Compassionate curiosity

I had to retrain my inner critic.   I had a critic who was so skillful, so sly, that she could find something wrong with just about everything I thought or did.   And she could present the criticism in such a way that it was clear that it was both 1) true and 2) necessary for me to know how bad I was.

Woohoo!    If I had a person in my life who treated me that way, I doubt that I would have stayed around for coffee.   But I lived with this person in my head for a long, long time.

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One of the side effects of having a strong inner critic is that often the real-life person (me, in my case) is extremely critical of everyone and everything else.   Well, it only makes sense….if that’s what you experience all the time, every day, then perhaps you figure that’s what your response to the rest of the world should be….ought to be…..MUST be.

Oh my gosh, there they are, all three of them in a single sentence….SHOULD, OUGHT, and MUST.   Hmm, my old favorite thought distortion….that there are shoulds, oughts, and musts in the world.   I remember the first time I ever knew that there were other ways to think about things.   An art therapist who was on some committee with me, many years ago, made some laughing comment about “shoulding all over oneself” but that was long before I was introduced to cognitive psychology and I had never heard of such a thing.  But before long, I was able to see that I not only “should” all over myself, but I was continuously “shoulding” all over other people as well.

thanks to http://www.minalhajratwala.com/ a lovely blog about writers, writing, and social media
thanks to http://www.minalhajratwala.com/ a lovely blog about writers, writing, and social media

In some stories, that would have been enough but no, I’m a pretty slow learner, and it took a lot more years, completion of my psychology training (which helped me to be ever more critical), and intensive body psychotherapy before I could start to really recognize the many manifestations of my inner critic.  First I had to detach myself from the messages I had been hearing from myself. And that’s where, finally, the title of this post comes in.

Light and shadow;  can we observe without judging, without labeling?
Light and shadow; can we observe without judging, without labeling?

When I can look at myself without immediate judging (“that’s okay, that’s not okay, I like this, I hate that, I’m doing well, I’m not doing so great”) then I have a chance to see what is really happening in my inner space.   When I can catch a passing thought and see it as a thought, then I can notice….Oh, that was a critical thought.   Hmmm, isn’t that interesting?   When I can have a friendly interest in my own processes, without having to change them, harden against criticism or melt into praise, then I am offering myself compassionate curiosity.

So what happened when I began to observe my own inner critic?  At first I was horrified to hear how much harsh self talk was going on.   Then I realized that some part of me was being highly critical of the critic!   (Yes, check out THAT logic…).  When I realized that the critic was originally a defense, yes, originally something that developed to help me to negotiate a difficult childhood,  then I could bring a bit of compassion to that part of myself.

In my bioenergetic therapy training program, we talked about ways to work with the critic:  our own critics, and the critics that accompanied our clients into the therapy office.  One plan was to figure out ways to off the critic….toss him off a cliff, for example, or trick her into leaving.   I decided to take a softer approach.  I decided to try to befriend my critic, and re-train her.  I wanted to be in charge, so I thought I would approach this situation as if she was an employee who had taken on too much responsibility over the years.

I began a dialog of sorts in my journal, and basically re-wrote the job description.  I thanked my critic for the years of protection, and spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the ways that my strong internal demand for certain behaviour saved me from an angry parent, from dismissal from my graduate program, from neglecting my children despite my fatigue.   Then I just informed her that things were now different.  I was an adult with good habits and didn’t need anyone constantly harping about me.  What I did need, though, was support.

Support is one of those ambiguous terms.  People may mean very different things by that term.  So I did with my critic what I suggest clients do with family members:  I carefully described what I wanted for support.   I wanted, for example, my inner voice to learn to say things like  “Good job on that!” and “You are working hard enough” and “It is okay to take a break.”  Actually, I modeled those kinds of comments on the statements that my therapist offered to me over the years.

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Did it work?  Well, it was a program of change, and, like most changes, time, practice, and consistency have been involved, but yes, it did work.   I have to be vigilant, as I expect most people who have lived with an ornery inner critic for about 45 years would have to be.   But I can recognize my negative self talk, I can notice it without labeling and just say, oh, yes, there it is again.   I wonder if there is something going on that has that critic reverting to old behaviour?  And with that gentle sort of curiosity, I can look deeper without fear of what I might find.

Metaphor: a link between body and mind

Stories are the way that we make sense of our worlds, at least for most of us. We make sense of our day through narrative.  “Oh, today was a good day, because I got a parking place right away at work, and I had lunch with a good friend, and I was productive at work, and my favorite song was on the radio during the ride home.”   That might not sound like much of a story, but it is certainly a typical way for a person to make sense of experiences.  There is also judgment within the story, an indication of pleasure or displeasure about the way that the experience unfolded.   And that story can have a lot of power.   For example, a story about a “good day at work” can influence mood and social interactions for the whole evening, and maybe even predispose the storyteller to experience the next day in a positive way.

Of course it works in less obvious ways, as well.   We can tell ourselves stories about how we’ve been badly treated, about how the world dispenses injustice, or about the things we would like to do to act out on feelings we’re having.    We can tell ourselves stories about how we can do something or about how we cannot do something.   Stories help us to construct our sense of ourselves as well as our sense of the world around us.

Stories tell us who we are and explain the world to us.

When we hear stories, we often respond viscerally. That is, we have a feeling about the story we hear. There is a set of sensations in the body, responses that happen just as a result of hearing a story, reading a story, watching a movie or tv show. We don’t even need to be “into it” very much to have a response. In fact, distancing can be a response to a story.
The story you tell yourself helps to create the YOU that you are. You can choose the story, though. You are not stuck with the story you have already in place. Perhaps you could tell yourself a story about a person who was stuck in old patterns, who had few different ways to behave, who was not so spontaneous, who didn’t feel feelings very clearly. Perhaps this person was learning about other ways to be in the world, was starting to think about taking some risks to be different than before. Perhaps he or she was getting ready to become someone different. Below is an exercise using a metaphor around this kind of story.

Gold chrysalises
  • You can bring your body into this exercise, or just attend to your thinking and notice that your body comes along. For example, you might imagine that you are going through a change process, perhaps like the one that turns caterpillars into butterflies. You could imagine yourself all wrapped up tightly in a chrysalis, change happening but not yet visible to the outside world. If you want to, use your body to help your mind in this imagining.
    • Feel the tightness of the hard case around you; feel your own desire to break out and begin to move freely.
    • Notice how your face and head feel, how your back and legs and torso feel, while in this tight casing.
    • Notice your own awareness of the changes in your consciousness as you have been learning more about yourself.
    • Notice the parts of your body that particularly want to expand and open.
    • Then using your powers of mind, imagine the hard casing of the chrysalis easing open, gently splitting to reveal …. what? Now just let that opening happen and allow whatever is there to emerge, providing a welcome to whatever is present for you at this moment. Welcome the new sensations, images, feelings, ideas, with compassion. If they are not what you wanted, still welcome them with kindness, knowing that there is something there for you, even if it might not be what you decided in advance should be there.

Acceptance of what is allows things to change.

Many thanks to ” Erica Marshall of muddyboots.org ” for the insect photos, and to Brenda on Flickr for the books.   My apologies for using an old saw…the butterfly metaphor….but it works.

How do you see yourself reflected in the stories you tell yourself? What would it mean for you to know that you are not your stories? How might your life open up?

Counseling or psychotherapy?

What’s the difference between counseling and therapy?  Often these two terms are used interchangeably.  However, I like to make a distinction between them.  Counseling is mostly about solving problems in the here-and-now, talking about concerns and getting another perspective on them.   If your issues are really situational and of brief duration, counseling might be best for you.  Psychotherapy, in contrast, helps you to look at your patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  It helps you to identify and then to develop ways to change the defenses that you may have had in place for a very long time.  If you have been chronically anxious, unhappy, or in trouble, or if you have a history of depression or anxiety, or you have a history of stress, trauma, or loss, then psychotherapy may be appropriate for you.

What I do in my practice…..

Beside the fact that I am trained as a bioenergetic therapist, I am also a licensed psychologist.  There are some problems in everyday life that I would especially like to help you with.

I am particularly interested in working with concerns around reproduction, especially from a woman’s point of view.    That would include fertility concerns, pregnancy loss, postpartum stress, adoption, and infertility treatment, just to start.

I also work with people who have traumatic histories.  Many reproductive issues are, in fact, traumatic, but other traumatic events can generate problems for people.

A third area of my practice is working with children ages six and under with a parent, who have experienced trauma or attachment disruption.  This model is called Child-Parent Psychotherapy, and is largely a home-based model of support, education, and intervention to support attachment between the parent and child and help both to resolve trauma.

Sometimes people just want to get more out of life.   Maybe this is you.  Everything in your life looks like it is fine but deep inside, you feel like you are missing something, or that the way things look is NOT the way that things are for you.  Therapy, especially body-mind therapy, can help with that.

Is there something I can help you with?  Some issue you want to talk about, or some concern that keeps coming up in your life?