I have a noisy internal critic. When I make a mistake, it blurts all sorts of expletives at me. When I look to try something new, it tells me not to be a fool. When I do something that leads to another person’s upset, it tells me it’s all my fault and encourages me back into my shell.
I’ve been wrestling with this internal voice for as long as I can remember. I recognized many years ago, that for the most part, my internal critic, despite it’s evolutionary usefulness of trying to keep me alive, wasn’t really serving me too well. It was leading me down a path of mental anguish and into a depressionary cul-de-sac.
During episodes of failure in my life, the voice of the critic was often loudest, which paradoxically, caused me to revolt a little. It has been during these difficult periods where I would search for a better way. How can I find a way to quieten my inner critic and to listen for what else might be available? Perhaps the breeze blowing, or the birds singing? Or watch a dog dig a hole or chase it’s tail and find light and humour in it. When in the midst of life’s challenges, small or large, it is often hard to pull out of the vicious cycle of self-reprimand.
I have a distinct memory of one such period where I was in a difficult spot with the Hedge Fund that I was managing. I was experiencing a period of negative investment returns and the business was flailing. I was feeling an immense amount of pressure at work and my wife was in the midst of a seven-year bout of chronic fatigue, so things at home were contributing to the pressure I was experiencing. When external circumstances are difficult, finding space in one’s head for a sense of even momentary reprieve is important, but sometimes seemingly impossible. Reality seems to always get in the way.
On this occasion, I was ironing in the laundry at home one morning, trying desperately to quieten the demon in my head that was doing its best to make my internal reality worse than my external circumstance. For years I had been trying to find a way to experience a state of grace on demand. A way to mute the internal critic and experience the world in all its wonder when I call on it, not when my life’s external circumstances allowed me to feel it. I’d been in a hole for so long, that something simply didn’t feel right about waiting for my world to change before I allowed myself to experience happiness. To take a moment to giggle and find lightness in the experience of life itself.
They say it is often darkest before the dawn. This particular dawn felt quite dark. As I was at my wits end, I focused on the pain I was experiencing. All of the discomfort of failure, the shame, the disappointment, the frustration, the victimhood, the rage. I refused to look away from any of it and for some reason, I refused to waste it. Instead, I dove into it and asked for more. It was a kind of Lieutenant Dan moment in the laundry. Perhaps not quite as dramatic.
But I wept.
Perversely, the tears were not of a broken man. They poured out of me as gratitude. It was as though I’d expected death but was given life. I was laughing and crying and ironing at the same time, when my 6-year-old son walked in. He’s still in therapy.
It was from here that I wondered how it was that I’d burst the dam of hatred and self-loathing and criticism and lack. Subsequently, I tried for years to re-create the experience of grace that I felt that morning in the laundry. Until eventually, I worked out how to create the freedom of mind that that experience engendered.
Grace for me is an experience. I’ll try my best to describe it. It’s firstly experienced as gratitude. Overwhelming gratitude. This is where the tears come from. Think of your body as a well and gratitude as the water. When the well overflows, gratitude comes out as unstoppable tears. Frightening isn’t it?
Then there is a feeling of connectedness. This occurs as a curious uncertainty as to where my mind begins and ends. I feel connected to everything and everyone. Ineffable. I find that word a paradox.
Then there is peace. As I become aware again of my body, I feel it. I stretch it. I welcome it. I feel grounded again in the earth and in the here and now. The fears that I had, I can see, but they no longer control me. The self-loathing has no grip. It’s like a mist that has been blown away by the wind. While I am a rock, real and connected. It’s from here, that I can re-engage with the world and do what needs to be done.
So now, I can call upon this state of grace. When I’m experiencing stuckness or simply that my ego is in the way, I press the button. Grace turns up. It’s an outlandish claim, but it’s true. It’s also a little weird when you witness it, or maybe that’s just my internal critic.