“We are all failures—at least the best of us are.” –J.M. Barrie
Greetings Dear Ones!
Few things in life are quite as satisfying as making a very neat job of turning up a sleeve on a man’s tweed sport coat and replacing the buttons and buttonholes precisely, in such a manner as to be indistinguishable from the original. Lucky for me, I have good old Prudence Thimbleton, that internal nit-picker, watching over me to make sure I do it right. She does not deal well with praise of any kind. Her job is to find fault. So when I hand the coat over to its owner, a distinguished looking man with a stern countenance and eyes the color of the sky after a summer storm, and he says, “hmmmm…. You do not disappoint.” Prudence goes all giddy and burns with so much Pride the poor thing nearly rushes herself off to Confession right then and there. She does not know how to deal with such glowing approbation!
“Am I Prudence?” asks one of my friends. Others have asked this too, wondering if I am writing about them. Heavens No! Prudence lives in my head. She is the amalgamation of every wretched little old lady I have ever known, as well as one gay male horse trainer (he trained female horses too) and two truly terrifying nuns who have haunted me since grade school. She is simplistic and inflexible. She does not take the ambiguities or subtleties of life into account what-so-ever. There is not even one shade of grey for her, never mind fifty! She assumes that for every crime, there is a criminal who must be brought to justice. She is like an over-active immune system that, with nothing “real” to fight, will turn on me and attack me.
Where did Prudence come from? I don’t really know. When you grow up with 19 Barbies dressed as nuns under your bed, you tend to attract some interesting “characters” into your life. She is full of fantastically bizarre ideas such as killing two birds with one stone by translating the license plate in front of her into Morse code with Kegel clenches at traffic lights. (This keeps your Morse code skills at the ready, should you ever need to signal that there are German U-boats off the coast of Maine, using only your vagina.) She makes all her own clothes and has despised “today’s fashions” for more than 100 years. She will tell you simultaneously that “Jesus loves you very much” and that “you are going straight to hell” without perceiving any contradiction in the matter. She likes to hang out in the shop and grumble quietly about the customers who abuse their zippers and brides with blurry tattoos that don’t look right under lace. She’s from the era where most women knew how to sew and her dry, witty rants about “the state of things today” continually leave me in stitches.
For years, she was just a horrible sense of dread—a nameless, vague, discontented wretch who seemed to hate everything about me—a heavy rock in my chest I carried about that negated every nice thing anyone said to me. I once carried her for nearly a half marathon hearing nothing but “Is that a stitch in your side? What’s wrong with you? Why do you sound like a steam engine when you breathe? Is this the best you can do? How come everyone is passing you? At least get by that one-legged woman on the crutches—surely you can take her! It’s mile 6—how has she stayed ahead of you for SIX miles? Easy now, you are going to get diarrhea in front of all these people if you keep swilling Gatorade at every mile marker—one more bowel-curdling sip and you are done for young lady…” By mile 11.5, when I was limping due to a seizing I-t band, she took to barking. “This is to what happens to people like you. You should have trained better or stretched better, or at least worn a better outfit so that when the ambulance comes to scrape you off the pavement you look a little more coordinated than THIS…” she snorted with contempt. So much energy was going into beating myself up—and then beating myself up for beating myself up—the concentric levels of beatings going on were breathtaking, literally. It was like being in a bar fight and punching myself in between jabs from a drunk. (I am astoundingly good at making myself the villain in my own melodramas.) I finally stopped right there in the middle of the road. I could choose to finish this race or I could lie down and continue making myself feel like dog poo on a running shoe. I did not have the energy to do both. I told that part of me to shut the hell up and I headed for the finish line. “Once we get our medal and a damn banana, then you can start berating me about where I may have left the car keys,” I told her. She seemed huffy but relatively content with that.
Afterwards, I realized I needed to befriend her or at least put her in her proper place or she was going to kill me. Like the scary Bumble in the iconic “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” television special, she needed to be named, have her teeth knocked out, and be given a proper job. She can still waste an incredible amount of energy worrying, being fearful, feeling inferior and at fault. She still judges harshly things like Winnie the Pooh tattoos and people who grind and smack their chewing gum sideways like they are bovines cudding. She will “should” all over me at the drop of a pin. One of her little tricks is to point out how horrible other people are in order to make me feel like I could make some progress if I applied myself and overcame their low standards. This is dangerous. I need only to compare myself to who I was six months ago, or this morning, to see how I am doing. I am my own Ruler, in every respect.
I have thought many times about whether or not Prudence should be killed off anyway. She is bloody annoying when she isn’t put to some constructive use. There are plenty of self-help books (“Silence Your Inner Critic Forever”) and programs and coaches willing to collude in this murder of the Inner Critic. Yet I have decided against it. Firstly, I am against murder of any kind (though I quite happily usher blood-sucking insects to their after-life and encourage them to come back as dolphins or polar bears). Secondly, having an inner critic I can trust is extremely valuable. I need this self-critical, judgmental part of my psyche—this is not a “bad” or “damaged” part of me that needs to be silenced or fixed—though sometimes her impulses are ridiculous. I just need to understand, with extreme clarity, who she is and what her motives are.
Inner Critics evolved as the part of us that wanted to stay safe. It’s very human to be naturally more attuned to what is negative and that is not a bad thing. Historically, those of us heeded warnings were safer than our compatriots who perished, leading our species to evolve in ways that depend more on “watch out! That’s a scorpion!” rather than “Gee, Thor, I really admire how you handle that club of yours…” Negatives have an immediacy and a relevancy that positives often don’t: Don’t touch that iron! (or you will burn) Don’t eat that mushroom! (or you will die) Don’t wear white after Labor Day! (or we will kick you out of the tribe and you cannot come to our drum circle and drink things out of coconuts).
The importance of discernment cannot be underestimated. To know when a person is talking rot—especially if that person is me—is invaluable! Prudence keeps me honest. She makes my seams straight. She is the part of me that pulls out a row of stitches that “might pass” and makes me do them again perfectly. I need this part of me that says I can do better, because usually, I can. At heart, I am a Slacker. She is not always a trustworthy moral guide like a conscience: I have to listen carefully and discern whether she is saying what I have done is wrong or who I am is wrong.
I have so many friends who are wonderful musicians, artists, writers and Intensely Creative People. Through their tales and triumphs, I see that there is nothing more painful about the creative process than struggling against the feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing. Some of us literally hate everything we write or paint or scupt or make or compose. Nothing is clever enough, funny enough, good enough—or worse, our best ideas have already been done. Apparently, this is not only “normal”—it’s often a sign that you are pushing yourself towards an interesting frontier, which is a Good Thing. True Creativity is NOT safe. It will definitely arouse your Inner Critic and have her snuffling out of her lair, stumbling towards strong coffee and a crowbar the moment you think you are meeting with some success.
And sometimes we just get it Wrong. That’s ok. A healthy inner critic, one who is fighting for us, not against us, will help us to learn. And learning itself is a beautiful thing. Sometimes, after we learn, we have to try again, risk again, unfurl again and hope for a better outcome. Sometimes, we just have to ignore those inner voices for our own damn good. But first, before we do that, we must listen very carefully to what they say and why they are saying it.
Once in a while, that inner voice is not just toxic for toxicity’s sake; there may be a painful but true message that you need to heed. Plenty of data from social psychology studies indicate that many of us are deluded and are not nearly critical enough. Maybe your song only needs four verses and one key change, instead of thirty-seven. Maybe you shouldn’t have composed fiddle tunes in F and expected gin-swigging mortals in the intermediate levels to learn them in a week or less. Perhaps choosing a mermaid-style wedding gown with hips like yours was indeed a ghastly mistake.
When should we worry when the inner critic is too strong? When we aren’t taking good care of ourselves; when we are overly self-effacing and cannot receive compliments; when we ignore health issues and don’t exercise; when we spend ten days in a row knitting and binge-watching “Bojack Horseman,” eating (and drinking) out of cans only.… We NEED a sense of judgment to navigate in this (basically unsafe) world. However, the intensity of that judgment lies along a continuum from gentle redirection to crippling shame. It is a life-long process to learn to co-exist and persistently co-create with the parts of ourselves that wish to criticize or complain. To compound the problem by blaming ourselves for engaging in this struggle is both futile and absurd. A good friend reminded me recently: “Those who Judge don’t understand; those who Understand don’t judge.” If we seek to understand, we are on the Right Path.
Incidentally, Prudence does NOT approve of this blog. Every time I click on the “save and publish” button, she has to take two aspirin and go lie down. She surveys my “purpled prose” and feels sickened, over-exposed, distraught. She would much prefer it if we would Hide and work out our rash creative impulses on the cleaning the garage or sorting out the enormous stash of homespun wool that is attracting nesting Jack Russells. I pat her hand and say, “my Dearest Prudence, fret all you want; I’m a Seamstress who doesn’t give a Rip.” We are going to be Ok.
And you are too, Dear Reader. Keep creating! Keep birthing your Beauty into this world that needs it so desperately. Let us all strive to possess impressive inner cohesion, despite our fragmented, scattershot lives and abilities. Our minds can be consistent and our hearts dependable, regardless of adversity from within or without. We can delight in the flaws we perceive around us as we strive to make things better. Keep radiating your own Moral Joy as you see what needs to be done and you DO it! Keep doing your Good Work!
With so much love,