Thursday, October 22, 2015

Your Inner Critic's Secret Tool

I met with a new client the other night. We chit-chatted, since she's been a student before, and we wanted to catch up. Then I got a glass of fresh water and sat back down and said:
"So. How can I help you?"
She had come to me looking for my "writing advocate" services, supporting her regular practice - which has since the class fallen by the wayside. She gave an opening line worth a million dollars:
"My latest reason for not writing is..."

We both burst out laughing. She is a smart woman, and knows what her mind is up to.
This is the first - and a very, very important step. She gets her own game - she makes up reasons not to write but they aren't the real reasons she's not writing. She's not writing because she has to be accountable to someone else. And like so many people, she thinks she shouldn't have to ask for help.

We went on to discuss how much she thinks of herself as an exception to the rule. I noted that this is super common - we all do this. Thoughts like, "Well, I'd love to write but I can't seem to make the time for it," are actually underpinned by a belief that others *can* and *do* make the time for it. That others can do it without help, that others don't need support. That others are better than us. We think that others meditate, exercise, write or do creative work easily.

And some folks do. Some people find inner accountability to be enough. Some have a connection, a habit, deep enough to keep going no matter what. They, however, are the exception. The majority, the rule is actually a world of folks who are totally unsure, bumbling, feeling insecure about themselves and suspecting it's all their fault that they cannot go it alone.

This kind of exceptionalism is a mark of the inner critic. The inner critic repeats itself and is cruel, but this is a subtle, realistic-seeming version of it.* It's trying to keep you in check, keep you from taking risks, and it turns the truth on its head.

What do I mean?

This new client is very not exceptional in a lot of ways (trust me, she's quite exceptional - where it counts!). She's "unique just like everyone else" in that her style of relating to herself fits into a type. Gretchen Rubin calls it "The Obliger" and it is one of two most common ways of relating to rules and structure. Obligers, which is what most women are socially sanctioned to become, cannot follow their own rules. Inner accountability does not work. They have to have an outside person - a coach, a guide, a teacher, other students - to appease. Without that outside person, or outside source of some sort, they simple won't do it or get it done, no matter how much they want to.

But our society, as much as it trains women (and some men) to be Obligers, also secretly wants us to be Upholders - one of the least-common styles of Rubin. Upholders are folks who follow the rules no matter what, whether they or someone else makes them. And so when we are told we should be able to set our own rules and follow them, and then we can't, we see the lack in ourselves. And because shame is so strong (h/t to Brene Brown), because we think there's something wrong with us, we don't tell others that we can't keep to our own rules. It's a sickening cycle, and self-perpetuating, as so much shame and inner criticism is.

The only way out is to open it up, hear that others suffer this way, realize we aren't an exception - in this way - and get the proper tools. And the only way to find those is to ask for help - by reading, by talking, by researching.

There are many good books on habit nowadays, that show the research and give styles and types - Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Playing Big by Tara Mohr, Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin - all books I have mentioned in this blog before. But don't let the books take over the time you can be spending doing what you want to do. Experiment, try and try again, and if something doesn't work, try not to judge yourself. Just know you haven't found the right tool yet. You are not wrong, the tools just aren't right yet.

*Tara Mohr's teachings on inner critic speak well to this issue. You can find them newly collected in her wonderful book Playing Big, or here on a blogpost on this blog collecting early versions of them. But check out Playing Big. It's worth it.

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