My Inner Critic

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My original plan was to write You Are Not Your Mother as a book and last year I committed to it by going to a writing retreat led by Jen Louden (author of The Woman’s Comfort Book and most recently, Why Bother). The retreat was fantastic, Jen is incandescent and I learned a lot (plus Taos! Gorgeous!) but eventually after a lot of writing around it, I realized that I don’t want to write that book because I don’t like to read self-help books so I sure didn’t want to write one. (This is a challenge as a therapist, too — people always ask me for self-help book recommendations but I don’t read them so I’m useless about that.)

Anyway, one of the exercises we did was about exploring our inner critic. We wrote up the messages that got in our way of doing things and then got with a partner to process it. I decided that my inner critic looked like the Babadook, which is the perfect monster for someone who is working on a project about mothering. (I don’t like horror movies but I loved this one.) And what my inner critic likes to say to me (not so weirdly, in my mother’s voice) is, “Who the hell do you think you are?!?”

In families that are scared for their kids to grow too much (grow just enough but not too much, that’s the message and what exactly that means is up to the child to ferret out) there are several ways to keep them small and therefore close:

  • Tell them directly not to grow by saying things like, “It will break my heart when you move away!” “Any boy who comes around here will have to get through me!” etc. (It sounds loving but really it’s controlling and conditional.)
  • Cripple them in emotional ways by reminding them of every mistake they’ve made, exaggerating the challenges they’ll face, or predicting their failure. (Often shared under the guise of protecting them like saying, “I just don’t want you to get your hopes up so that’s why I’m telling you how unrealistic you’re being.”)
  • Cripple them in actual ways by sabotaging their efforts through refusing to write a check for college admissions; not passing on the message from their boss; spending their college funds behind their backs.

Sometimes it’s because they are afraid of losing their child, of being outgrown (even though kids are meant to outgrow their parents — that’s the point) and sometimes it’s jealousy because seeing you go for your dreams reminds them of the opportunities they missed. Sometimes it’s because growing up and doing things differently breaks the family loyalty and in many families, that is the ultimate sin. And sometimes it really is about protection, the parent who has been so hurt that they can’t imagine a world in which their child will be safe.

I know I’m not the only person with a Babadook inner critic shouting, “Who in the hell do you think you are?!?” That monster’s voice is saying, “How dare you be different? Why can’t you stay safe? Why do you question me? How can you leave us?” It is all the fear and sadness and rage and trauma that clutters up my family tree but I don’t have to answer to it. You don’t have to answer to yours either.

It can take practice, for sure. But when you can recognize that your inner critic is not something inherent to you, rather it’s something that was passed down without your permission, you can begin to recognize it as a trespasser. You can hear it, you can acknowledge it. And then you can say, “Thanks but no thanks. I’ve got things to do. I have people to meet. I have a life to live.”

You can say, “I will grow anyway! As scary as it is, I am meant to keep growing!”

Because you are. You really and truly are. WE really and truly are. So let’s do it.

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