I promised transparency, and I’m delivering. An inside look at the carnival game of whack-a-mole: me against my inner critic. Are you taking bets?
Let’s start with this: I am hard on myself.
At times, excruciatingly so.
And I know this. I have yet to find a person who demands more from me than I demand of myself. Not for lack of opportunity, by the way. I’ve had demanding teachers, bosses and clients. At my high school, the kids at the bottom of the class went on to colleges that are considered top tier. I graduated with honors from two Ivy League universities. For 6 years I worked at a top 10 law firm nicknamed “We’ll get you and mangle you.” As a real estate broker, I tend to attract the toughest clients.
It’s not even a contest. As harsh as anyone can be in what they expect from me; as unrealistic and demanding as it might appear, I am far more demanding of myself.
I’m not sure when this began, but it has been the case for as long as I can remember.
For years, various mentors have questioned whether my high standards are actually counter-productive. They expressed concern that perhaps my relentless pursuit of more efficiency or better grades or increased productivity would have long term consequences to my health and well-being.
Their voices were drowned out by the chorus of our culture, which worships at the altar of Better, Faster, More. We are admonished: “Expect more from yourself than anyone else thinks is reasonably possible.”
We strive for – and are rewarded when we achieve – increased productivity, bigger achievements, more money, higher status, more happiness.
It’s not enough to set goals and achieve goals. We aim to “crush it.” Develop better habits. Maximize every minute. Increase your productivity. Do More. Be More.
Despite the good intentions of those who questioned whether being hard on myself was, in fact, productive, I continued with the habit of being hard on myself.
We consistently do that which gets rewarded.
So it is clear: I am hard on myself.
I’m learning to create space.
Over the past few years, I’ve been navigating further down what some would call the “spiritual path.” I’ve placed a priority on presence. I’ve explored teachings on self-compassion and self-love. I’m practicing mindfulness and meditation.
I’ve learned how to hold space for myself; how to be in that uncomfortable silence where I bear witness to the never-ending stream of thoughts that runs through my mind. I’ve learned how to be in my body with my emotions, rather than to fight or suppress them.
I’ve cultivated daily practices for fitness, meditation, journaling and writing. I’ve successfully silenced the pings of email and social media, without removing the apps from my phone. I’ve become a “yogi” – not just in the sense of the physical practice, but in the study and living of the philosophical teachings (did you know that the asanas are just one of 8 levels of yoga practice?).
All of this has helped me create space in my life in which I’ve been able to step back from the busy and bring some of my best work into the world. I’ve seen tremendous benefits from these practices. I’ve taught others how to create this space in their lives and witnessed their incredible transformations.
Traveling the spiritual path and being hard on myself have been co-existing for quite some time now.
This is not serving me well. Not at all.
I find myself in a place of constantly judging myself around my implementation. As I sit down to write and look at the clock, I hear that voice inside that says:
Here we go again. How does it get to be so late?
It tells me I’m behind. Not good enough. I’m doing it wrong. The rest of the productive world is hours or days ahead. I’m falling short. Failing.
The vast majority of my morning pages journal entries are a reflection of this inner critic.
Shut up, inner critic. Go away.
As much fun as it is comparing artists’ daily rituals, the most important thing to know about a ritual is that it’s your ritual. Not Mark Twain’s or Joyce Carol Oates’. It’s your energy levels, your rhythm, your daily obligations, and you should be vigilant in understanding how you operate throughout the day.
I read this yesterday (in the physical copy of the magazine, which is worth every penny of the annual subscription price). It made sense to me. In fact, I’ve made it a practice to study my energy levels and my rhythms. Intellectually, I understand the concept and embrace the reality that my rhythms might differ from those of other people. I can even take it further and acknowledge that my own rhythms and energy levels may not be the same from day to day.
Today, even as the memory of those words was top of mind, and the physical issue of the Quarterly was on the table in front of me, my inner voice wrote this:
I am so trying to allow myself some grace here, and yet the clock betrays me. How is this possible?
This is possible because I am comparing. Not to Mark Twain or Joyce Carol Oates, but to the myth of what “the most productive/successful people” do and when they do it. I’m comparing myself to a standard put out by people who aren’t in my body in my life.
First, I can see how much energy I consume when stuck in this trance of being so hard on myself. It’s exhausting to fight this battle every day. I see this. I feel it.
Second. I’ll quote this directly from my journal:
I can also see how being so hard on myself ignores the fact of what I am doing: following my rhythms. Honoring where I am. When I look back at my morning, I can see what I did do: I got up. I moved my body. I practiced meditation. I sat down to read, write and eat breakfast. I nourished my body, mind and spirit. I didn’t fall down a rabbit hole of email and social media and web surfing for hours.
So I can see this. Just so we’re all clear.
In fact, my ability to see what I did do led me to this: I am trying to allow myself some grace.
If I didn’t see what I was doing well, I would probably not be trying to allow for grace. And yet, this brings me to another knot in the messy ball of yarn that is self-understanding.
I’m trying to allow.
Allowing. Surrender. Grace. All qualities of the feminine, which I’ve been working to embrace.
There it is again: Working to embrace the feminine.
Even as the words come out of my mouth (or, more accurately, my pen), I realize the tension here.
There is no “trying to allow.” Only allowing.
There is no “trying to surrender.” Only surrender.
There is no “working to embrace.” Only embrace.
The very concept of trying to allow or trying to surrender means that I am gripping onto something, and therefore not allowing and not surrendering.
Ok. Cool. That’s a big a-ha for me. And yet it’s not done. Not even for today.
In that realization, I find a new tension, as I find myself writing this:
Can I be willing to allow myself some grace, even as I optimize for more efficiency in my routine?
Ah. There it is. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Each time I think I’ve squashed the comparing, judgmental beast, she pops up again.
This illustrates the power of our cultural conditioning: the relentless messages that advocate self-improvement and self-optimization and becoming better than before, the push to do more and be more and have more.
This conditioning is so strong, that even in a moment where I want to embrace what is, I am still trying to move to what could be.
And they are at odds, because how can I allow myself to be where I am if I’m also trying to improve and optimize?
This is why it takes strength to surrender. Surrender requires releasing the grip on what could be.
Perhaps I’ve fully optimized my routine. Perhaps there are no more minutes or seconds to be shaved, at least for now.
That doesn’t mean forever. But instead of banging my head against the wall wondering why I can’t seem to shave some time off or re-orient my current rhythm, perhaps it serves me better to surrender to what is: in this time and place, this is my rhythm. This is where I am.
In fact, I can consider the possibility that any further optimization of myself may happen only through surrender: perhaps when I release my grip on what I see as potentially possible, I will free up the energy to create that possibility.
What do you think? Do you struggle with this tension?