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The dark and light of the inner voice.

I was 17 years old the first time someone said "you are so hard on yourself". I had no idea what that meant back then and I've been told the same thing many times since then. Now, all these years later, I am only just beginning to understand both what it means, and how it's shaped my life.

It started with a critical inner voice (one that probably echoes the views of a critical external voice: parent, teacher). That voice provides a self-check to ensure mistakes are not made, the right thing is said, shame is avoided, "appropriate" actions are taken ... all designed to reduce the ever-present anxiety and fear that imperfection abounds (which of course it does because that is what it means to be human).

It's a safety mechanism: if I am hard on myself, then I can fix mistakes or think ahead for possible pitfalls and make the necessary changes so that I am beyond the reproach of others, beyond their judgement, and I will be liked/accepted/admired and ultimately loved and lovable.

Phew, what a relief to have an ability to ensure that I am lovable! (right??).

It's not hard to see how what started as a successful safety strategy in my younger years became a relied-upon coping mechanism for all anxiety and fear experienced in my everyday life.

I have been proud of my analytical abilities (looking at things from every angle and driven to understanding other people's motivations as much as possible), my organisational skills (carrying a heavy handbag filled with items designed to deal with every accident or need, filling the pantry with all sorts of foods and resources "just in case"), good time management abilities (always on time, in time and to deadline with time to spare), social skills (being able to turn-on my social face even though I don't really want to be at that party/event with lots of other people) and my handle-a-crisis/you-can-always-count-on-Sarah reputation: all very socially acceptable and rewardable.

These comptencies are learned, and all are helpful and useful and while the details of some of them may seem quirky or even a little un-hinged to others, they are part of me and have served me well. 

The part that doesn't work so well about all of this is that I have a really loud inner voice - so loud I can hardly get a moment of rest. So loud I can't get back to sleep if I wake in the middle of the night. So loud and so convincing and so very "helpful" that I can't stop ... it drives me on with no rest as it analyses and organises and time manages, and socialises and handles crises and and and ...

That voice is the commentary - often positive and rewarding and stroking of me and my efforts. I keep going in order to gain that positive feedback that tells me that I am lovable.
But the positive feedback has a slimy undertone of "not enough, keep going".  The form of love gained by performing these myriad acts is conditional, temporary, specific to certain situations, and gaining more of it is dependent upon the continual improvement of my efforts and performances. It goes something like "well that was good and it went well - but what about all this other stuff that is not finished" or "next time, this/that will work better".  In these many moments, I am being hard on myself.
It's exhausting, and it's work - all the time!

It's not flow and joy and balance. And up until now, that's how I chose to live. Time for a change!

What are you hard on yourself about?


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Reader Comments (1)

Hi Sarah, thank you for such an honest revealing contribution, it really helps to hear other amazing women grappling with the same defeating voice. I am in dialogue with the very same voice all the time, even though deep down I know I am totally OK!! It became so much louder when I became a mother and needed to be 'perfect' for someone else. I now see that it is this 'inner bully' that leaves me exhausted all the time, on top of the tiring job of modern mothering. I hope all mothers everywhere have the time and inclination to visit themselves in the same way as you courageously do. xo

June 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIscha

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