Contending with Our Inner Critic

I started my day, my week, in defeat. It’s a rainy Monday, and I’m tired from an active weekend. I was hoping that the yoga workout I did this morning would help me feel stretched out, energized, and renewed – but it was too advanced for me (Sorry, but four crows?! And a side plank where you hold the big toe of your top leg and extend your top leg straight?!) and left me feeling like a failed yogi. I got stuck at the car dealer getting an oil change that took two and a half hours, and left my snack in the car. The hanger was real, y’all. Not to mention I am on day two of my cycle so all I really want to do is ignore everyone and read books and nap all day. But I CAN’T. BOO.

Cue my inner critic. It was truly a perfect storm for her: I’m on my period, had a crappy workout, the weather sucks, and I got stuck at the car repair shop. Without snacks!

There are different ways to deal with negative self-talk, or your inner critic. You can invite her along for the ride, but make her sit in the backseat (a la Elizabeth Gilbert). Maisie Hill, in her book Period Power, has several recommended strategies including standing up to her, challenging her, and killing her with kindness. You don’t have to use the same approach every time. Today, because I was stuck at the car dealership, I couldn’t say “F off” and go hop on my Peloton bike or meditate or snuggle my dogs. I couldn’t even reach for a snack to quell my ever-increasing hanger. So, because I wasn’t poised to fight and I couldn’t kill her with the kindness of self-care, and perhaps because I was at the car dealer so the metaphor fit best anyway, I let her sit in the backseat.

Oh hi inner critic. Here you are again, rearing up when you know I’m stuck somewhere I don’t want to be on a rainy day, having just gotten my period, feeling tired from the weekend and acutely hungry and thirsty because I’ve been sitting here with no access to food and just my one water bottle for two hours. It’s Monday, there are two weeks of school left, I’m feeling tired from the weekend and overwhelmed by everything I have to do. So guess what: I’m not surprised that you decided to pop into my brain today. This is no sneak attack. You’re not that good.

Because I don’t have the ability to expel you from my brain, or meditate, stretch, snuggle, or snack you back into submission, please just have a seat – in the back, no shotgun for you. You can buckle yourself in.

Now, I am going to continue to go about my day. My car will be done at some point, and after that I am going to eat a snack and start ticking off the annoying errands and other to do’s that have to get done today so that I can clear my conscience and focus on the good stuff for the rest of the week.

And that’s what I did. And by the way, I had this conversation by typing out my words to her. But you can also speak to yourself, silently or out loud; dictate or type into your notes app; or write in a journal or even just on scrap paper. Just put the words out there somehow.

With my inner critic in the metaphorical backseat, once I got back behind the literal wheel, I was able to start all my irritating errands. And once I started, it became like a game. How many annoying errands can I do before I need to be home to let the dogs out? My gas tank is about 2/3 empty. I’ll fill it so I won’t have to think about gas the rest of the week! There’s a non-urgent prescription that is ready at the drug store. I’ll get it now! I also had to mail a letter at the post office (gas station, drug store, post office – I meant it when I said I was stacking irritating errands!). With each task I accomplished, I felt my mood lighten. Cheer started to replace the gloom that had dominated my morning. And while these errands plus the world’s longest oil change ate up most of my day, getting them done also relieved some pressure from my week’s packed calendar.

By the time I got home, I felt almost triumphant. What I realized is that my inner critic thrives when I feel stifled. But guess what: vice versa! As soon as I started to exude more gratitude and good cheer than doom and gloom, the air in our metaphorical car became too stifling for her. And that is a win I’ll carry with me into the rest of this crazy week.

When I was drinking, I would let days like today completely defeat me. Instead of sitting with the discomfort and directly addressing my inner critic, thoughts of my first glass of wine would eclipse anything else. Wine was my coping mechanism, my escape. Once I became a non-drinker, wine was no longer an option so I turned to food or social media scrolling instead. Now I am in the process of becoming an intuitive eater, and I am taking my power back from food in a way that is similar to what I did with wine. I also set time limits for Instagram and my News apps, to curtail my scrolling – and because I’m a rule follower, it’s working!

This is all to say that I am starting to be able to sit with the discomfort. To have my inner critic in the backseat without driving off the road. It’s hard. It’s not fun. It’s work. Icky work, not welcome work. But it’s WORKING. And that feels pretty great.

How do you face your inner critic? Do you struggle with staying present in discomfort? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Isolation Island

For my Neuroscience of Joyful Recovery course (the first course in my recovery coach training!) I had to create a story that explains the brain, joy, and addiction in a way that is easy for others to understand. “Isolation Island” is what I came up with. Trigger warning: a lot of addiction and wine talk in here. Please do not read if you think you will be negatively triggered.

I want to be able to use this story in my coaching to help clients gain a clear and basic understanding of how addiction impacts our brains, attitudes, and behavior. I use wine as the addictive substance because it is most familiar to me, but any addictive substance can be substituted. If you care to read, please drop me a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think! I would love feedback as I am still at the beginning of my training and this piece is a work in progress.

ISOLATION ISLAND

This probably started out as a vacation. A trip you were looking forward to, once upon a time. Honestly, it’s been so long since you’ve seen family or friends you can’t remember exactly how or when you got here.

This is Isolation Island.

You are far from the comforts (surely there were comforts?) of home. This island seemed nice at first. A welcome change of scenery. The solitude felt quiet and peaceful. But now time has passed. And maybe it’s just you (after all, you’re the only one here), but the island feels less hospitable. You haven’t seen the sun in months. It was shining when you arrived but now the sky is a uniform, infinite gray. The days are hot and humid, and the nights are dark, cold, and damp. You have no shelter, because there is nothing you can use to build. You scavenge what you can to eat, but you haven’t had a proper meal in what feels like months. Or maybe forever. You collect rain water to drink, but it’s never enough to satisfy your endless thirst.

Contentment, peace, love, joy: you have only fleeting memories of these emotions. Now, there is just a uniform, infinite gray in your head and your heart, mirroring the sky.

You are weak. You are exhausted. You are lonely. You don’t know exactly how you got here – physically or emotionally – or how you will get home. You don’t even know where home is anymore. Tucked inside the rotted-out stump of a long-dead tree is a forgotten pile of postcards from family and friends. The cards are smeared and faded beyond legibility. You stopped returning their correspondence long ago. Eventually they stopped writing to you, or maybe you told them not to write to you anymore – you can’t remember.

Despite clues that others have been here before you – a piece of rubber whose shape is reminiscent of a shoe sole, letters scrawled on the trunk of a tree that could have been someone’s initials – you’ve been here long enough that you’re convinced you’re the only one who has ever set foot on this island. You are utterly alone.

The island is home to a mountain. A mountain, and you. You have always felt ill at ease, living in the shadow of this gigantic, inhospitable mound of earth. But one day, out of desperation or boredom or probably both, you begin to climb. And just a short hike from the mountain’s base, you find it:

An outcropping of rock forming a small, dry, perfect, private cave. And inside, seemingly waiting just for you, is a comfortable cot of woven reeds, fresh food and water, and one chilled glass of wine. The food and water satiate you – but it’s the wine that makes you feel good for the first time in ages. Good, or buzzed, or probably both. You forget how miserable and lonely you feel on this island and drift off to sleep.

The next day, having exhausted your supplies, you climb further up the mountain. You have to go farther and higher this time, and the terrain is steeper and more treacherous. But sure enough, you eventually spot another campsite of sorts: no protective cave or woven sleep pad, but some leafy branches, plus more food and water… and more wine. This time it’s a whole bottle, and you drink it first before consuming the food and water. Again, you forget your woes. You don’t feel as easy breezy as yesterday but you feel even more numb to your surroundings – and your painful feelings and memories. You throw together a brush shelter using the branches, and beneath it you fall asleep fast and spend the night tossing and turning.

Another day dawns. You wake with a pounding head and start climbing again. You must find more wine. Food, water, and shelter are afterthoughts. The mountain terrain has grown steeper still. You lose your footing several times. Handholds crumble in your grip. With arms and legs covered in cuts and bruises, you finally stumble upon your next camp. There is nowhere to rest and nothing you can use to build a shelter, only sharp rocks poking into your feet. The food has already been eaten and the water drained – or maybe it was never there to begin with. But you hardly notice, because nestled among the rocks you spot two bottles of wine. The wine is warm, and tastes more disgusting than refreshing, but you hardly notice, gulping it down in search of the release it brings. You don’t want to feel like you are clinging to the side of a mountain. You don’t want to remember you’re alone on an island. You don’t want to go home – you no longer have a home – you just want to escape from it all. Your past and your present fade quickly to black.

You don’t remember when you passed out, but you wake the next morning (or is it afternoon?) feeling more horribly depleted than ever before. Still, you climb, because all you can think about is the next sip of wine. You ignore the throbbing in your arms and legs from the cuts that are starting to fester. There must be more wine at the top of this mountain. Just keep climbing. Don’t look down – if you do, if you realize how high up you are, how far away you are from the safety and relative comfort of solid ground, with no clear path back down, it may be too much to bear.

So you climb. Wine has eclipsed all your other thoughts now. Your senses are offline. You reach, you stumble, rocks tumble around you, yet you climb. Somewhere, deep inside, a voice speaks out: “This is dangerous. Is this really worth risking your life?” But you ignore it. You are almost at the top of the mountain – but there is no wine in sight. It must be there. You MUST find it.

You reach up, one last time, and hoist yourself onto the top of the mountain. You made it! You look around – not at the view, but at the thorny brush and jagged rocks around you, desperately searching. But there is no wine. No camp site. Nothing. Where is it?! It MUST be here! There is nowhere else to go!

You take a deep breath. Sulphur fills your nostrils. The top of this mountain smells like rotten eggs. You look down in the direction of the sour, steamy smell and then you realize –

You are not on top of a mountain. You have ascended a volcano, and you are precariously perched at the edge of its crater.

And there, midway down the crater, you spot what you are seeking: three bottles of wine. You will have to descend into the crater of an active volcano to get your next fix.

Then you spot something else. A faded rope anchored into the rocks a few feet away. It has frayed with time, but seems to have retained its integrity. The rope looks long enough to help you reach the wine in the crater… and also long enough to help you repel off this highest, sheerest part of the mountain and reach easier terrain.

How is there a rope here, you wonder? You are the only one who has ever made this climb. You are alone in your struggle, and you always have been. No one helped you up here, and no one is here to help you now.

What do you do?

The choice is clear, of course.

The only way to go is down.

Checking In at Mile 24

We have collectively hit weary.

Brené Brown, March 27, 2020 (!!!)

Real talk y’all. My days have been more down than up lately. Even though we are (FINALLY, truly… seemingly?) coming out of the pandemic, even though I am 1,063 days alcohol-free, even though I am loving my coaching program, even though we’ve had beautiful spring weather (well, except for a rainy and cold Memorial Day Weekend – not that I minded the excuse to snuggle up, read, and relax!)… even though there is so much that is good and for which I am grateful every darn day, it’s just not clicking.

My pandemic-pummeled brain feels foggy and scattered. My cortisol-crammed body feels heavy and slow. I’ve read articles about how pandemic fatigue is legit, and in my recovery coaching coursework I’m currently learning how the human brain is malleable and resilient even under long-term stress. So I know why I’m feeling this way. And I know I will – if not bounce, then crawl back to a better-functioning state… eventually.

My foggy brain is the result of too much time spent in fight-or-flight mode, which is the brain’s cavemanesque response to heightened stress. My brain doesn’t know a pandemic from a plague. All it knows is that I feel stress, so it releases adrenaline just in case I have to sprint away from a saber-toothed tiger. And because my brain can’t tell my body, “Chillax, this is a little stressful, yes, but don’t worry, you are not going to starve,” my body is pumped full of cortisol and holding on to every fat cell that it can in order to survive.

The fact that this high-stress state has lasted for over a year is, frankly, fucked up. And just bad news for our brains and bodies. Prolonged fight-or-flight is an unnatural state, and a huge hormonal load for our brains and bodies to carry.

On her podcast “Unlocking Us,” Brené Brown said, “We have collectively hit weary.” And indeed we have. Yup, she said that in March. OF LAST YEAR. So if we were weary then (and if Brené says so then it is so), what are we now? Wearier? Weariest? Whatever we are, it’s not pretty and it’s not fun.

This is mile 24 of the marathon, my friends. We’ve hit the wall but we’re still not done. This is knowing the finish line exists but not being able to see it. This is wanting nothing more than to cross that line while simultaneously fearing the shape you’ll be in when you do. And this is also feeling not quite ready to be done with the race because not knowing what’s next is almost harder than just continuing to put one foot in front of the other.

Is anyone else hesitant to take off their mask? I still wear mine to the grocery store or Starbucks, and if I’m with my kids at the playground I’ll wear it because they have to wear theirs and the mom guilt propels me to mask up. But now it’s getting awkward. Because if I wear my mask in an effort to be courteous to those around me, are people just going to think I’m unvaccinated? Not to mention if I take my mask off I have to start worrying about bad breath or something being stuck in my teeth. I haven’t missed thinking about those things for the last year. This ambiguous, in-between time is tricky.

Is anyone else’s social stamina shot? A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to work the polls – not the pole, the polls, people – on my town’s local election day. My shift was two hours. I sat at a table with another volunteer, a mom of two elementary school-aged kids. She and I had enough in common that our conversation was perfectly pleasant and fun and interesting. There was a steady stream of people coming in to vote, and we checked them in one by one. There was never a crowd, and people were polite. I saw a few friends and even my kids’ nursery school teacher. WE even HUGGED, which was a joy. But the next morning I felt like I got hit by a train. I felt hungover. I felt utterly devoid of any energy. It took me awhile to connect my miserable state to having to be “on” for two hours the day before. My social stamina is minimal. It’s negligible. It’s in the toilet. And that is hard.

Is anyone else missing those early locked-down days maybe just a little? I AM MISSING THEM MORE THAN A LITTLE. There. I said it. Do I miss the endless stream of terrifying national and international news that seemed worse and worse every day? No. But I do miss that feeling of hunkering down with my kids, my husband, and our dogs on the island that was our 241-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire, to which we fled last spring and again in the summer. I miss the simplicity, the quiet. Now that the world is opening back up – and, don’t get me wrong, that is a wonderful thing! – all the “should”‘s and “have to”‘s are popping back up on my calendar and to do list. A suddenly full calendar after a year of a mostly empty calendar has given me an unexpectedly jarring jolt.

I’ve been treading water for over a year. The constant treading hasn’t been easy, but the water itself was quiet and calm. Now, all of a sudden, huge wave of responsibility is heading toward me, starting to crest. I know I am capable of clambering up onto my paddleboard and coasting into the shore of New Normal. I just don’t feel ready. But I also know I can’t tread forever.

So, it’s June. Four weeks left of the school year routine before my kids once again audaciously bound back up into my business for the summer. I’m hoping to recover some positivity in these next few weeks. I’m determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other, or to hoist myself up onto my board and hold on tight – considering this post is now home to two metaphors. I’m going to try my best to limit the “should”‘s, tick off the “have to”‘s, and maintain boundaries as best I can. And I am going to focus on stress relief – because the clarity and energy for which I am so desperate can only be summoned once I migrate back to the front of my brain from the rear. And I can only do that by decreasing my stress.

How will I do that? I can’t end the pandemic. But I can change the way I respond to it.

I can move. Every day, I am going to aim to move my body in a way that makes me feel good. No bigger workout plan other than that. I have found during the pandemic if I mismatch my workout to my mood (including where I am in my cycle or how tired I am), it does not go well. With our bodies under so much stress for so long, this is just not the time to kick our asses. The pandemic has already done that. So if I feel like sitting on my bike, I’ll do a ride. If I feel like slowing down, I’ll do yoga. If I feel strong, I’ll lift. I will try my best to ignore calories burned and other stats, and just MOVE.

I can rest. This is probably the most critical and basic stress-soothing tool. But I don’t just mean sleep, though I will endeavor to get my 8+ hours every night. I mean rest. I mean sitting on the couch to read a book. I mean laying down in bed to watch the “Friends” reunion or the new P!nk documentary. Sleeping is a daily necessity; but rest is important too. I struggle to let myself rest without guilt, but I’m working on it. I read a book in two days over the weekend and I hope to take this non-moving momentum with me into June.

I can connect. This is a time to embrace (literally! YAY!) the cup-fillers and set a firm boundary with the cup-drainers. I have recently gone for two outdoor runs with a dear friend, and the combination of challenging movement, fresh air, and IRL companionship has truly given me life. I am going to continue to make an effort to connect with the friends who fill my cup. I need them right now in a big way, and I know my brain benefits from these joyful connections.

I can stay grateful. The power inherent in gratitude is boundless. Last month I started writing nightly in a gratitude journal again. And it’s amazing how the simple act of writing down three things for which I am grateful on a given day can flip my mindset from exhausted and down to picked-up and positive.

I can breathe. Meditation, or even just a simple breathing exercise (breathe in for four, hold for two, breathe out for eight) gently forces us to slow down and be present. I wish I wanted to meditate for 20 minutes a day, and maybe someday I will; but in the meantime I can meditate for five. And on days when even that feels like too much, I can breathe for a few minutes. When I do, I feel an immediate calming and clearing effect in my foggy head.

Move. Rest. Connect. Stay grateful. Breathe. Then do it all again tomorrow.

Life at mile 24 is not easy, and in many ways it’s more complicated than it seems like it should be. But none of us is alone in this marathon. And we are all going to make it.

Crossing the marathon finish line is glorious and emotional and vulnerable and complex. But as weak as we may feel when we get there, we’ll be stronger for having run the race.