Original article posted June 17, 2017 and updated on February 18, 2020
Sitting on a plane headed to Pennsylvania to present three new workshops on feminine archetypes and self-compassion, I became aware of feelings of dread, anxiety, and tension about the work that lay before me. When I unpacked it, I realized that I’d been procrastinating preparing these workshops, leading to anxiety over having a large, time-sensitive project unfinished. I remembered reading about how procrastination is a side effect of the inner critic and I got curious. It didn’t feel like the inner critic, but I was willing to start a little adventure. I consciously felt into the physical and emotional tension with my tools for emotional resilience in my backpack and my soul’s compass at the ready. The adventure began…
In my internal landscape I saw the faces of my potential audience and the feeling of failing to have my shit together.
Firstly, I considered the job at hand. While much of my material was going to be quite familiar to me, there would be some new material that I didn’t feel a lot of confidence over. It was going to be challenging to do my research and make the links between archetypes and self-compassion practice that I knew, intuitively, existed, but did not fully know how to describe to others. So, the job would be hard. A part of me wanted to do easier tasks, so I tended to my emails and just about anything else I could do more easily. Was my inner critic involved here? It didn’t really feel like it – it felt more like lack of energy to start a difficult task. I have one of those addictive personalities where I need to get my dopamine hit regularly to stay motivated. Succeeding at a task gives the human system a dopamine hit, so that’s what I was seeking in my easy-to-do tasks. OK, no inner critic here.
So then I moved from considering my present task to considering my future “performance.” In my internal landscape I saw the faces of my potential audience and the feeling of failing to have my shit together. I saw 3 hours of poorly prepared material, stumbling over words, long pregnant pauses in my teaching, judgment from the women in the circle, and eventually falling to pieces in tears and either collapsing to the ground or running away. Hmmm, I though, getting closer to an inner critic.
She pointed her gnarled finger at me and said, “You’re worthless. Who do you think you are?”
I traveled along a bit further in my internal landscape. Someone along the way told me in a very light and upbeat way, “Hey, if you don’t have any material, you won’t have to lead a workshop and if you don’t lead a workshop, you can’t fail!” Hmmm, he had a point. This would explain why I wasn’t actively preparing my material. But, was he the inner critic? He seemed so perky and clever, not how I imagine an inner critic to be. I decided to see who else was there.
Messenger of Worthlessness
I found someone else who seemed quite a lot more sinister: An old, wrinkly hag* woman. She pointed her gnarled finger at me and said, “You’re worthless. Who do you think you are? Don’t bother, you’ll never be any good. No matter how hard you try, people won’t like you because you were born bad and you will always be bad. You cannot be redeemed. Why don’t you just accept your fate, and go and get some cats to keep you company in your hovel for the rest of your miserable life. Like me.” Bingo. Here she was: The inner critic.
She was the lonely old woman with a hundred cats whose gifts and talents were completely dismissed in her community. Her pain was so intolerable she needed to fling it out at others so that they, too, would be as miserable.
Interestingly, as a result of many years of doing my own internal work, while her words were sharp they didn’t impact me too much. It was as if I was seeing her on television, or that I was in a dream with a strong sense of myself as a psychologically intact being. She came more as a source of information than as someone to be feared. “Ah! That’s what’s going on!” was my internal response.
Compassion for the Inner Critic
Immediately after she’d spat those words at me I saw her pain. The pain of, “Like me.” She was the lonely old woman with a hundred cats whose gifts and talents were completely dismissed in her community. Her pain was so intolerable she needed to fling it out at others so that they, too, would be as miserable. She couldn’t stand the isolation or the sense that other people might be happy and successful. She needed an outlet for a lifetime of longing and loss, and I was it. She was the archetypal grumpy old gal with an origin story to back her up.
So, just a pause here to give you a landmark. I totally respect folks who have developed multiple identities as protection against past trauma, and my relationship with my internal parts would not be considered clinically as dissociative identities. This is my internal experience, most likely influenced by my Internal Family Systems and archetype work. This is how I process my material. You may well do things very differently. We all have our own journey.
I saw my inner landscape as an adventure and I respected the emergent journey as it unfolded.
OK, so back to my dear hag. I felt so sad for her, I immediately reached out to her. I saw in her a cultural archetype of lost opportunities who spent decades hoping something in her life would change so that she didn’t have to make difficult decisions; parking her dreams so that she could sit in an idling car with another wounded soul and go nowhere. I saw how painful that was and I understood how painful any success I achieved would feel to her. The “if onlys” were unbearable for her. Her only recourse seemed to be to drag me back with her to avoid the painful realizations that come when you compare your life choices with someone else’s and you wish you’d made similar choices. Seeing my inner critic’s pain humanized her and make me fall in love with her. What else would I do in response to such a sad, old gal?
As I fell in love, her words and her threatening power subsided and she stopped trying to get in my way. She gave up the fight and I was left with a much simpler task of putting in the hours necessary to prepare a kick-ass triad of workshops. She could no longer muster the energy to attack and I knew from that point that my relationship with her would grow and as I loved her up she would eventually coach me in creativity, wisdom and belonging, as any neglected being would do when someone sees them, hears them, and gets to learn about the hidden gems beneath the wound. And we’d work together to create something beautiful and new.
Emergent Self-Wisdom Adventures
So while my adventure was not structured in any one particular step-by-step process, it was a complete framework of the getting of wisdom and healing. It was the framework of emergent self-wisdom, of being curious, of traveling those new roads in my inner landscape to find out more. I used some mindfulness and self-compassion; I worked with internal parts and archetypes; I trusted my instincts when they pointed to a rough patch of information and I trusted my tool kit in its ability to give me the tools I needed when I got there; I saw my inner landscape as an adventure and I respected the emergent journey as it unfolded. There were some “aha’s” along the way, but I knew there was no end to the process. There was no, “Now I’m healed,” because healing is ongoing. We need never cling to the hope that we are “done” because being done means there is no more adventure, nothing more to learn. What we can get to is increasingly skillful levels of being with difficult emotions in a computer game that has an infinite number of levels.
So, this is what my personal work is and this is how I journey with other people in my work. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have access to a wellspring of learned and emergent information, an embodied understanding of many different modalities of healing, unending curiosity and a delight in the individual human evolution process. If you’re interested in having a travel companion who can point out some landmarks for you and keep you company through the rough patches, you might like to take a journey in Somatic Self-Compassion, Mindful Self-Compassion, or some Professional Development. I hope I see you there.
*Hags are the archetypal malevolent old witch often portrayed in a way that is intended to disempower female elder-sages in the community. As patriarchal systems and ways of stereotyping women are changing, the sage-witch archetype is being reclaimed as the powerful, and sometimes intimidating, wisewoman. Saging our own inner hags is one of the first steps toward recognizing the immense untapped resource of elder wisewomen and wisemen in our communities.
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