“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” ~Natalie Goldberg
The past few years have been hard on me. They have involved an awful lot of very big changes for me and that has meant spending a lot of time putting myself out there in new ways that were risky and often did not have much support. And I’ve done a lot more failing and encountering devastating criticism* and subtle undermining doubts from others than I had expected.
I’ve been realizing lately just how much this experience is leading me to focus on safety and hiding. I increasingly measure everything I do, every decision I make, and everything I say by how likely it is to provoke criticism (direct or indirect) from others. I spend a lot of time hiding—my gifts, my knowledge, my abilities, my preferences, my self—from people around me in an attempt to stave off more criticism and thus feel safe again.
And while there is no way to keep myself completely safe from criticism—there will always be people who won’t like me—this approach of hiding has helped a great deal. The less I risk, the safer I am. And when I do still fail or get criticized, it’s less upsetting to me because I know that I didn’t really give it my all since I was keeping most of my light hidden under a bushel, so to speak.
The problem is that this is no way to live. I find myself hesitant to engage in new relationships of any kind because relationships pose a threat to my safety. Anyone whom I allow to get close is a possible source of criticism, so I keep my distance. It’s impossible to create any kind of self-employment strategy if I want to remain in hiding and never risk putting myself out there. And there’s something intrinsically lonely about never allowing yourself to be fully seen by anyone—a loneliness that has nothing to do with how much time is spent around people and more to do with feeling invisible even when around other people because I’m hiding my true self.
So while the last few months of hiding have been healing and helpful by giving me a little safe space, I can already tell that this is not sustainable as a long-term strategy. A better approach is to learn how to be less impacted by criticism or the doubts of others. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially when dealing with constant change and the need for the continual risk of trying new things. But Natalie Goldberg’s quote at the opening of this post speaks to how I need to go about doing this. The key to not being affected by the criticism from without is learning how not to be affected by the criticism that comes from within.
My inner critic is very difficult to please. Because of my perfectionistic tendencies, anything less than perfection feels like failure. So when I get criticism from others, it verifies that internal voice that tells me that I am a failure, and that is what makes the criticism of others so devastating.
Oddly enough, however, success is equally as threatening, if not more so. I was raised with the idea that being proud of yourself in any way was blasphemous and that if I ever did something really well, it would cause other people to feel bad that they weren’t doing the same thing, so it meant that I was being mean to people if I did well. Therefore, success feels mildly shaming to me, and anyone expressing even the slightest bit of jealousy or competition with me on something that I have potentially done well is enormously shaming. In fact, this negative reaction from others to me doing well is usually enough to completely paralyze me with shame.
So I’ve really got my work cut out for me to find ways to stop fearing my own inner critic when I am less than perfect AND to stop fearing the possibility of success. I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing that, but at least I’ve made progress on identifying the problem so I can develop a new (and hopefully healthier) strategy for dealing with risk in the future. I’m hoping that having a new strategy in place will give me enough courage to creep back out of hiding and back into the world around me.
*When I talk about criticism in this post, I’m talking about criticism of who I am as a person, not just times when someone points out a mistake or shows me something I could do better. I freely admit that I can over-react to even minor criticism at times, but my focus here is on the deeper criticism that goes to the heart of who I am or how I see myself in ways that deeply threaten my whole self-identity or self-image.
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