How I Learned To Confront My Inner Critic

You’re so lazy.

You don’t try.  Why can’t you just do it, already?  I know you can, so why don’t you?  It must be because you’re lazy.

Why are you so lazy?  What’s wrong with you?

 

Since I was young, these words have eaten me up, have swallowed me up, have drowned me in their truth.

I didn’t work.  I played video games.  Later, I moved on to pot and some other drugs.  Then gambling.  Then I bounced around all three.

And always, always, the voice inside me was alive, talking to me, telling me: why are you so lazy?

 

It’s a bizarre experience to have so many voices in your head, as if you’re not just one person, as if you’re composed of these different people, all clambering for attention, all trying to yell over each other.

That voice, about my laziness, has always been really loud.  And for most of my life, I thought that was the only voice inside, or at least the most me voice that lived in my confused head.

 

8 years ago or so, I sat in my therapist’s room.  He looked at me, sad.  He was one of those therapists, the kind that could actually show his own emotions at times without breaking the barriers of being a professional guide to your emotions and thoughts.

He was sad because I had fallen back into one of my old addictions again (not so old at the time).  I think it was gambling, but it’s hard to remember.  My mind was so mixed up.

He was also sad because he could tell how much pain I was in.  I was squeezing my hands like there was an invisible stress ball inside them.

I had told the story, how I slipped back into it…. a story he was getting used to by now.  That he patiently heard me say over and over…

And then we sat in silence, both sad, both not sure what to say.

And I had one of those moments that I learned to cherish later, the moments in a therapist’s office when you say something that’s been inside of you that you suddenly have words for, that’s suddenly given the space and safety to come out into the open.

“I’m afraid… I’m afraid that… I’m bad… that there’s something… wrong… with me.”

He looked at me silently for a moment, nodding, his eyes thoughtful.

He let the words float between us, gaining their own life, separating from me and becoming an entity to themselves.

Finally after some thought he said, “Who are you?”

I looked at him, confused: “What?”

“I mean, what makes you… you?  You said you might be bad.  Well, I guess it makes sense to first know what defines you before saying you’re bad, right?”

I thought about it.   It was true.  I had never thought about that.  Who am I?  What am I?  What is “I” when I say, “I?”

“I’m…”

We went through personality, through emotions, thoughts, ideas, morality.  Every time he’d say something like, “But that changes, doesn’t it?  How can you define yourself by that if one day you feel, think, act, that way, if it’s impermanent?”

No matter what I did, I could not define “I” or “me” or anything permanent about my identity.

Finally, he looked at me thoughtfully.  His eyes less sad than before.

“What if there’s no definition?  What if everything you think is you, isn’t?  What if you’re beyond definition?”

The moment he said that, an image of a sun appeared in my mind.  I still remember that.  A sun as bright and as alive as any time I had looked into the sky.  So bright I couldn’t look at it for more than a moment, so alive I couldn’t grasp it but for a second, so real that it made everything else lose their definition.

It was my soul.

“Yes… yes, I think you’re right,” I said to him after a moment, quietly, but maybe more to myself.

It was true, it was so true.

And because of that, I suddenly understood the voices bouncing around in my head, and especially that voice that was calling me lazy.  Calling me bad, telling me I was broken and evil and wrong in this world.

They were like every other voice.  All the voices.  Not.  Me.

 

I recently went excavating with my new therapist.  We decided that it was time to delve into my mind, to brush away the dust and bring up the bones of my past.

I had long ago internalized the idea that I was not my inner voices.  And yet, for 8 years, the voice that called me lazy, broken, evil, was still alive.  Still coming out when the worst moments would suck me down into old habits.

No matter how much I knew that the voice was a lie, it would come back to torment me, like my mind was some sort of haunted house, full of ghosts that refused to leave, stuck between existence and death.

So this excavation was no small endeavor.  We were going to dig into my deepest fears, my darkest closets.  My past.  The source of the voices.

We went into college, when I went manic, when the trauma almost broke me.  But that wasn’t the source, it was just what I had been using as the proof.

We went into high school, when I would stay up all night playing video games and failing my classes.  Echoes of the voice were there, almost as real as the original.  In my teachers mouths, or at least their eyes, wondering how I could fail so spectacularly despite my (ugh) potential.  They didn’t know about the hours of video games, all they saw was this kid who never did his homework, who seemed interested in class but unengaged with success.  And they either said it or I said it for them in my mind: “Lazy.”

Still, it was just echoes.  Echoes of something earlier.

It took some hard digging, some truly honest thought, to look within and admit that this voice came from a time that was almost embarrassing to face.

Fourth grade.  A verbally abusive teacher.   A judgmental, angry, voice.  The first voice in my life that told me how lazy I was.  The first voice that told me there was something wrong with me, broken and undeserving.

As I opened up about this, as I told my new therapist in his Brooklyn office, a thousand miles away from where I first saw it, the sun came back into my mind.  Only the second glimpse I’ve ever had of it.

My soul.

It came and went.  And what was left was the realization, just like earlier, of who I really was.  And who I wasn’t.

Being able to see that voice for what it was, an abusive older woman who was almost a caricature of ego (and had perhaps become that, unchecked alive in my mind).

And suddenly the excavation in my mind was a bit exciting, a bit of a discovery process.

I watched my young self, who was devastated by this woman, devastated by the thought that yeah, maybe he was horrible.  I watched him go over to his friend’s house and play video games.  The first time he had ever played video games so obsessively.  He lost himself in those games, suddenly in a world where life made sense, where you worked hard and you succeeded, where you were safe from abuse and anger, and if you failed, you could just start over.

I watched as he did work hard.  He worked so hard, but in a different realm, one that was safe and sheltered.  I saw how much he cared, and how sensitive he was.

He was a fourth grader who was first learning the advantages of addiction, but not knowing he was becoming an addict.  No one else knowing either.

I watched as the more he played, the more this teacher looked down on him, her thoughts about him confirmed, and the voice coming out more and more.  And him, afraid and unknowing what to do, running back to those video games, to that friend, and to a world that made sense, but which made the world around him even harder, even more bewildering.  A cycle of addiction, fueled by insecurity and ego embodied in a shrill fourth grade teacher’s voice.

I watched as the cycle continued as he got older, when he got that computer in his room, and started staying up all night playing ever more immersive games.  I watched him hate himself more and more for it, but how the voice inside of him became louder and louder, making him need to not just hide from the world, but himself.  And so his addiction became worse and worse.

I watched him go to college, and find more addictions, ones that didn’t need to be in imagined worlds, but that could be transferred into the real world.  You can’t play video games in class, but you sure as hell can be high in class.  And everywhere else.  Portable addiction, an eternal escape.

And all the while, this young man’s life kept breakign apart, and the voice get louder and louder, shrieking at times, making him hate himself for failing so bad.

Until his body finally broke in two and he went manic, with a whole new voice overtaking them all.

 

And then he was transported into that first therapist’s office.  Growing, evolving, developing other voices.  Learning who he really was, seeing his soul.

And finally I was back there, back in my new therapist’s office, we had finished our dig, and he was looking at me.  Calmly.  Thoughtfully.  Like the first one.

We both nodded, the session over.  But we knew we had made a discovery on our excavation.  The voice that had tormented now had a name, and a face.

And it wasn’t me.