which is like the left hand to the right hand, goes like this:

1: I get busy. In addition to my work/study imposed deadlines, I start creating challenging personal goals too. These goals often are just under impossible to achieve, given the amount of time I have to dedicate to them.

These goals are not radical or inspiring. Rather, they are predictably repetitive and sad markers of living in this world as a person and woman. They tend to (although not exclusively) revolve around three themes:

Food – am I eating healthy enough? How can I be healthier? Am I making enough of my own food with the right ingredients [insert: organic, local, friendly, hormone-free, grass-fed, wholegrain, antioxidant, freshness, ethical]?

Exercise – am I fit enough? How can I be fitter? How can I make my body better? [insert: stronger, pain-free, flexible, less jiggly, acrobatic, faster, more stamina, ‘toned’, more graceful]?

Sex – am I sexy enough? How can I be more erotic? Am I having the best sex of my life? [insert: have more sex, experiment more, plan fantasies and adventures, buy lingerie, be the “sexy woman” more often].

2: To be able to GSD, I set goals and write lists, organize my time, prioritize, cross things off the lists, cut out all down time. Sound familiar? I don’t just stop there though. In addition to my normal ways of GSD, I also attempt to “motivate” my progress towards these almost achievable goals by shaming and berating myself to be better. Because, obviously, I’m not good enough as I am now, right? Right?

3: I do all of the above things. I manage to get to a point where I actually am doing it all. I hit this high point, where I’m the Queen of Productivity and Efficiency, I’m kicking ass at work and at home, I’m the Do-It-All wonder woman that I’m supposed to be.

And. But.

I have no time to relax, my mind is running 24/7, my breath is shallow, my sleep is interrupted and full of teeth-grinding, I’m constantly focused on the next thing, I forget that I live in a sensual body, and I’m so desperate to hear that I’m doing a good job, that I’m achieving and succeeding. Oh and sex? For some reason (!) I don’t feel like having it at all, yet I still HAVE to achieve my sex goals…..3…2…1…..

BURNOUT.

I get sick and my body forces me to stop and be still. Or I can’t stop crying on a Sunday morning because I can’t relax on my day off because there’s still so much to be achieved. Or I injure myself, by working out with a tunnel-vision intensity and not resting.

I KNOW that I’m not the only one who goes through this cycle of feeling inadequate – setting unrealistic goals – trying really hard while yelling at self – crashing – feeling inadequate etc. I see this cycle everywhere. I believe the root of it is shame, and shame is a great motivator for us to buy this thing, believe this doctrine, sign up to this other thing, and put sleep at the bottom of our to-do list.

A couple of years ago, I was perpetuating This Pattern without even noticing it, roaring through cycle after cycle. I was exhausted, stressed, couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop. However, in the wonderful complexity of life, things aren’t always good and always bad. This Pattern exists because I’m a goal setting champ, and I can set pretty damn positive goals too. So, I set the goal to figure out how to interrupt this pattern before I’m in it so deep I can’t see the forest for the trees. And, a couple of cycles in, here’s what I’m learning…

I’m getting better at recognizing it. This pattern and I are old friends, and I got to a point where although I couldn’t notice the negative self talk and obsessive goal setting straight away, I could notice how my BODY felt. I started to recognize the markers of this behaviour: crappy sleeps, tight muscles, shallow breathing, the feeling of something just being off, sad for no apparent reason and tired a lot, even after a full night’s sleep. Now, I can tune into these signals, realize what’s going on and

pause,

breathe,

and reflect.

This pause is long enough to inject some loving into The Pattern. It doesn’t mean I can fully interrupt it, but I can hold space long enough to do a couple of things. Sometimes I write a list of my perceptions of myself. Then write the reality. The reality is awesome and true. (I am awesome and that’s true!) I re-visit this often and it’s very illuminating to see how skewed my self-perception becomes I get caught in this pattern. Sometimes I slow dance by myself. Close my eyes and let my movement respond to what I’m feeling.

In this space of a pause I’m able to take stock of how I’m talking to myself, and reflect on the sheer amount of things I’m trying to achieve. I’m able to honestly analyze how (un)achievable my goals are, and reflect on the pressure I’m putting on myself.

Once I’ve reflected, this leads onto the next question: “How realistic is it for me to completely interrupt The Pattern?” This is where it gets more complicated. This pattern relies on feedback, and it thrives on the idea of me not being “good enough.” If I go cold turkey and drop all the high expectations I have of myself, it’s scary. The negative, shaming voice kicks into overdrive, and the things I yell at myself….oh boy…if I heard someone yelling those things at say, my sister or my partner, I would walk right up to them and yell right back at them!

That voice is clinging onto The Pattern for dear life, and that voice is ME. Something in me needs this pattern. I can’t interrupt it. Not yet.

In yoga, we talk about samskaras, circular grooves of behaviour and thinking that we cycle around and around, the grooves get deeper and deeper. Getting out of them requires increasingly greater levels of self-awareness, self-reflection and dedicated, vulnerable, behaviour-changing work. I’m really intrigued to see if it’s possible for me to smooth out this samskara, to fully interrupt The Pattern.

(I’d love to be older and reflect back “on that time in my twenties when I was so hard on myself.” Maybe this is naive? When I’m older will there be other things that I’m hard on myself about? But then it might also be easier to smooth out these patterns too, because I’ve already developed the skills and practice with which to do so…)

I found a therapist. She’s great. And last week, talking this through, she suggested something that I think might be the key to smoothing out this groove. She suggested I listen to that negative, angry, shaming voice that perpetuates The Pattern. That I enquire, gently, with open curiosity…what does this voice want? What is its need? What is it trying to communicate to me, again and again? Where does it come from? Why can’t it be quiet?

I find this fascinating, and counter-intuitive. Surely, the way to stop self-criticism is to ignore, shut it down? Or drown it out with positive affirmations, kind self-talk, gratitude lists? I believe that these things work, sure. But for me, they only work to pause The Patten, they give me some breathing room before I cycle straight back into it.

Can I listen deeply to my negative self-talk, without believing what it is saying? Can I let it take up all the angry room it wants to take up, without shutting it down? Can I stand to hear the need underneath the anger and shame?

I don’t know if I can. I’ve been trying and it’s not much fun. The voice is mean, and it embarrasses me to listen to it. But, I do have a killer work ethic. I’m stubborn. I like to GSD. So, I’m going to keep at it, and perhaps I’ll write another post about this when I have a breakthrough. I’ve started talking with people I love about what my self-criticism sounds like. If I’m feeling really brave, I name the things my inner voice is yelling at me. Scary, yes. Effective, yes. It’s hard for those nuggets of shame to have power when they’re spoken in the world. Mostly they just sound sad.

And, that, at the end of this long and fairly personal blog post, is what it’s all about. If we safely air our self-criticism, with honesty, love and vulnerability, does it get a bit quieter? Yup. For me, it does.

So, I’m working on interrupting The Pattern for good. In the meantime, I’ll keep using my tried and tested strategies, including reminders written on my mirror (adopted from the wise story-teller and shame-researcher Brene Brown). ❤

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