Keeping my boat afloat

This is a post I wrote almost a year ago for another purpose, but it is a very good reminder for me right now to keep mending the boat even when water isn’t actively being added, so I thought I’d share it again here.

My inner critic is the hardest worker I know. She never takes a moment’s rest from her mission of informing me about every way in which I have not yet reached perfection. Believe me, the list is long, but she’s on the job doing her best to make sure not a single possible defect is missed!

This leaves me feeling like I’m moving through life trying to steer my little rowboat (my life) through rough water with a good-sized leak in the bottom of the boat. I spend as much time bailing out water (criticism) as I do rowing to make any forward progress. In fact, there are many times when I spend all of my effort on bailing water  just to try to keep my little boat afloat. This leaves no time for rowing or steering. But mostly I manage to get along reasonably well.

The problem comes when someone else comes along and adds their voice of criticism to my already vocal internal critic. Not only does this make my inner critic even louder than usual (because now my inner critic speaks with another’s voice and uses that as “evidence” of my defectiveness), it also adds a whole new dose of external criticism to deal with. It’s like having someone pour more water into my already leaking little boat and increasing the size of the leak at the same time. It’s like trying to survive a monsoon in an already leaking little rowboat.

I had this happen to me recently when I was already feeling some self-doubt (with all of the attendant self-criticism) about a new thing that I am trying to learn to do. I’d been keeping myself going, bailing away as I rowed, by reassuring myself that this was normal at this point in the learning process and that practice would improve my skills with time. I was continuing to stretch and push myself to keep moving forward despite the self-doubts. Then someone from the outside came along and questioned my ability to learn to do this. Because this came from someone who knew me well and would have reasonable grounds for making an accurate assessment of my capabilities, this just about sank my little boat for good. I just couldn’t bail fast enough to keep up with that much water!

Fortunately, in the time since that happened, I have regained a bit of perspective. Although the part of me that was so criticized felt like an intrinsic part of me, I have realized that it is not me. I still have not figured out whether the criticism (from self and other) has any validity. It may be that I can’t do this thing that I want to learn to do.  It may well be that this path I am on is not where I belong. But as disappointing as that will be if it is true, it will be ok. I am bigger than this one dream of mine. My little boat is not going to sink over this!

More importantly, this experience has helped me see that this is a pattern that I go through every time I receive this kind of external criticism. Every time, my boat gets swamped because I can’t bail any faster than I already am, and I risk sinking. And every time, I am left with a bigger leak left behind in the aftermath, which means I spend increasing amounts of time bailing in my every day life afterwards. I’ve decided that it’s time to change this pattern, so I have been brainstorming ways to better keep myself afloat in the future.

First, I clearly need to find ways to prevent people from being able to pour so much water into my boat whenever they wish. I have this picture of encasing my little rowboat in a big bubble that causes any water thrown my way to be deflected down to the water I’m floating in without entering the boat. I can’t stop people from throwing water at me, but I can learn to refuse to allow it into my boat by creating my bubble of protection. I don’t have to accept everything that I am given.

Second, I need to find a bigger bucket for bailing so I can spend more time rowing and steering than bailing. I can do this by finding things about myself to celebrate, by acknowledging myself for those times I do something well, and by opening myself to fully accept acknowledgement from others. In fact, when I find my five things to be grateful for each day, I am now making sure one of them is something I am grateful for about me every day. It’s slowly helping to make that bucket a bit bigger.

Third, I need to find ways to start mending that ever-widening hole in my boat. I am not sure whether it is ever possible to plug that hole completely because self-doubt seems to be part and parcel of  being human, but I am fully convinced that it is possible to reduce the size of that leak down to nothing more than an occasional oozing of a few drops rather than the gushing geyser it often is now. This is hardest work of the list—finding a way to keep bailing, rowing, steering, and maintaining my bubble of protection while also fixing the hole. This means challenging my stores that make me less than. It means refusing to accept everything my inner critic tells me about myself. It means learning to love myself and to see the good in me. It means embracing and integrating my shadow instead of fighting it.

The good news is that reducing the size of this hole is going to mean that attract fewer people who want to throw water in my boat—loud inner critics seem to invite and attract outer critics to “help” out—and less time spent bailing so I can spend more time rowing and steering my boat to where I want to go. Over time, I will need to spend less effort  just trying to stay afloat and can spend more effort moving in the direction of dreams.

As you can tell, I don’t have many answers about how to accomplish any of this on a practical level, but my boat metaphor is giving me the ability to gain just enough distance from the inner turmoil to brainstorm in ways that feel safe. If anyone else out there struggles with these same things, I’d love to hear your strategies for keeping your own boats afloat when external criticism floods your already leaking boat!

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.