What are your feelings trying to teach you?
I’m visiting an old haunt for a job interview when my inner critic strikes.
You won’t get the job.
You’re not capable. Not competent.
For a second I nod along — I know! — then I catch myself. My inner critic is the most negative, frightened, damaged part of me. The part that laughs at tragedy and enjoys drama, and watches disaster death counts rise, exhilarated. The part that longs to throw this body away, to destroy it slowly, that’s had my ear since my ear could be had.
It isn’t easy to change mental channels, but I try.
I am useful and capable, I tell myself because I need to take back power at Brain HQ. And because I am discovering that affirmations, cheesy as they sound, work.
Denise Jacobs wrote a whole book on the topic, Banish Your Inner Critic: Silence the Voice of Self-Doubt to Unleash Your Creativity and Do Your Best Work.
“When we focus on something, everything falls away until that one thing exists for us, and we see that item clearly to the exclusion of everything else. This can be true when we reach a state of creative flow, but unfortunately is equally true for the times when we are in the throes of negative self-talk and rumination.”
You have to replace the old thought with something new. I mean, try not thinking about a kitten in a cape. Not possible. You have to contest your negative inner voice with something true. Think of recent concrete examples that prove this. For instance, I am useful and capable might be: I helped X get and stay sober. I took care of Y’s children. I led those teenagers to create that anthology.
Do other people have these battles, I wonder? It’s tiring and upsetting, and it steals time from preparing for the interview. It could easily ruin my chances of being successful. The struggle makes me want to cancel. And it makes me want to drink.
Thoughts like these prompted me to drink for two decades.
For a minute, I give up. Lying back on my Airbnb bed, I feel the weight of all the bad times pulling underneath me. How much of my life I have wasted!
Melancholia, my old friend, threatens to swallow me, and I wonder if I should be on anti-depressants (again). Maybe the libido dip is worth it for the psychological equilibrium. Or perhaps I am supposed to feel this stuff?
In my first year of sobriety, I personified my so-called alcoholism in order to disempower its suggestions. It crops up now with a suggestion.
D’you feel sad, angel? ‘Cause cold white wine solves that.
Oh, come on, alcoholism. I’m three years sober. Wine isn’t an option for me anymore.
But you know it is.
All of the things I’ve learned from spiritual teachers tell me I can choose how I feel but when feelings hit I don’t believe it. Sadness is the bricks and mortar of this town, I think, as I lie, staring at the ceiling of my cottage. The thought isn’t true, but its melodrama is irresistible. I can feel myself being pulled down into the hopelessness of self-pity. How familiar it feels.
This is why I used to drink. Three years later, I’m still learning why.
The truth is that it’s still a battle to stay sober sometimes.
Whenever I go somewhere by myself, my psyche suggests beer. Whenever I have an emotion — good or bad — my psyche suggests wine. When my inner critic pulls me down, my alcoholism sees its chance.
Booze fixes this and you know it!
This is a good time in my life — I have an exciting job opportunity, I’m in a beautiful relationship — but my so-called alcoholism doesn’t give a shit about that.
As far as it is concerned I will always be the girl who gets overlooked so I may as well drink my face off.
Everyone else does, and nobody would mind. You were never that bad to begin with.
I have to redirect my attention over and over and over. But I keep at it. Because I have committed not to drink just for today, every day for over three years now, and my life has improved exponentially. And because the women who helped me get sober promised me that affirmations work and I trust them.
Denise Jacobs explains:
“Concentrating on our shortcomings bars any thoughts of what we are actually good at from entering our consciousness. To begin to see where our cup runneth over, we need to manage our attention and shift focus.”
Instead of drinking when your inner critic strikes, take the opportunity to develop your emotional intelligence.
Write the feelings down, consider what might have triggered them. There is healing and power in naming and understanding how you feel. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise our (and others’) emotions and to use them to inform our thinking. This can then influence the actions that we choose. Instead of snapping thoughtlessly at our partner, we might take ourselves out for a walk. Instead of going for a pint, we might call a friend.
“Emotional intelligence represents an ability to validly reason with emotions and to use emotions to enhance thought.” — John D. Mayer
When crippling doubts and Imposter Syndrome strike, I am learning to recognise and acknowledge, and then, contest, them. Each time I do this, I weaken my inner critic’s influence over me and I strengthen my emotional intelligence. I grow stronger.
Other things you can do instead of self-sabotaging.
Go outside and focus on the world beyond you. Don’t shame yourself for feeling pain. Turn your attention to something positive or neutral. This takes practice, but it is possible. And it gets easier.
What you focus on you get more of. So turn your attention to something good. Strengthen your ability to shift your own attention. It might not feel like it, but you have the power over what you give your attention.
Every time you tell yourself your ancient, tragic origin story you entrench it more deeply inside you. When the fact is, it likely isn't even true.
There are flowers on my Airbnb desk, and I can hear, downstairs, my host teaching herself Welsh. Sun shines in the sash window, and in the distance a dog barks. Outside my body, there is no painful emotion. I focus my attention there. I push myself to get ready, to go outside.
When you refuse to numb your feelings, you have a chance to learn their lessons.
As I walk to the river, I reflect. What are my feelings trying to tell me? Returning to a place where I was sad has brought up painful feelings. That seems reasonable enough if inconvenient. I can acknowledge these feelings without letting them ruin my day.
I buy fish and chips and walk to the quay where I eat with my feet dangling over the river. Herring gulls circle and I check whether anyone is around before throwing them a handful of chips. I watch the feeding frenzy.
So long as I don’t feed the sadness when it comes I can keep moving forward into this different life.
Watching the gulls fight I focus on everything good and neutral: hot salt and vinegared chips, blue sky, bobbing boats, wisps of cloud, sobriety. There are so many things I don’t know about yet, good things I can’t imagine. Looking out at the horizon I manage a smile.