Tales of the Inner Critic
by Leslie Smith-Frank
I am learning, slowly and sometimes painfully, that I cannot always get everything right. It has not been my favorite lesson. It feels so good to get it right, to know the answer, to do the thing that makes everything works out. Some might call this perfectionism — which really stings. I know, in my moments of clarity and even confusion, that perfection is not possible. The thought that I am chasing something that doesn't even exist (except in my mind) makes me feel a bit unwell.
Somehow, I keep trying. It's a habit.
For the past 24 years, the practices of mindfulness and meditation have moderated this push toward perfection. The people around me have likely been spared abundant suffering, as I learn to be more realistic and kinder about how life actually unfolds. And the lessons just keep on coming.
My adult children and grandchildren (ages four months and two-and-a-half years old) just left New England after flying in from Tucson to have a winter season reunion — complete with shared cooking of delicious meals and braving the super cold weather so desert-dwellers could experience sliding in the snow and taking way too many pictures. The visit included the drama of a two-day bomb-cyclone delay in Washington, D.C. on the front end, and a bout of explosive flu for my granddaughter and three adults in the household (one was me!).
Now that our four children are thriving adults, I sometimes get attached to the idea that I might "know something" about raising kids, forgetting that my ideas are simply that: ideas.
One evening during this visit, I shared my point of view about bedtimes, and how much two-and-a-half years olds are able to comprehend when they are beyond tired. (A more neutral observer might report that I offered my opinion on matters which I was not invited to comment upon. In short, I butted in.) But don't you know how it is, when you have just the solution to the situation you view as a problem? Never mind that no one has asked you for any help or advice. In that moment, it just seems vitally important to generously offer your brilliant fix anyway. Ugh.
When I got into bed that night, it became pretty clear to me that I had stepped over a line into territory where I was not welcome. I got a clue when I felt my adult children grow quiet and saw their faces drain of expression. It wasn't exactly subtle. In the quiet and stillness, I recognized that my words had caused harm, or at least discomfort. This was Step One: being able to recognize and acknowledge the results of my actions.
What happened next kind of amazed me. I skipped Step Two, which usually would go something like this: “What a stupid thing to do! Why couldn't you have been more chill? Don't you know better than to give unsolicited advice? Who do you think you are? They will never visit you again. You'll grow old alone. No one will want to be around anyone so insensitive. What a mess you are.” Good old Step Two: unleashing the “Inner Critic.”
Instead, the thought arose that it was possible for me to acknowledge the hurt that had been caused and ask forgiveness. Step Three.
The next morning, I approached my daughter-in-law: “As I reflected on the things I said last night, it's pretty clear to me that I may have caused harm or hurt you. Can you forgive me?” She smiled and said that she did forgive me. We had a heartfelt conversation that included both of us expressing our feelings and needs. It was such a relief not to justify my behavior, make excuses, or cling to being “right.”
I'm still a little bit amazed by how this all went down. An event that could have become a wedge became a place of deeper connection. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. I spent three months this past fall in silent meditation, and half of my practice was to offer myself loving kindness. It's never been a practice that has come easily to me, having grown up in a culture where self-criticism and “getting it right” is valued more than kindness and compassion. Just maybe, wishing myself well with these simple phrases: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” over and over for 3 months has actually changed the way I'm able to relate to myself when I am not perfect.
Skipping Step Two, bypassing the Inner Critic and all her hopeless harshness, feels like a wonderful gift and a milestone on this path of mindful living.