The last article was about the need for reflection in our lives. I would like to talk about when our self-reflection process becomes brutal and self-injurious. When our gaze towards ourselves is not kind. Sometimes when the carnival is over, after our race is run, in the post-contact reflection, we rehash our experiences with a harsh assessment. A sense of self that cannot be satisfied. With a yardstick where we can never measure up. Many of us are “our own worst enemies”. But how does this come about?
We brush up against the social norms of the world every day. Our internal experience meets the outer environment constantly. How to have the courage to feel different to others if in fact that is how we feel, to brave the critique that might be offered from some sector of the population that opposes our values, that judges or dismisses what we stand for. How to reveal who we are and feel good about who we are.
Finding our belonging
Our reactions to social expectations are motivated by deep seated emotive responses. Before we realise our cognitive or rational responses, we are acutely aware whether we are fitting in, belonging and being accepted. From having the right lunch in our lunch box at pre-school to the moment a life-long career reputation is publicly shattered in a second. We know when our choice wasn’t O.K. for them. Our bodies tell us. Immediately. Before anyone has said a word.
Am I OK here?
Already in our pre-verbal formative years, during those important developmental phases, we know how to interpret approval or disapproval in the face and body of our caregivers. Inside our own bodies we experience intense physiological reactions when support or approval is withdrawn. We experience the need to pull back in shame, to blush or cringe, or to cry out in fearful protest and anger at the sudden loss of confirmation. Before we have words to describe the experience, we sense and perceive, “what I want is not OK”. When we are very small everything is about us, so this sensation immediately becomes “I am bad”.
We deny how we truly need to be seen, how we long for others to recognise us. This isn’t weakness, it is crucial to healthy development. Over time we start to pull back and hide our own needs, to keep getting the supply of love and support we require to thrive. Growing up within an atmosphere of judgement makes us fearful. This undermines our natural expression and turns it into hypervigilance. We can develop habitual responses that inhibit all our spontaneous contact with others. We self-spectate instead. We divert new experiences into old patterns embedded in our memory, created long ago in our childhood. Across our whole life span we instinctually check: am I ok here? When we often haven’t been safe, acknowledged, and confirmed, we start to expect a lack of acceptance everywhere we go. We organise our experiences over and over into a familiar one of painful shame.
Cringe Moments and Crippling Shame
There is a whole line-up of internal shame states from just a momentary embarrassment to believing we are totally shameful and worthless. In intense shame we are no longer able to find our natural sense of self-esteem. We all have moments of feeling awkward, cringing, blushing, even being mortified. For most people this feeling is just like a passing wave. But some of us experience this so often, so traumatically, that it damages our very sense of who we are.
The Inner Critic
What we say to ourselves matters far more than what others say to us. Our shaming self-talk is a disparaging dissatisfied bully. When the meanest words I hear are my own words. The nasty judgy face I anticipate is actually my own face. Sometimes the ridicule and contempt we fear is living right inside our house. Sometimes the reaction that says “oh no… you did WHAT? oh no… you really said that?” is inside our own heads. Weighing things up with a distorted bias toward what you got wrong. The final damnation is our own assessment of not being good enough. Ever.
This cruel voice has been called the inner critic, and its speciality is searing self-criticism. And it has many other devious tricks.
Fear of being exposed
Our inner critic keeps us hiding and fearing being revealed. We dread being exposed because that is immediately coupled with shame. The inner critic’s signature moves are to turn away the body and turn away the face. Losing face. Saving face. Hiding our mistakes. Its favourite postures are shrinking, slumping, and shuddering. This leaves us isolated and alienated. Surviving with an intense need to not be noticed, and a brutal post-contact evaluation whenever we are, are hallmarks of the inner critic’s trickery and chicanery. We are assault survivors, but the perpetrator is inside us.
Kind Sight in Hind Sight
I invite people to practice Kindsight®. To look upon ourselves with kindness.
To interrupt mean, punitive, critical, accusatory interpretations about our actions.
I invite you right now as you read this to drop into your heart and allow your diaphragm to soften. Allow your diaphragm to move gently down to invite breath in and to move gently up to allow breath to release out. Imagine the kind, wise gaze of someone who accepts you totally and understands you fully. Would they speak to you this way? Would they judge what we did with such severity?
Can you look at you with the same tenderness, acceptance, trust, and truth?
It may take years of practice. But it is worth doing. Befriend yourself. Cultivate acceptance. Look at your whole self and the whole situation. That is how you truly understand. Don’t overstand yourself. Get with you. Take in the whole picture. Look deeply and kindly.