The Only Way Out is Through
We all have an inner critic – some call it a Gremlin. It’s that constant, damaging message that makes you believe some variation of “you’re not good enough”. It’s a coping mechanism that you unknowingly created early on in your life to protect you from getting hurt, and it no longer serves you. But it’s rooted so deeply within and has been sending the same message for such a long time, it takes practice to separate it from what’s actually true and what’s simply self-protection.
Emotion is a convincing storyteller. While your logical side is occupied with trying to navigate a tough situation – a difficult season in your relationship, a job that’s making you miserable, a breakup, an unwelcome transition – your emotions spin a tale so fast you don’t even realize it’s happening, so of course you believe it to be true. And that story keeps you trapped inside it, unable to move forward or even begin to heal.
Our brain is wired for story, and especially when we are faced with gaps of information while wrestling with a strong emotion, it alleviates some of the pain when we make sense of it through the story we tell ourselves.
I hate feeling hurt, uncertainty, goodbyes, endings, being uncomfortable and not being ok. I hate it. All I want during those moments is to feel better. We all do. Our initial go to response tends to be whatever will push our pain onto someone else or help us escape entirely. But in order to feel better we need to stay in that pain and challenge the story to separate what we can know to be true from what we’re making up to protect ourselves.
This Changes Everything
One of the most important things I’ve learned – ever – is that my responses have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me. The opposite is also true. Your responses have nothing to do with me and everything to do with you. I’m a very reactive person, and this realization is helping me respond differently when I’m hurt. I now understand that the first thing I need to do when I feel emotionally reactive is to look within.
This typically leads me straight to my inner critic. Some call it a gremlin – regardless of what you call it, we all have one. It’s that constant, damaging message that makes you believe some variation of “you’re not good enough”. It’s a coping mechanism that you unknowingly created early on in your life to protect you from getting hurt, and it no longer serves you. But it’s rooted so deeply within and has been sending the same message for such a long time, it takes practice to separate it from what’s actually true and what’s simply self-protection.
Getting to the Root of It
As I become more aware of my inner critic’s message of “you’re not worthy”, I’m realizing that it permeates every area of my life and is usually at the root of every volatile emotion. This is especially evident in my relationship with my boyfriend. He has the kindest heart and best intentions, and I couldn’t figure out why he was hurting my feelings all the time! It seemed like we had constant issues, and they were all originating from my hurt feelings.
When I realized that my responses had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me, it changed everything. I could see that any hurt he triggered was my own, and an opportunity to look within and work through the actual issue. This has typically been something from my past and thus far, it really hasn’t had anything to do with him!
Our inner critic can cause problems at work as well. I started a new job three months ago, and for me, that’s always a mix of uncomfortable newness, uncertainty, and proving my competency. Two months in, we acquired another company and I was asked to write and manage all of the content for the announcement. The kick-off meeting was with the company’s founder and CEO, many of the C-Suite, a few directors… and me. I was incredibly nervous and deep in emotion leading up to and during that meeting. It was pure torture. This took me a few days to figure out, but I finally realized that the story I was telling myself was that I wasn’t good enough to be there. I didn’t have a high enough title, I didn’t have enough experience, I had no value to add. And the worst part of my story is that I was convinced that everyone else agreed, and was also wondering what I was doing at that meeting. I was being ridiculous, of course, and went on to write the high-quality content they needed. But until I was able to identify that story, which was completely unfounded and coming directly from my inner critic, it threatened to derail me.
Choosing to look within as my first response when I’m experiencing a difficult emotion is an ongoing practice, and I’ve found that these five steps are most effective. At the first sign of strong emotional pain, begin the self-interrogation:
- Take one (or three!) deep breaths and become very still.
- Question what you’re feeling so you can name the emotions, lessening their power over you.
- Identify the story you’re telling yourself
- Challenge that story. Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- Look for the role your inner critic is playing
Hindsight tends to be the only thing that allows us to appreciate what we’ve survived because of who we were able to become. But if we can learn to trust the power of our pain right at the beginning, when we’re in it, and sit inside that pain without trying to numb it or make it go away, it will teach us what we need to know so we can begin to heal. Running from the pain extends it and delays the healing.
Know this, always: if you’re hurting right now, and feel like your entire world is crashing down around you, you won’t always feel this way – I promise. You are stronger than you realize. On the other side of this, you will be amazed at what you were able to handle, along with the support you received from others to help you through it. The story you tell yourself is so often not true. Learning how to feel your pain at its greatest level of intensity isn’t as scary as it seems, and it is the fastest way to heal. The only way out is through.
-Shannon Lyn Arnold