A few months ago, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I immediately heard an old familiar voice declare, “You’re FAT!”
I knew that voice well. She sounds a lot like me. So much so, in fact, that it took me most of my life to actually differentiate this voice from my own. Here she was, loud and clear, trying to pick a fight. My “Inner Critic.”
If you are a human being, with a human brain, existing on the earth with other human beings with human brains, you have an “inner critic” as well. It is the small voice inside your head that comments on every single thing you do. It tells you whether you are good, bad, right, wrong, if you should or shouldn’t. I’ve heard this internal commentator referred to by many different names. “The Super Ego,” “The Internal Parent,” “The Gremlins” or, as it was called in a recent workshop I attended, led by Geneen Roth, “The Voice.”
During our workshop, Geneen asked all 250 participants to write down a list of 10 self-criticisms that this little voice had made over the course of the weekend. Women shared critiques ranging from; “You look like Jabba the Hutt” to “You are a bad mother” to, my personal favorite, “You shouldn’t have brought a rice cake into the silent dining hall.”
Of course, all 250 of us, including the brave woman who shared this gem, burst out laughing over that one. Admonishing oneself over a noisy snack choice seems absurd. What’s even more absurd, is that most of us beat ourselves up for lesser offenses all day, every day. We hear that nasty voice and actually BELIEVE it! We believe that we are wrong, bad, stupid, unworthy people over something as trivial as a rice cake.
Another woman stood up and spoke the words that I imagine were on everybody’s mind. “I would never, ever say these things to anybody else. But I talk to myself like this all the time!”
I looked down at my own notebook and scanned my list of criticisms. There is absolutely no way I would ever say those things to someone else. In fact, I don’t think I would tolerate anyone else saying those things to me either. That would be unacceptable. But for years, it seemed okay, not only to say these things to myself, but to attach to these attacks as if they were the truth.
In the past, whenever my “Inner Critic” reared her ugly little head, I tried to tune her out. I would distract myself with food, booze, technology (or a winning combination of all of the above.) She didn’t like that. So she would get louder and meaner. Once she had my attention, I would listen to every demeaning thing she had to say. I’d believe the hype and would make decisions about myself and my life that were born from feelings of shame, guilt, frustration and hopelessness. This was always a recipe for disaster.
As soon as I started recognizing my “Inner Critic” for who she really was, I learned to interact with her differently. Instead of ignoring her, I get interested about what she wants. She usually shows up when something is out of alignment or feeling threatened somehow. I turn towards that part of myself with as much curiosity and compassion as I can. I act like a detective and try to figure out what the real issue is, and try to resolve it from a place of kindness.
These exchanges don’t always come easily. They are an ongoing practice. So, when I heard that voice as I looked at my reflection, I invited her in for a conversation. It went something like this:
Inner Critic: You’re FAT!
Me: (Sighing) Hi.
IC: Seriosuly, look at yourself. You got so fat again.
Me: Is that true? I’m fat? Really?
IC: Well you’ve gained weight.
IC: What do you mean, “okay?” You gained weight. You need to lose it.
Me: So what if I gained weight? What’s the real problem with that?
IC: Well…I’m not sure.
Me: I’ve gained a few pounds. I see that. What’s really bothering you?
IC: I feel like sh*t.
Me: Ahhhh. Okay. You don’t feel the way you want to be feeling. Let’s talk about that. How are you feeling?
IC: I feel fat.
Me: Fat is not a feeling. How do you feel?
IC: I’m uncomfortable. None of our clothes fit the way they used to, and it’s bothering me. Everything feels too tight. I feel like I can’t breathe sometimes. Like I’m suffocating, or trapped.
Me: What else?
IC: Everything feels like more work. Walking up stairs or even getting up off the floor feels harder than it has to be.
Me: Anything else?
IC: I’m tired all the time. No matter what I do, I just feel exhausted. I have no energy. Also, I’m in pain. Every morning I wake up and something else in my body hurts. I just don’t feel good.
Me: I hear that. I’m sorry that you feel lousy.
IC: Okay, so you need to lose weight so we can start feeling better.
Me: Well, how exactly do you want to be feeling?
IC: I don’t know. Better.
Me: You do know. Think. How do you want to feel?
IC: Um….I guess, energized.
Me: Good! I like that. I’d like to feel energized! Hold on, I’m going to write this down. (Gets a pen and journal. Starts taking notes.) What else?
IC: I guess, free of pain. You know, just at ease in my skin. Like things are effortless and just work the way they are supposed to.
Me: Good! Keep going!
IC: Um…Vibrant! I want to feel vibrant! And confident. And strong. And light. And limber. And sexy! I definitely want to feel sexy!
Me: Awesome! I love it! These are great! Let’s make another list of things we can do that will help us feel this way!
IC: Well, if you lose ten pounds I’m pretty sure we will feel much better.
Me: Listen, there are a lot of things we can do that will help us feel better. Some of those things might also happen to result in losing a few pounds in the process. Some of them might not. Let me ask you a question. If we woke up, every single morning, and felt exactly the way we wanted to feel, would it really matter what our weight was?
IC: Well. I mean, I guess not.
Me: Okay! So why don’t we work on finding ways to start FEELING better and let our body do whatever it needs to. Would that be okay with you?
IC: Yeah, that’s okay.
Me: Great. I have some ideas. (Starts writing a second list.)
IC: Okay, so we are going to do all of this stuff starting tomorrow?
Me: Do you think that makes the most sense?
IC: Well, we will feel better sooner.
Me: Maybe. But we’ve tried the all or nothing thing before. Many times. It has yet to work long term. What’s the point of feeling better soon if a few months from now we end up right back where we started?
IC: What do you suggest?
Me: Why don’t we give ourselves some time? There are a lot of things on this list. Maybe we should just focus on one thing at a time for once?
IC: That could take forever.
Me: It could also last forever.
IC: Well, that would be nice, I guess.
Me: Why don’t we give ourselves a goal? Why don’t we make a promise to feel this way by our next birthday?
IC: That’s 10 months from now.
Me: I know. We will have plenty of time to figure out what works best for us.
IC: Okay. We can do that.
Me: Great. This is exciting! I’m actually really glad we had this conversation.
IC: Me too. I feel better.
Me: Good! So do I! I think I might write a post about this!
IC: Oh, you definitely shouldn’t do that!
Me: Why not?
IC: You’re supposed to help people with this kind of stuff. No one will trust you if you admit that you still struggle with it yourself. Plus people will think you are completely crazy if you admit to having full-blown conversations with the voice in your head.
Me: That’s possible.
IC: So you’re not going to tell anyone about this, right?
Me: Oh no, I will.
IC: Whatever, we will talk about that later.
Me: Oh, I’m sure we will.
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