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Befriending your Inner Critic

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What does the critical voice inside your head say to you? Do any of these scripts sound familiar; “you’re not good enough”, “you’re not worthy”, “you’re stupid”, “you’re a loser”, “you’re not lovable”, or perhaps “you’re unimportant or unwanted” some of our clients report that they have all of these negative beliefs? If this sounds familiar it’s because we all have an inner or two. Negative core beliefs are a big part of my counseling practice. I know that many therapy models take into consideration that we can be our own worst enemy and incredible therapy models such as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and others help with reprocessing and desensitizing us to these negative beliefs. But until I started training in Wilderness Therapy I had never heard of befriending your inner critic. How could this hostile and relentless voice be a friend? I was curious and was will and wanted to work with my evil voice that said “you’re too big”.

Women aren’t suppose to be big! Physcially or Energetically

In the search to uncover the origins of my loudest inner critic, the one obsessed for most of my life with making and keeping me small – physically and energetically. The voice that said “you can’t eat that”, “no, don’t wear high heels you’re already too tall”, “who do you think you are” and my southern inner critic, “don’t you go and get too big for your britches”. Her voice was consistent, nasty and belligerent.

There’s no real mystery to where this message came from but after doing a little research on the topic, I was blown away at how long the proganda has been aimed at pressuring women to be small and I’m wondering if this negative belief could have been passed down through epigenetics. I recently heard one of our friends’ daughter at age 3 said “no thank you” to dessert and stated “I’m watching my figure”. She couldn’t possible know the meaning behind it but had already made a connection that dessert and “keeping her figure” were some how correlated making dessert bad or unacceptable. This little girl was precious and tiny.

In an article by Natalie Wolchover she stated that the seed was planted as far back as the 1840’s, when a Presbyterian minister became a proponent of a plain, abstinent diet for women as the key to health & morality. “Spices, stimulants and other overindulgences lead to indigestion, illness, sexual excess and civil disorder” but apparently only for women. In 1945, magazine articles suggested women wear corsets and to be careful at meal time due to the number of startchy foods included in war-time rationing. Then the post war women’s magazines and our society were saturated with the “slimming culture”. It wasn’t just male ministers that suggested women be small in stature, most women’s magazines provided and still provide a variety of diets and recommendations for being thin and looking good for your man. The message that a women’s worth came from her husband’s judgment was wide spread and many times as a little girl I overheard conversations from well respected women in my life talking negatively about other women who had “let themselves go” (after growing and delivering an 8 lb baby no less) and then….that it was just a matter of time before her husband strayed or left her and the implication was that it would actually be justified and/or her fault if either of those things happend. There were many other messages that were implied and taught, it wasn’t attractive to be “too smart” or “too succesful”. Even today it was easy to find an online platform for the question “ Are smarter women generally unattractive? “

Nobody looked me in eye and told me that being small determined my happiness level or worth in the world or that being successful and smart were unattractive but the messages were clearly implied.

Implicit memory is a different type of long-term memory, where implied messages are stored and remembered unconsciously and effortlessly and become automatic over time with repetition. These were repeated and implied messages in my life and in the life of others.

With regards to the inner critic, I know this: 1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), teaches us that negative self talk is detramental in our lives. 2. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) teaches us that all the parts of us, even our inner critic, are well intentioned. 3. Wilderness Therapy supports and guides us as we explore our inner wilderness while emersed in the natural world connecting to nature.

In 2017 with the support of the incredible Courting Your Medicine program (CYM), a journal, and water in my backpack I crossed the threshold between two evergreen trees to begin a wilderness wander adventure on beautiful land near Boulder, Colorado. It was a beautiful seventy degree day and my intention was to understand and befriend my “be small/don’t be big” inner critic. With each step I was leaving everything else behind and stepping into sacred space to be present and curious. I was open to letting nature lead me and allowed myself to be drawn by what called me. I walked for about 20 minutes when I felt a draw to a clearing surrounded by tall trees and large boulders. After settling in and a little breath work I noticed a small broken tree branch nearby that I was also drawn to. In that moment I realized this little downed branch at the feet of tall trees and large boulders were all symbolic of the part of me that desired to stay small and in the shadows.

In the CYM program I was taught about the metaphor of the “Loyal Soldier” . The loyal solider comes from the WWII Japanese soliders that were shipwrecked and then discovered on deserted islands long after the war had ended. These soldiers returned home still loyal to their military missions, ready for battle and the war efforts, unaware that the war had ended. The Japanese people had deep respect for these soliders and honored them by showing gratitude and thanking them for their serivce, showered them with great celebrations and decorated them with medals all with a consistent reminder that the war was over. In time, with this honoring and validation the soliders slowly let go of their warrior part to rejoin society, acclimate and find new purpose.

Back in the Colorado forest before I could validate or decorate my loyal solider, the branch, I needed to know the purpose of her mission. The logical and intelletctual parts of me knew that the inner critic’s purpose was no longer valid or healthy in my life. With patience that day I sat on the earth with the branch in my lap as I meditated and listened inward with these questions, “why is being small so important” and “why do you want to stop me from stepping into my gifts and purpose in a big way”?

The answers came in the form of memories. The inner critic/loyal solider took me on a tour of my life beginning at age 5 lying on the living room floor next to my 6 year old brother watching tv. I heard my dad say to my mom “look at her she’s bigger than he is”. I immediately sank into the floor and I couldn’t turn around to look at him because I knew it was about me, I was the only other “her” in the room and my dad sounded very disappointed and even a little discusted. I’m not sure if I knew what it meant but I knew I couldn’t bare the thought of disappointing my dad, he was my hero. It was a few days later at breakfast table and he looked to my mom and said “is she going to eat all of that”. I nervsouly glanced from my plate to both of my brothers plates and they were identical and once again I felt like shrinking into myself.

The next memory flashes were of times when I was made fun of and mocked for making good grades and for never getting in trouble. I also remember other girls saying that boys don’t like girls that are smarter than they are and that it’s best to play dumb and let them think they have all of the answers. I don’t think I bought into that but it was a message I clearly remember.

At age 12, I was taken to the doctor for what I guess were weight issues, I think I may have even asked to go. I was then reminded of this very vivid memory, the male doctor, with a shaming tone, telling my mom “well you know she will NEVER be a tiny petite thing”. The message I received that day was that the goal was unachievable and it was my shame. I’ve always been the tall girl and was told by well meaning female family and friends that I was “just big boned”. Those words felt shaming too – again it implied that there was nothing I could do to make myself smaller and therefore would not be worthy.

Other memories came of being the only girl on the back row of class photos and once I purposely crouching down to look shorter/smaller. In high school I always wore flat shoes and remember asking a would be prom date how tall he was so I could know what size heel I could wear (This was probably shaming to him in the opposite way).

All of the sudden it came to me that my loyal solider was just like my well meaning parents, they wanted me to be accepted, to fit it. Unlike my parents my inner critic took on the role of a punitive parent constantly shaming me to be on a diet and fall into a follower role vs one of a leader.

Love and belonging are basic needs and in 60’s and 70’s society that I was raised in being the submissive and the supportive “little woman” was valued and admired. In that moment tears came to my eyes as I held the tree branch for some time feeling grateful for this younger part of me desperately wanting me to feel loved and to belong.

After thanking and validating my loyal solider I set out to find flowers and beautiful rocks to decorate my loyal solider in the form of a small tree branch. I sat in the beautiful space and repeated that “the war was over” and that living my bigness in the world was acceptable and valued. It felt foreign but true. My last step in the ceremony was to ask what my loyal soldier wanted for me now and as I closed my eyes in meditation and nearby I heard a slight rustling. When I opened my eyes I was face to face with a fawn. We sat there for what seemed like an eternity looking into each others eyes. At first I had an instinct that wanted to frighten her away but that passed and soon she slowly turned and trotted away. In that moment I knew that the loyal soldiers new job wanted to be more gentle and nurture me in a different way.

When I walked out of the forest that day walking as tall as the trees I crossed the threshold back into the real world I felt different and lighter. When I returned to my office, the private practice that I owned, I realized that I had been living “big” in my life and maybe because of the help of my loyal solider I just wasn’t able to see past the belief. Oh and I wore some really cute high heels that day!

There are still days when my inner critic forgets her new job to be more gentle and nurturing but when I remember to whisper “the war is over” I feel a calming inside.

Consider going on your own Wilderness Wander – see attached instructions.

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