Dodging bullets in my head

I went into the bedroom the other morning, feeling pretty happy. Dean was taking Aidan to school, the house was quiet, and I was thinking about a blog post I wanted to write. I tossed my clothes onto the bed, hauled my body after them, and started wrangling my legs into pants. It was a fine day, and life felt all right.

Five minutes later, wheeling out of the bedroom, I felt like crap.

I stopped dead just before the door and thought, wait a minute, what the hell just happened?

Because nothing had happened. No one came in or out. Nothing happened outside. Dressing was routine. So why, all of a sudden, was I feeling so miserable?

And then I noticed how incredibly familiar that feeling was. I’d felt it countless times before, every day in fact, sometimes multiple times a day. It felt like a giant stone across my upper back, slumping my shoulders and pushing me down. I felt nervous and tense. Irritable.

I sat frozen for a moment, feeling the yuck, scanning, scanning, scanning… And then….

What were you just thinking? I asked myself. Because whatever had happened, it happened inside me.

And I realized I was imagining criticism.

Entering the bedroom, I’d been thinking about the post I wanted to write, and sometime between getting on the bed and getting off it, I’d started imagining the heat I might take. A specific person had come to mind and, within seconds, I’d plunged deep into a fantasy of confrontation where I was criticized, called out, and humiliated for what I’d (as yet not) written.

Well that certainly explained feeling beaten like a dog by a bullying master. No wonder happy had hightailed it under the bed.

But what really got me was the realization that I do this – imagine criticism – all the time.

I’ve been paying close attention lately, and nearly every time I have a work related impulse, someone comes to mind and starts telling me why it’s stupid, wrong, short-sighted, misguided, harmful, useless, self-centered, whatever… inside my head.

Now, I’m pretty sure that 30 years ago, I used to imagine such things even more often, across many more aspects of my life. So even though I’m doing it all the time and the effect is pretty fierce, it’s still an improvement. There’s been a lot of healing in the last 30 years.

Still, subjecting myself to invented criticism multiple times a day is just NOT acceptable. I mean, honestly, it’s a miracle I produce anything!

Talking to my friend, Beckie, about it the other day, she asked the obvious and same question I’ve been asked by multiple friends and therapists over the years: Whose voice is that? It seems natural to presume the inner critic is an internalized version of an identifiable outer critic.

But the question has always stumped me.

The fact is, I didn’t grow up with a parent or sibling who routinely criticized me. I wasn’t told I sucked or that I was worthless. I wasn’t habitually called out or humiliated. I’m not saying my family was some pinnacle of perfect support, but it’s definitely not as simple as, oh yeah, my grandmother was always lobbing grenades and now she lives inside me.

So what is living inside me?

One thing I find really interesting is that my imagined critic is rarely the same person twice. Every now and again, an antagonist makes a repeat appearance, but the person could be almost anyone: an acquaintance, friend, colleague, family member. It’s not like I have one, or even a small circle, of inner bullies. The roster is extremely diverse.

And rarely is it someone to whom I’ve given much power. So it’s NOT a beloved teacher, or my husband, or my mom, or a dear friend, or a mentor. I mean sometimes it’s one of those people, but often it’s a person in my life whose criticism, if it were actually coming my way, wouldn’t necessarily mean very much.

And that’s another interesting bit: in real life, I rarely get criticized.

For the last 13 years especially, I’ve led a VERY public life. And if folks disagree with me, or have been offended by something I’ve said, they’ve generally kept their mouths shut. Almost entirely. In fact, the very few people I can think of who have taken issue with me have done so extremely politely. Even lovingly. Those people sound exactly NOTHING like the voices in my head.

So, what’s the story?

Beckie is one of my dearests and we live 3,000 miles apart so, from time to time, we have these marathon conversations (pure heaven!). Last weekend, we spent a fair amount of time exploring my troublesome pattern. And when she asked what I knew about the origins of said pattern – the “whose voice is that” question – I started talking about what I did grow up with.

My mom is a child of war. She was born a refugee in Yugoslavia, poor as dirt, and by age nine was living in the midst of three simultaneous wars. She and my grandmother ended up at Mauthaussen, a concentration camp for prisoners of war (among other groups). She survived the atrocities and deprivation (they both did) only to languish for years in displaced persons camps in Europe. When she and her parents were finally sponsored by a family in the US in the 1950s, not only were they exploited, but my mom quickly contracted tuberculosis which very nearly killed her. So it is for good reason that her motto was and probably still is, “Look for danger first.”

I don’t remember expressly being taught the same, but I do remember having my ideas and desires met with immediate concern that often sounded like criticism. Just to give a concrete example, when I was 10, I told my mother I wanted to be a child psychologist. I wasn’t actually super attached to the idea but my friend, Danielle, had said she wanted to be one and it sounded noble and smart, so I adopted the idea. But when I shared it with my mom, her face stretched into a horrified grimace as she exclaimed, “You want to spend all day listening to the sad stories of suffering children?? How depressing!” So much for noble and smart.

When I think back on that story, and underneath the implied criticism, I see extreme protectiveness… Love, actually. However inelegant the package, I think my mom was delivering her best, proven strategy for self-preservation in no small part because she is bone-achingly devoted to my survival. What had saved her could save me, even if it clobbered me first.

And she was doing exactly what life had proven required: beware the downside… and by all means, avoid it. It wasn’t unusual, before being captured by the Nazis, for my mother to greet soldiers at the door demanding to know my family’s allegiance. And my mother would frantically scan the uniform for clues of affiliation so that she could provide the “correct” answer, thereby securing her family’s survival for one more day. Hers was a literally dangerous world. One always had to wonder from where the bullets would come.

My father was nothing like my mother in this regard. But ironically, he reinforced the lesson. Because my dad was often the one firing bullets.

I spent the majority of my days with my mother, but I saw my father one weekend a month for most of my childhood and while I have really treasured memories from that time, I was often extremely confused.

I remember unloading groceries from the car when I was 11 or 12. My dad had taken some bags inside and I was out by the car picking up more. I grabbed a heavy one and started walking toward the house when I realized the bag was too much for me. I didn’t want to spill the stuff and the bag seemed about to tear so I called out, “Papa, help!”

My dad came racing out of the house and around the side to where I stood, but when he saw me wrestling with nothing but groceries, he was livid. He scolded me for calling out like I was in real danger, made it seem like I should know better, shamed me for not.

My brainwaves went flat. He lived in a not stupendous part of San Francisco but I never felt insecure there, and never in a million years, when I called out for help, did I suspect he would fear I was being attacked. I thought he’d trot outside and rescue me from the uncooperative bag with a playful, “Aaack.” Instead he fired round after round of verbal bullets as I stood there, frozen and dumbstruck, unable to compute.

Another time, I was a bit older, he asked me to do the dishes. I expressed some mild teenage annoyance, a grumble or complaint, thinking he’d react the way my mother did: mildly if at all, knowing I would, in fact, do as asked. Instead he got mad and fired off shots about my intolerable behavior.

I remember so clearly, from both these occasions, my utter shock. Even as I write about it, I can feel the flat-lining, the… disconnect… inside my body. And I have a slew of memories just like these, times when I felt… just blindsided, by a reaction or response. I never saw those bullets coming.

Sharing these stories with Beckie, I started to realize my habit of imagining criticism isn’t so much about replaying old tapes as it is about dodging potential bullets.

When a critic surfaces in my mind, that person is the answer to the unconscious question, “From where could bullets come?” I’m looking for danger and trying to avoid it. If I know from where they might come, and what type they are, I’m better equipped to dodge any bullets.

I was just about to type, “The problem with all this…” but “the problem” is a ludicrous understatement. There are SO MANY problems with all this! And they are stupendously destructive.

First of all, the imagined criticism FREQUENTLY stops me in my tracks. There’s a lot of conceived work product that never comes into form. And that which does manage to manifest often requires excessive time and energy to birth because I’ve got to battle the effects of the criticism.

Secondly, way too much happy is getting eclipsed by crappy.

And finally, there is the problem behind the problem (by far, the most perverse): It is so ingrained to pose the question “from where might the bullets come” that I do not EVER notice I’m asking it. I ask it every time, without fail, in a whole host of circumstances… And I do not EVER notice I’ve done it.

That, my friends, is really bad news.

It is simply my instinct, my default to ask. And the whole question has been reduced to a switch that gets flipped or a button that’s pushed. It is unconscious and automatic, and that makes it very hard to change.

But… not impossible. 🙂

The good news is the problem behind the problem is the key to the whole thing. And I know what the problem behind the problem is. That means, I’m empowered. Clumsy… but empowered.

So, the work in front of me is to begin to notice.

At first, it will probably look a lot like it did that day in my bedroom. I’ll notice the crappy; it’ll feel familiar; I’ll remember what generally causes that feeling; I’ll become aware of the specific criticism and critic that surfaced moments before; and like that, bit by bit, I’ll trace my way back to the switch. I won’t be able to see the switch, but I’ll know it’s there.

Then, I’ll start catching it before the crappy, while I’m still imagining the bullets. I’ll become aware of the specific criticism and the critic. I’ll look for the switch.

And little by little, as I practice, the mechanism will lose its power. The switch will still flip and the criticism will still be imagined, but it won’t slow me so much. It won’t be so hard to defeat.

There might even come a time when I’ll become aware just as the critic is emerging, before s/he has a chance to say anything, and I’ll be able to choose if I want to hear what might be said. Mostly, I’ll choose yes because I’ll still be too afraid of bullets to choose no. But eventually, I won’t care anymore what the critic might say, and I’ll turn away.

Then maybe, just maybe, if I’m really lucky and I keep at it, one day I’ll notice that critics hardly ever show up anymore. That I no longer imagine criticism…. And I haven’t for a loooong time.

So that’s my plan. And it’s good to have a plan. Because no matter the origins of this unfortunate pattern, it’s my ballgame now. I am 100% responsible for every pitch and at bat. (That’s how we Sheroes roll, right?) Plus, even if I’m spot on in my analysis of my parents, I’m certain they never intended to shackle me. And no matter it all, I don’t live in a war zone and there aren’t bullets flying. It’s time I stop acting like there are.

Besides, if I’m going to invent how people respond to me, why not invent something wonderful? I mean, seriously, why not?

As I’ve been writing, I’ve noticed at least twice the rise of a critic (though I’m certain it’s happened more often), and both times, it caused me to edit myself. The real tragedy, though, is that the criticism and the editing happened almost simultaneously. It would be sad enough if I chose to contort myself in response to inner critique, but there was no choosing. It just happened.

Still, I noticed. A bit after the fact, yes, but I noticed. And my dearest hope is that, as I notice more often, the distance between bullet and dodge will grow, so much so I’ll have a chance to decide if dodging is even warranted.

And that, my friends, would be excellent. Because from the Shero point of view, having a choice is almost more important than eliminating the bullets.

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3 Responses to Dodging bullets in my head

  1. Andrea says:

    This sounds soooo familiar — right down to the Yugoslavian refugee grandmother (mine, too) and the trigger-happy father (this, too). Thank you for going deeply into your experience, breaking it down, and sharing it. This has been very helpful to me. Just wanted you to know.

  2. Victor says:

    Thank you!

  3. Jane says:

    Needed to read this tonight. Thank you so much for the honesty and for the detailed play-by-play. It really helped me see.

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