By DrLibbyNugent, Oct 26 2019 08:32AM
An internal critical voice is an incessant stream of destructive self talk. Common critical conversations with the self can include scripts such as: “You’re ugly,” “You need to try harder” “You are too loud shut up” and “You’re stupid” “Nobody likes you,” “You are fat and useless”, “You are too much for people”, “Don’t be diffiuclt”, “You are better off on your own”, “You are a mess”...
Sadly this stream of uncontained internalised aggression forms a powerful anti-self that might provide an instant motivation, but will then often discourage a person from acting in their own interest over the long term - Instead fostering self-hate and a retreat from an honest interaction with the world. As such it can corrode every part of life, including self-esteem and confidence, personal and intimate relationships, and performance and accomplishments at school and work.
From some psychology narratives it is tempting to believe that these inner voices come solely from redundant unhelpful thinking styles. They suggest that if you test them out aloud in adult reality you will see that no one really cares how you look, treats you differently or thinks you “need improvement”. But what do you do when the critical voice is not only from the past, but very real and present in the world? When you are explicitly told you have to play by different rules because you are the wrong: social class, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, weight … just not quite socially acceptable enough to be a recipient of what is fair.
Typically, you learn to make do with what you can get. To swallow the inevitable shame you experience in this process of being in a world where everyday you are different, you are less than. This shame can also come with a self-preserving rage - but you learn to swallow that too. The angry AND fat/ black/poor/female/gay person will only be punished further. You learn to avoid these experiences of shame and rage at all costs. You are told they are pathology and toxic in and of themselves. Better to be placid and likeable. Better to leave those feelings alone. Rise above it. Just do better. Be better.
I still have, at times, a reflex to smother my rage and shame when my shameful parts are provoked even though now I have learned better.
So what does it mean to now know better? It means that I have learnt that whilst there is truth that shame, internalised, is toxic and that rage uncared for is massively destructive, there are also lies. It is not always unhelpful to be in touch with my rage or toxic to pay attention to my shame. Through dreams and storytelling imagery I have come to associate both experiences with the symbol of fire: The white heat of shame, the burning of anger. Like fire, uncontained, shame and rage can storm through life destroying indiscriminately. However shame and rage when held with compassion and their sources examined can open up new world views. When these experiences are harnessed with a view of the self as equal to others and that self is worthy of love, the same fire that was so destructive offers the possibility of cooking up a transformation. Anger and the examination of shame can be used as fuel to cook up the other elements in our psyche that then provide nourishment, cleansing, protection and even prepare the ground for new life. It takes the forces of the steady flame of a self-caring rage to maintain a refusal to keep shame hidden that in turn can break through that which is trapping us.
For a long time I didn’t want to know about my wounds, or rather I knew but didn’t want to think they were big a deal. My inner critical voice firmly in place helped me keep my head down. I wanted people to see me as easy going, friendly and helpful. Likeable. I have enough privilege in my life to harness the denial required to achieve much of this persona. Whilst I knew other people suffered I believed my critical voice and survival strategy of enforced niceness was a sign of my resilience rather than my hidden shame and uncontained aggression. I would tell myself that compared to other people I had nothing to complain about. Anger without self love has a strange way of minimising and dismissing our lived experience so that we see our experiences as so lacking worth or value, that distress can only be located in other people; that is to say it has a way of leaking out and displacing itself as a projection onto others. So at the same time as me being ‘fine’ i could become wildly impassioned on behalf of others. Incensed at their injustices, their oppressions, their hurt. Furious with their aggressors. Or equally, I could also aggressively accuse anyone who wasn’t going to collude with how nice I was. Always the rage, the badness, the disgust was in the other. I was just helpful and nice.
Much of my awakening could best be described in the story of the Frog Prince:
In the tale, a young and protected (or defended) princess reluctantly befriends the Frog Prince, whom she met after dropping a golden ball into a pond. He retrieves it for her in exchange for her friendship. However she did not really want to be friends with the frog. She didn’t know how to voice her disgust of him, and so she pretends to be nice; she then tries to run away and leave him behind. The king hears of this and holds her to account for the promise, insisting the frog be invited into their home. She is too ashamed of her feeling of disgust and so again pretends to be ok with it. The pretense goes on and on until the frog ends up in her bed. Finally the tension of holding both rage and shame break through. The princess gives in and throws the frog against a wall in anger. ‘I can’t do this anymore. Think of me what you will but i’m not going along with it. This ends now.”
In this surrendering into aggression by the princess, the Frog Prince magically transforms into a handsome prince or rather a perfect partner for the princess.
In modern versions, the transformation process has been sanitised: triggered when the princess kisses the frog. I find this sanitised version does not resonate with me in the same way.
Here are some present day examples of such transformations:
In the anti racist book club for psychologists we recently read ‘Why I’m No longer talking to white people About Race’ by Reni Eddo Lodge. This is an incredible example of the individual liberation that comes from a mixture of anger, self-care and an examination of the shame she was being forced to hold. Likewise the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby in her work “Nanette” owns her anger and outs her shame - refusing to humiliate herself ever again by making jokes about homophobic violence directed towards her. Additionally the singer Lizzo, embracing her plus size black body singing ‘Truth Hurts’ whilst dancing in unapologetically revealing clothing for the BET awards ceremony is a joyous moment. For these people turning towards their own pain, anger and shame provided extraordinary space for creativity and connection with others. In all these cases it appears to be born from making a commitment to see the self as equal, and being honest about what they are experiencing in their internal world: self-love, despair, anger, rage and shame. Producing life changing shifts not only for themselves but so many around them.
What would happen if clinical psychology as a culture took up this call? Where would it take us? How might our professional world be different if there was a place to go where you are nurtured to become yourself. Letting go of the need to cover up or defend and instead accept all of your idiosyncrasies, fears, wounds, false belief systems, flaws, difficult moods, body size, skin colour, gender, sexuality etc and be supported as unique and imperfect instead of hiding, rejecting and wishing that we were different or like somebody else.
Ironically, when a person or culture claims and accepts their shadow, that which is rejected and suppressed about themselves, transforms from being a source of shame to being strength of character - the unwanted frog becomes a perfect partner. The pain and shame offer soul. Such people and systems give others permission to accept themselves as they are, their freedom becomes contagious. There is so much potential in our professional world. Imagine if as a profession we could embrace this. This is the profession to which I want to belong to.
As a final attempt to convey my point I will turn to The West Indian poet Derek Walcott . He describes this process incredibly in his poem Love After Love:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.