Some of the most hateful and toxic things have been said to me throughout my life:
On and on it goes. Words that are so hard to hear but, right now, are even harder to say. Variation after variation of the same few themes attacking my intelligence, my strength, my capacities and capabilities, my strong and competent body.
The hardest part, though, is that only one of those things—the last one shouted at me on the street by two teenage boys just a few years ago—was actually said to me by anyone other than myself.
This is, of course, just an abbreviated list of the horrible and hurtful things I’ve said to myself. Sometimes it’s just a throwaway judgment passed in the wake of ordinary life. Sometimes it’s a lengthy, excoriating diatribe filled with scathing epithets and observations that—if it were not actually directed at me—would have otherwise filled my parents with pride and wonder at both my creative and my expansive vocabulary.
The funny thing is I would never, never speak to another person the way I speak to myself. I would never, never tolerate such venom and vitriol being spewed at another person the way I spew it at myself. I could never fathom how such a divine and miraculous human as myself could be seen as anything other than extraordinary. And yet, there have been days when the shame is so deep and the self-loathing is so thick that I can barely breathe through the fog of it.
And while I may be unique in my own particular ways of self-judgment and self-punishment, I have found through my work that I’m not at all unique in the fact that I have a very loud and very persistent so-called “Inner Critic” who loves to vehemently itemize all my shortcomings—what I’m doing wrong, how I’m doing it wrong, and what the consequences will be of my absolute wrong-ness—any time I seem to be getting a little too comfortable or confident with myself. I say “so-called” Inner Critic because I’ve always felt that term was so reductive and othering of a voice that was very clearly my own, even if the words didn’t feel like mine.
I actually remember the first time I started to recognize the foreignness of this Inner Critic—that it didn’t feel entirely right or at home in my head or in my body any longer. I was walking up my basement stairs, deriding myself for whatever transgression had been committed by my mere existence in the world, and as I reached to turn off the basement light, I realized that the words the voice were saying didn’t actually feel true at that moment. Instead, I remember feeling a sudden sense of skepticism at my inner monologue, thinking to myself, “Really? Is that even true? No, of course not. Then what’s the point of saying it?” And almost magically, the power of that simple question—“Is that even true?”—created a pause in my unconscious, inner ranting and, with it, I felt something shift. Huh. Simply questioning the veracity of my inner voice—turning my inner monologue into an inner dialogue—gave me a new sense of freedom I hadn’t really felt before. I walked into the kitchen with a new sense of hopeful possibility that the cruel words that I said to myself might not only be untrue but that I had the power to question the credibility and accuracy of this inner voice that seemed to know me so intimately.
I’d love to symbolically wipe my hands, as if to indicate “that was that” and “I’ve put that mess behind me” but of course that’s now how the story goes. The story goes as all my stories do: for a moment I believed that my strength and goodness was greater than my weakness but then life, the world, our culture showed me how seemingly wrong I was. And the freedom I found from simply questioning the validity or even the helpfulness of this Inner Critic couldn’t stand up to the people and circumstances that seemed to too often confirm my deepest fears: I was a fat, unlovable idiot and fuck-up no matter how hard I tried to be good or smart or funny or kind.
I realize now that the dialogue between my Inner Critic and my Inner Defender—for lack of a better term—really only got me part way to understanding and ultimately shifting the way I regard and relate to myself. As I got older, began taking more risks in my life and career, and ultimately exposing myself to more external scrutiny and examination, the simple and yet unrelenting back-and-forth of “You’re bad! No I’m not! Yes, you are!” started to leave me feeling shaky and uncertain, filled with self-doubt. And depending on the circumstances, the rat-a-tat-tat of the back and forth inner dialogue alternately criticizing and defending myself made me start to feel, well, crazy. What was wrong with me that I could on one hand know with absolute certainty that I was a good, kind, smart, and worthy person while also experiencing a bottomless well of self-loathing and loneliness that would leave me breathless and defeated?
The idea of the Inner Critic and the “multiplicity of mind” is by no means a new phenomenon. The ability for the human mind to contain multiple, overlapping “consciousnesses” with their own collection of behaviors and personalities has been discussed in popular culture at least since Freud’s id, ego, and superego in the 1920s and then, of course, sensationalized to the extreme in the 1970s with the book and subsequent television event “Sibyl.” But in the 1990s, many psychologists and psychotherapists began to normalize the idea of something they called “subpersonalities” for the rest of us—or as Dr. Richard Schwartz calls them—“parts.” We all have these multiple, overlapping “consciousnesses,” they say. It’s a normal part of how we manage our lives and protect ourselves from trauma, loss, or hurt.
I began working with subpersonalities both personally and professionally about 10 years ago. So this idea of having both an Inner Critic and an Inner Defender as my own sub-personalities began to make sense to me. In fact, I discovered several different subpersonalities and other various coping mechanisms that I had developed to just simply keep my life moving along in the face of various traumas, losses, and general challenges. So this ping-ponging inner dialogue all made logical sense to me. I experienced it regularly and with more thoughtful awareness. But what didn’t make sense to me, at least not until recently, was why I couldn’t get these subpersonalities to not just manage the parts of my life they were responsible for managing, but to also work together to help me experience inner peace. Their constant internal bickering and conflicting realities every time I undertook something new or scary were making me feel absolutely crazy and left me wondering if I could trust myself to know the truth of myself?
If all of these sub-personalities were a part of me, then which “me” could I trust in the end?
If you imagine for a moment your life, your relationships, and what’s important to you as a target, with you as the bullseye in the middle and the rest of what matters existing within concentric rings of your life out from the center, I realized that where I was investing my time and energy was misplaced. For years, I have focused on the outer shallows of life, those outer rings of the target, worrying about what the wrong people thought of me—whether what I wore, how I looked, or what I said was good enough. For years, I had been opening the aperture of my life from the outside-in instead of the inside-out, tending more to my superficial work relationships or casual friendships before—and often to the exclusion—of tending to the most critical relationships that should have been in the actual bullseye—my relationship not only with MYSELF (and all her parts) but with that of Spirit, the Divine, the Beloved.
For years, I have lived not at the center of my own life but rather clinging to its edges, desperate for any sense of connection and belonging with others outside of myself, not realizing that in order for me to feel connected to others, the real connection and sense of belonging I needed to cultivate first was the one with myself—that center circle. For years, I let these parts—these sub-personalities—tirelessly do the jobs for which they were originally hired, not realizing that as I grew, and learned, and changed, these original jobs needed to change to support the person I had become and was becoming.
For years, I took the time to thoughtfully learn the roles of my Inner Critic and my Inner Defender and did my best to help them tolerate each other, but I never took the time—simply because I didn’t actually know how—to get them to truly understand and ultimately appreciate each other and change the way they worked not just for me but with each other. My life felt scattered and confusing because the “me” at the center of the bullseye was not an integrated woman who belonged to herself but rather was a collection of disparate parts who did their best to make it through all while looking to the outer rings of her life for some sense of approval and belonging.
It was hard to wake up to the reality of this disintegrated version of myself. It was hard to finally come back to the center of my life and realize how years of unprocessed trauma had manifested itself into disordered behavior. I had done years of therapy. I had diligently studied, followed, and taught coaching practices and spiritual practices for years to help create more awareness, thoughtful understanding, and love of myself and all those different parts. I was a great coach, a great manager, a thoughtful chaplain, a good friend…I read my books. Did my work. So why couldn’t I get to a place of inner peace with my bickering Inner Critic and Inner Defender and finally make that leap to self-love for myself and all my parts?
Because sometimes love is too big of a leap.
There is a popular quote from Buddha’s scriptures where he says “Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love.This is an unalterable law.” It’s a beautiful idea, isn’t it? That the antidote to hatred is love and this is a universal law. The only problem is that this translation is very Westernized in that the concept of love is offered as the opposite of hatred and therefore a kind of cure. However, if you look at a more accurate translation of this scripture—taken directly from the original Pali language—the quote actually says something to the effect of “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
For me, the idea of “non-hatred” is quite different from the concept of love. There is acceptance but not necessarily affection with non-hatred. There is appreciation but not necessarily delight with non-hatred. There is understanding but not necessarily agreement with non-hatred.
And that had been my mistake: I had been viewing the internal work I was doing through a kind of Disney Princess lens, where through the sheer force of goodness, love, hard work, and perseverance, I was going to just make all the bad feelings go away so I could learn to love myself exactly as I am. I was trying to get my Inner Defender to somehow move straight from hatred to love for my Inner Critic in order to neutralize her without doing the real work needed to not only thoughtfully understand her, but to also cultivate the respect needed for compassionate understanding and appreciation of my foul-mouthed and hot-tempered friend. Because I was doing it all with an agenda: Get rid of the Inner Critic at all costs, ultimately ignoring the entire purpose and reason for why my Inner Critic existed in the first place.
That is, in fact, the thing I realized about those less pleasant parts of myself: They have a job. I gave them that job. It’s an important job. They are here to protect my most tender, my most vulnerable, my most precious parts. Those pieces of my soul I want to keep sacred—my magic, if you will. And that Inner Critic that I’ve been so desperate to silence? Her job is to protect me. To keep me safe. The voice that the Inner Critic speaks in? She uses it because it’s all she knows. The words she chooses? They are the words of our culture. They are the words I never want to hear from someone else so I say them to myself first so it won’t hurt as bad when two boys scream “fat ass” over and over at me from the street. My Inner Critic said it to me first so I wouldn’t be devastated and crying in my bed, afraid to leave the house for weeks and it worked. Mostly.
But the work I’m meant to be doing in the world? The person I want to continue becoming? She needs to be able to access those tender and magical parts again, the ones that the Inner Critic has been so fiercely protecting. So over time, I tried cajoling, bypassing, dismissing, even loving the Inner Critic. And it never really worked: When I’m at my lowest and most vulnerable, she comes screaming back like a banshee. And that’s because I never really tried to get to know her. I never really tried to understand her important role. To show her compassion even though her approach feels harsh. To tell her I appreciated what she’s done to try and help me even if another part of me knows that it hasn’t always had the effect we hoped it would.
Instead, I tried hating her, judging her, ignoring her, silencing her, and then when none of that worked, I even tried loving her, which, to be clear, also didn’t work. But in all of that I never tried simply not hating her. I never tried thanking her for her hard work without condition. I never tried having a reasonable dialogue with compassionate understanding and appreciation with her to see if we could try and negotiate a new way of inter-being with each other.
Living my life from its center—where I attend to my relationship with myself, all my parts, and with Spirit first—has been some of the most profound and settling work of my life. I have finally begun to feel that sense of deep peace I’ve been yearning for as I learn to integrate all of my parts and work with their individual gifts. I have apologized along the way for dismissing, ignoring, or misunderstanding those parts of myself that are less pleasant, telling them I get it now—why they do what they do and why they do it in the way they do. And in the process, each of those parts have softened their flinty edges and set down their cat o’nine tails, only picking up their barbed words and behaviors again when I fall out of connection with myself. But my recovery is quicker now. My appreciation for their help happens more swiftly. And my return to my center happens more genuinely.
I don’t know when I’ll move from a place of non-hatred to full, genuine love for all those more challenging parts of myself. But what I have been learning is that every part of me is a gift. Every part of me has a light to its shadow. Every part of me has a purpose. And one day, when I do finally move the meter past the midline of non-hatred, over to affection, and hopefully, one day all the way to love, I promise all my parts that I will live our life in tribute to everything they have given me and everything they’ve held for me that is safe and precious, so that we can finally unleash the extraordinary beacon of our collective light, unflawed and unfiltered, onto a world on the precipice of darkness.
Together as one.
Note: The mind-body work that I do with sub-personalities or “parts” generally contains more context and nuance than I was able to capture in this brief reflection. It is some of the most profound and grounding work I’ve done in the past 30 years. While my practice draws from many teachers and modalities, a good place to start is Dr. Richard Schwartz’s book, “No Bad Parts” if you’d like to get started with this work.
This reflection was offered live on November 13, 2022—World Kindness Day—in our free kindness community, The House of Belonging.