Balancing Judgement and Mercy

Whatever we say we’re most committed to, a great many of us live as if judgement were the primary human value, judging ourselves mercilessly and without respite. And, when we live in the stream of harsh judgement, no effort is enough, no achievement worth much, and our efforts to help seem to us nothing but disguised selfishness. In this relentless stream we find that the only way to bring ourselves to the world with the care and commitment we wish for is to fight an endless battle in which parts of ourselves – our essential goodness and our inner criticism – are pitched against one another.

In a battle there’s really never any time to rest. We live in state of vigilance, braced and ready for the blows that can come at any moment: for the offhand critical comment from a loved one or colleague, for the figures on our latest bank statement, for a tweet or instagram post that reminds us of all the ways we’re falling short.

And we find ourselves mounting all kinds of pre-emptive defence: doing our best to look good (which we’ll do even at great emotional, spiritual or financial expense), tuning out from our lives with distractions (so as not to feel the difficulty we’re in), shaming ourselves (to avoid the pain of being shamed in other ways) or deflating and collapsing (as if hiding from the world will save us).

Perhaps the worst of all of this is the way we hide the very battle we’re fighting, as if we are the only ones, as if nobody else has it this way. We become convinced that life has to be a battle. And that is our lot to live a life of inner harshness that only adds to whatever harshness and struggle we already experience in the world around us.

Nearly all of us are doing this – whether we’re teachers or CEOs, politicians or parents, artists or activists or accountants. And the more we live this way, the more exhausted we become, and the fewer of our gifts – the gifts we each have that the world needs from us – we get to bring.

All the while that we’re caught up in harsh self-judgement (which easily and also becomes harsh judgement of others) we’ve forgotten that judgement isn’t the same as discernment, and that discernment only becomes possible when judgement is balanced by a stream of mercy. I say ‘balanced’ here, but it seems to me much more the case that true discernment (the kind that can be life-giving, truthful and contributory) only comes into being when judgement is thoroughly infused with mercy – when judgement and mercy pour into one another, illuminate one another, become a single river.

And what is mercy? It’s a commitment to not turning away. It’s dignifying our anguish and confusion, the transience and unpredictability of our lives and the difficulties we’ve all had to face, and reaching for the essential goodness that is present in all of us. Mercy is indeed our turning towards life itself with a fiercely kind and loving embrace. It’s a commitment to see the beauty in our very unfinishedness, to cherish and honour both our inevitable falling-short and our capacity to improve things.

Most of us haven’t practiced mercy towards ourselves with anything approaching the diligence with which we practice harsh self-judgement.  But until mercy can become a serious part of our constellation of virtues, until we practice it as much as we long for it, we’ll struggle with more difficulty than we’re due and we’ll doubtless bring more difficulty to others than we intend.

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The time it takes

In recent days I have been studying my relationship with time, and how much trouble it can bring me. Most often there is not enough time. And I become sure of this as I become sure of all the poor choices I have made, all the hours I have wasted.

Sometimes, if I’ll quiet myself and look afresh, I’ll see the questionable construct upon which all this stands. It starts with “there’s something wrong” and includes “there’s something wrong with me“. It assumes that time is inevitably in short supply – that whatever I have done can never be enough. It assumes that enough is not, in fact, possible. And that I must use whatever time I have left in an impossible game of catch up, an attempt to atone for my mistakes, to redeem uncountable time already squandered.

But what if it is the case that things just take the time they take? That trees take the time they take to grow? That the sun takes the time it takes to rise? That it takes the time it takes for human beings to live?

What if we were to live lives in which we learned to trust in time, to befriend it, rather than run from it as if it were an enemy, or something to be grabbed at with desperate hands? What if we learned to savour time, like we might a good wine?

And what if sometimes we trusted that we, and the work of our hands when attended to with diligence, attention and care, grow at a pace that is quite natural and not ours to control?

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Finding out that we are ordinary

Yesterday. ‘Be more, Do more’. The tag-line for a personal training company written on the back of a van in front of me on the drive into town. The narrative theme of our times, the poetry of our shared culture, as revealed by the advertising and marketing that surrounds us.

When we live in the narrative of ‘more’, every action, every conversation, every relationship becomes dedicated to an unending project for which we feel continuously responsible. More money, more stuff, more experiences, more trips, more friends, more relationships – yes. But also more capable, more powerful, more self-determining, more authentic, more persuasive, more reasonable, more peaceful, more compassionate, more successful, more loved, more happy, more fulfilled. When we orient towards ourselves this way we become the project, the objects of an unending self-improvement effort that requires our constant vigilance.

And anything can be appropriated in service of the project of self-improvement. Excellence, which once meant living a life as an expression of virtue, comes to mean standing out from the mass. Learning – a means of getting the best test results. Art – a way to look (and think of ourselves as) cultured. Meditation and other spiritual practice – a way to have an untroubled life of peace and tranquility. Exercise – a way to get a body that others will be attracted to. Our own development – a way to gain unlimited power to do what we want, when we want it, and to have others support us and love us for it.

When we live in this way, convinced that we’re always due an upgrade, there is nowhere to rest. But, more importantly, we distort ourselves with a gross misunderstanding of what it is to be human, a misunderstanding in which we secretly imagine that it’s possible to be a god. After all, who else but the mythical gods stand out, in all circumstances, from others? Who else has endless power, beauty, fulfilment? The capacity to summon abundance and tranquility upon a command, the ability to avoid suffering, accident and happenstance? Who but the gods have an existence in which there is no death, loss, disappointment, or illness? And who but the gods get just what they want, when they want it?

When we live as if we’re supposed to be gods, or entitled to be gods, we shouldn’t be surprised at the harshness of our disappointment and self-criticism, our endless comparison with the lives of others, and the way we’re hurled from grandiosity (I’ve made it, the all-powerful me) to deflation (I’m so small, and the world is so big, and there’s no hope) and back again. And we shouldn’t be surprised at what a fight we get into with our lives – lives that often surprise us, let us down, show us how little we know, throw us about, all without much regard for whether we’re getting what we want.

When we stop trying to improve ourselves (and often the people around us) all the time, we can start to appreciate in a new way the very natural and quite beautiful capacity of human beings to develop; to unfold like the buds of a rose. And we come to see, I am coming to think, that the path of our development is not trying to be gods, but finding out that we are ordinary.

To be ordinary is to discover that we share the same heritage and future as all human beings, and all living things – a heritage and future that we cannot escape. To know ourselves as ordinary is to find out that we have bottomless capacity for compassion, kindness, wisdom, beauty and contribution as well as for selfishness, cruelty, denial and stupidity. To know ourselves as ordinary is to understand that we’ll die, that there are consequences to our actions, that the earth’s resources are limited, that we can’t just have what we want because we say so. And to know ourselves as ordinary is to see that the vast world was here long before us and will be here long after us, and to find out that our contribution – if we’re willing to make it – ripples out through the other ordinary lives that our life touches, both those who are around us now and those who are to come.

To know ourselves as ordinary is to discover humility, finding out that we’re not bigger than life but neither are we smaller than it; to take up our place in the weave of living things in which we find ourselves.

When we know ourselves as ordinary we discover that we’re all in this together and, because of this, we have some justification for hope: the understanding that our skills, capacities and deepest commitments can be an immense source of help even when we cannot control the outcome. We have a reason to love and care for others who are as messy, conflicted, confused and life-filled as ourselves. And we find ourselves able to step in on behalf of life, rather than lose ourselves in fairy stories of optimism (it will magically all get better whether or not I take part) or pessimism (in which we’re all lost, whatever we do).

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The state of the world

I am coming to see that what I take to be the state of ‘the world’ is frequently a slew of silent assessments that have little to do with the world at large and everything to do with whether I feel accepted or rejected, welcomed or abandoned, moment by moment.

I am coming to see how often my sense of self is shaped by these assessments: I’m ok if accepted, deficient if abandoned. And that my actions, even the most subtle expressions that cross my face, are often an attempt to gain acceptance and avoid rejection.

I have started to closely observe the flow of emotions and bodily sensation when I’m talking with people and I can see that this too often follows the scheme. A tightening in the gut if there’s dissent, a racing of the heart if it seems I’m not understood, a gentle and settling calmness if my partner in conversation ‘gets it’ and is welcoming me home.

My self-assessments are often narrow and prone to error. I get to feel alive when I take myself to be accepted by others, and diminished when I take myself to be rejected. Neither of these often have much to do with other people’s actual acceptance or rejection of me. They are more an ongoing acceptance or rejection of myself, by myself.

It may strike you that living in the midst of such a scaffold of assessments is a pale approximation of living fully in the world. It leaves out so much, particularly when the assessments themselves are inaccurate. But even when I’m right about how others see me it denies the full, rich, vibrant life that is possible when rejected and misunderstood. 

There are gifts in disturbance, in confusion, in disagreement, in screwing things up, in making a ruckus. There is life that comes from standing out, from being an annoyance, from having something fresh and challenging and different to say. The value of a human being has nothing to do with how we’re seen.

The more I study this, the more I find the parts of me that are afraid, scared of being abandoned, hyper-vigilant to acceptance are just parts doing their very best to protect me. And that their narrow self-assessments, born of a much earlier time and place, cannot truthfully define a life, nor truly value a life.

And it is a great relief to discover that there are other parts that know and trust life much more deeply, that understand that I do not need protection, and are dedicated to my bringing myself ever more fully forward into the world while there is still time.

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Rest

river

It has been hard to write these past two months. The familiar flow of words and ideas have slowed to a trickle. My body has not moved into the work with the grace and flow with which I have become familiar. It’s as if some kind of gridlock has taken hold, with each part – mind, heart, body – pressing against the movement of the other.

It has been tempting to try to force myself into action, to believe the inner judgements and slurs that whisper into the vacated spaces. You’ll never be a writer this way. You’ve run out of anything to say. You’re not brave enough, smart enough, honest enough to do this.

But this time, I am not so convinced by all the inner chatter as I once might have been. This time, I’ve been waiting – patiently, quietly – to see what wants to write itself through me.

We make production and consumption the highest measure of value in our culture. But we are part of nature, born of nature, and we are subject to its cycles just as much as a field, or a tree, or a river.

I am remembering that fields must lie fallow in order to be fertile,

spring must turn to summer and autumn to have any chance of returning,

and human beings must rest and nurture themselves – often – in order to flourish.

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Dissolving

This summer I have taken up wild swimming, in the beautiful and tranquil swimming ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath.

It has been quite a practice in releasing myself into the unknown. The water is cold and murky and deep. It’s impossible to see more than a few centimetres below the surface, and so entering is an exercise in letting go, in welcoming what’s here, in giving up control.

Once in the cool water, eye-line level with that of the ducks and birds that frequent the pond, I notice how quickly any sense of inner pressure subsides. There is really nothing to do here, nowhere to get to, and I start to see how much my own inner life is still dominated by assessments that are often invisible to me.

Am I doing well enough? Being responsible enough? Getting enough done? Taking enough care? Being smart enough? Kind enough? Successful enough? 

I notice how often I feel sad, or deflated or frustrated because of an inner judgement that I’m falling short. And how often I rely on an equal and opposite assessment – that I did something well – in order to feel joy, or satisfaction or that I have anything to offer.

But here, in the coolness and stillness of the water, I am struck by my inner quietness and expansiveness. Held in a body of water that is vast and calm I am vast and calm too, my sense of separateness from the physical world dissolving as standards and self-assessment dissolve.

For a while I am the water itself, the trees, the birds and the sky. For a while I just am, and my beauty and value is the simple fact of being alive. And for a while I am reminded that I am not my assessments, even if I often live, quite unaware of it, as if they are what is most true.

Why write about the critic?

Why write so much about the inner critic, as I have done here so often over the past three years?

  1. Because we all have one, whether we’ve caught onto it or not
  2. Because so many of us think we’re the only ones
  3. Because it’s a source of so much suffering for each of us – the world as brought to us by the critic is riddled with harshness, judgement, and fear
  4. Because when we react to the self-wounding of our own critics we very often cause suffering for others
  5. Because the critic has each of us living in a very small space, a tightly-bound world in which actions that would help us, and help those around us, are denied to us
  6. Because the critic is more interested in maintaining our safety than in our creativity, compassion and contribution
  7. Because the troubles of the world desperately need us – and every ounce of creativity, compassion and contribution we can muster
  8. And because there is no time to waste

Photography by Justin Wise

By doing

We’ve been taught to wait, to amass knowledge, and to know for sure what it is we’re doing before we leap in.

We’ve been taught that the only time to do something genuinely skilful, risky and creative – in other words anything that can make a contribution to the state of things – is when we know how to do it already.

It’s ample fuel for the inner critic, the part of us that would have us hold back until everything is just right

And it has us hold others back too.

But, as Aristotle reminds us, when it comes to mastery the paradox is that

“the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing“.

In other words, we have to jump right in, long before we have any skill, make many mistakes, and hang on in the face of our own demons, other people’s criticism, and the many occasions we’ll mess it up.

Does your work, your organisation, your leadership, your life allow any space for this?

Or are you keeping yourself and everyone around you in a tight circle of safe, predictable reliability?

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On stillness


It doesn’t take much being still and quiet for the part of me that compares, judges and criticises to make itself known. 

Most often it’s the tightness in my chest that I notice first, a clenched fist, a knot, a grasping and gasping for something to be done. Because this is the central judgement – that there is something I have neglected, some way in which I have not taken care, a sense in which I am never enough to have done what’s called for. 

If I sit still for a little longer, a stream of judgements come into view. I’ve made poor decisions – look at the outcome of that! I’ve not been attentive enough, successful enough, thoughtful enough. I don’t know what I’m doing. I am lost in the world, because of all the ways I fall short, and I’m not doing enough to address it. Even my sitting here quietly for a few minutes is proof of my inadequacy. ‘Why am I not moving?’ it screams, ‘Why am I not doing something?’

In the face of this it’s no wonder busyness has such an appeal. When I’m busy I can mostly ignore the tugging wrench of the critic, and in some small way it is appeased, quitening a little, even if what I am doing is inconsequential, busy-work. 

But when I am busying myself in this distracted way I miss the possibility of contact with a much deeper, more spacious aspect of myself – an aspect which I might even call ‘Self’. Self is prepared to look where the critic is not looking. Self sees with wonder this miraculous body that breathes and moves and loves and creates. It’s prepared to look with gratitude at the turns of fortune, too many to count, that lead me to be alive, in this time, on this planet. It’s willing to hold all of me – be all of me – with such gentleness and kindness, holding even the critic in its arms. And it’s committed to a much more truthful accounting of my life, celebrating my many successes and contributions, and knowing that there is still much to be done. It also knows, in a way the critic is never prepared to acknowledge, how much capacity and skill I possess, as well as how much support from life and from the many people who love me. 

Where ‘critic’ would propel me into the world in a frantic cycle of shame-fuelled activity, ‘Self’ knows me as an expression of life itself and would have me live in that way. And while critic does its best to make slowing feel enormously difficult, it’s in the centre of the quietest stillness that Self is most willing to come forward and make itself known. 

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Under Attack

It is, it seems, an unavoidable part of the human condition to have a super-ego or inner critic, a part of you that is directed towards keeping you within certain bounds of appropriateness at all times.

Long ago, when you were very small, you needed the adults around you to do this for you but now you’ve internalised those voices, or at least a distorted version of them, and they’re quite able to keep you in line even when there’s nobody else around.

And now, that harsh inner voice, the voice that can wound you at the slightest opportunity, is vigilantly on the look-out for the signs of disapproval from others that it takes as evidence of your shortcomings. Before you’ve even thought about it, it has inserted its judgements into your stream of thoughts, scolding you, judging others. That raised eyebrow? It’s because you irritate her, obviously. That offhand comment? You’re clearly an idiot. When she didn’t congratulate you on your work? Because you’re not up to much. He didn’t return your call? Because you’ve let him down.

None of these, I hope you can see, are necessarily the case.

The inner critic can turn even the most innocuous of comments into a perceived attack, and amplify a genuine attack so that it’s much more wounding than the attacker intended. And then, you’ll collapse and deflate, or rise in rage and indignation, and the strength of your reaction will surprise both you and your interlocutor.

And, in many cases, you’ll be reacting not to them at all but to this phenomenon that’s going on inside you.

Being under attack from others is made so much more difficult by the relentless attack you’re under from yourself.

Photograph by Justin Wise

An act of remembering

When it seems like the world is against me and everyone is judging me, when no matter where I turn I can’t find a place that I feel welcomed or loved, when every glance, or look, or email is a reminder that I’m falling short, I’ve found it helpful to remember that what unites all of these experiences, and all of these judgements, is me.

And that what looks, so obviously, to be a way the world is, is quite likely to be a way my relationship with the world is. Or, said another way, the way the world shows up for me is profoundly shaped by the kind of relationship I have with it.

And this is good to remember when I’m looking to the world to change, or convinced of my own inadequacy. Because while the whole world cannot easily be called into question, the nature of a relationship can indeed be questioned and shifted over time. It’s possible to take up new practices – gratitude and forgiveness among them – that radically shift a relationship with the world and in turn shift the world itself.

And while I forget, frequently, and mistake the world for my relationship with it, perhaps writing this today will be a small act of remembering. And one that might help you, if you’ve forgotten, to remember too.

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That I would be good

Sometimes we need a simple reminder that behind all our judgements, our self-distrust, our striving to be different from who we are, our perfectionism, our living our lives as a giant and unending self-improvement project, is a basic goodness that we all share. A basic goodness that we quickly forget.

This is a topic Alanis Morissette clearly knows about from the inside. Perhaps, today, this song might be just what you were longing to remember.

Art that helps

On a trip to Madrid to visit my friend Robert Poynton, he hands me this.

“It’s a robot*,” he says, “You carry it with you. It offers you outrageous compliments.”

(*one of over 27,000 made by Gary Hirsch)

What a gift for each of us to hold – a crazy joyful robot that offers us outrageous compliments. It’s such a contrast to the outrageous criticism that so many of us bring everywhere within us – the part that demands that we be perfect, go faster, get loved, get appreciated, be better. The part that’s sure we’re not, ever, enough.

As Robert writes, the gift of the robot is that it ‘knows that you are not the imposter,
that the real imposters are the shadows you chase’.

Perhaps my little robot can remind me of my own goodness more often, and help to question what the critic stands for, whether it helps, and if it’s now time to do without the suffering and holding back that is its ‘gift’ to each of us.

And perhaps you might just make one you can carry yourself.

A quiet and genuine joy

I remember the moment with gratitude, though it was tough at the time.

“You have no idea how self-judgemental you are”, Andy had said to me. And it had cut like a knife. But he was right. I was thirty-five years old and had over many years become seasoned to the harshness of the world.

I didn’t know it as harshness to be so filled with self-doubt and such worry about how I was doing all the time. It was just the way the world was. Unquestionable. Invisible. And I had no idea that it wasn’t so much the world that was harsh but my own inner experience.

Andy’s carefully timed observation was one of those moments when what had been in the background for so long came crashing into the foreground – when what I had been swimming in for so long was made apparent to me.

It was a doorway into a profoundly new world in which I began to see that most of what I thought others were thinking about me was actually what I was thinking about myself. And that I no longer had to believe everything I thought so completely.

Eleven years later, I’m still sometimes out-foxed by the shape-shifting cleverness of my inner critic. But I am more often, and more quickly, able to spot it and see through its ways of holding me back and of pulling me apart.

And, more and more, in the space that envelops me when it steps aside, I’m able to feel a quiet and genuine kind of joy.

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Doing it by half

Maybe it should be no surprise to me by now, but I’m finding out anew what crazy standards my inner critic has, and how it holds me to them.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve finished each working day with a queasy feeling of disappointment. Each day. And when I look closely, it’s apparent to me that it’s because I’m full of judgement about what’s not done, how much more I could have done, and how much more I should have done. I can easily live under the spell of this – the curse of this – convinced that it is the nature of things for me to perpetually fall short.

Perhaps you can imagine – perhaps you know from your own experience – what effect the constant comparison with an unreachable standard does to a person. At most intense it’s crushing, diminishing. But even without such intensity it’s like a gradual greying of life. There is little space for joy, abandon, deep connection or creativity when you’re caught in a vice.

It’s not been easy for me to spot this. It’s the nature of the critic to hide itself, to do whatever it can to present its standards and assessments as a simple feature of the world itself. But they’re not. They’re invented, or inherited, and either way they’re open to question. I’m fortunate enough to have people who care for me enough to ask me to look at the truth of my own capacity rather than pushing all the time. And when do I look at myself this way, I see that the standard and what can be done by me in reality are off by a factor of about two.

In other words, I can do about half of what the standards of the critic demand. Half of what I expect to do. Half of what I take to be the barely acceptable minimum.

And seeing this is a huge liberation.

When I tell the truth – I can do half – I free myself to put down an enormous burden of unkindness, and to actually do what I can do. And, in the truthfulness, my actions are so much less constricted, so much more natural, and so much more responsive to what’s around me.

And though I really can do only half, when I’m doing in order to respond to the world rather than to settle an implacable inner task-master, my goodness how much more appropriate and creative is the doing that I get to do.

From irritating to mattering

I’m sitting at my desk, opening the mail. It’s been a long day. It still feels to me that there’s much to do.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s Sam. He’s calling to ask my advice on something that matters to him. Actually, it’s something that really matters to me too.

A part of me, deep inside, whispers too much to do, too much to do. It has quite a grip, this part. It twists itself around the inside of my chest, squeezing and pushing. And as I acquiesce and reach for the pile of unopened mail, it loosens, but only just as much as it has to. Ah, that feels better.

For the first few minutes of the call with Sam I’m trying to speak with him while opening the mail. Keep it quiet, the squeezing part says, so that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I open the envelopes as carefully as I can – which even then is not so quiet – and hope that he won’t notice. At least the gripping has relaxed a little so I can breathe.

The thing is, we’re talking about something that really matters to both of us but, caught up as I am in a narrative of productivity (demanded) and deficiency (mine) I’m hardly present at all.

I feel flat, a bit shaky, urgent.

And I’m not listening. Just pretending to listen.

I feel small, shallow, hollow.

And then I remember myself. I remember all the times I’ve called someone I trusted for help and advice and found, quite astonishingly, someone willing to set aside whatever else they were doing to be, fully, with me.

I put down my envelopes, and I set aside the demands of the critic-part, and I surrender myself to the conversation we’re having.

And all at once I’m in contact with Sam, and in contact with myself, and I find myself deeply touched by the conversation we’re in the midst of, which itself moves from irritating to mattering.

And I am reminded that things mattering is what makes us most human.

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Togetherness

We’re all unfinished.

We’re all a bundle of contradictions, confusions, momentary glimpses, endless forgetting and unmeasurable possibility.

We’re all sadness, joy, brokenness, longing.

And yet we pretend to be anything but.

We’re prepared to visit exquisite harshness on ourselves just for being who we find ourselves to be.

What a kindness it would be to give up our attempts to impress ourselves and others with our togetherness and instead stand in wonder at the marvellous, incomplete, ragged and exquisitely beautiful mystery that we are.

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The parts of ourselves we see in others

There are parts of us we know well – those that are in close – and parts of ourselves we know less well – the more hidden, invisible parts. Sometimes, simply giving a part its appropriate name allows us to see it and to interact with it more skilfully. The inner critic is one such part. Seeing it, naming it, entering into a different kind of relationship and conversation with it – all of these can be powerful moves in having it take up a more helpful and life-giving place in the constellation of entities each of us calls ‘I’.

But there are also parts of each of us that we have disowned or split off and that we barely see as part of ourselves at all. These may be parts of ourselves that we dislike, or judge, or abhor. Or they can parts we long for, but do not feel are available or appropriate for us. But parts of us they are, and since we can’t bear to identify our experience of them with ourselves, we readily project them into others.

So often, when we find ourselves disliking other people, when we get irritated by them, feel judgment or scorn or disdain or even hate towards them, we’re seeing in them what we most dislike or scorn or are irritated about in ourselves. A simple way of saying this is that what we encounter in them reminds us so strongly of what we’re trying to get away from in ourselves, that we try get away from it in them too.

The very same process can also be in play with those we are drawn to, admire, or put on a pedestal. In this case perhaps we’re seeing in the other, first, a reminder of split-off parts of ourselves that we deeply long to be reunited with but do not consciously know as our own. We feel drawn to the other person, or good about ourselves around them, precisely because of the feeling of wholeness and re-unification it brings about it in us.

Perhaps it becomes obvious when described this way that the work for us to do with people who irritate us is not to try to change them (which in any case does not address the primary source of our irritation or anger or frustration) but to find out what it is about ourselves that we dislike so much and work with some effort and diligence to understand, turn towards, and accept it.

And with people we love and admire the inner work for us to do is much the same if we want to love and admire them for who they are rather than because a hole or an emptiness or a longing gets filled when we’re around them.

Then, we can find, it’s more and more possible to be around a wider range of people with openness and warmth and genuine regard. And it’s also more possible to be close and compassionate with those we love most, who are so often the very people with whom we have the most difficulty because it’s in them we find parts of ourselves most readily reflected.

 

 

Protector Parts, Defender Parts

We are rather less a single, unitary ‘I’ than a system or community of parts, each in relationship with one another. And it can be so very revealing, and practically useful, to get to know the parts – their intelligence, their blind-spots, and the very particular projects they’ve each taken up in our lives.

I’ve written before here about shame, a familiar background mood for me, as it is for so many people. It turns out that there are at least two parts of me that are actively involved in protecting me from shaming by others – one which pre-emptively shames me, and one which more directly defends me from shame. Each has its own form of good intention, and each often causes me difficulty.

The first part is an inner critic part. It’s so dedicated to me not being shamed by other people that it will frequently take pre-emptive action by shaming me itself. The logic is clear, and compelling: if I can be made to feel sufficient shame beforehand, then perhaps I’ll hold back from acting in a way that would cause others to shame me. It’s a simple exchange – the lesser pain of my own internally generated shame to protect against the more soul-searing shame that comes from the disapproval of other people.

This is the part which would have me hold back from speaking my mind, from becoming angry with other people, from showing too much love, from being a surprise or a disappointment or a bother or mystery. This is the part which, for years, held me back from dancing, having me be ashamed of myself even before I begin. It’s dedicated to forever scanning the horizon and keeping me within very tightly contained boundaries so as to avoid the kind of pain it knows I could, once, not tolerate. It is willing to exact quite a price in order to do this: the inner price of feeling some level of shame at all times, and the outer price of holding back what is, most truly, mine to bring.

The second part is a protector part. Should the antics of the inner critic fail, so that I actually get shamed by someone else, it throws itself into action. It’s not interested in waiting, nor does it have any time for curiosity or learning. What it most wants is the shame to go away. The protector part brings forward my defensiveness, my justifications, my denial. Insincere apologies, pretence, lengthy justifications for my actions, tuning out, disconnecting from people, freezing, abandoning my commitments, bending myself out of shape – all these are the order of the day for the protector part.

The protector part is also willing to pay a price to protect me from shame, most notably having me act at odds with myself, with a relationship I care about, or with my deepest, most sincere commitments.

And while both these parts have honourable and noble intentions, they are way out of date, having swung into action when I was very small and really needed some protection. They don’t take into account that I am an adult now, and that there is another part of me, more akin to the me-myself that exists over the entire span of my life, that no longer needs their help. This part, which could be called essence or self, is really quite able to be in the world alongside shame, and anger, and hate, and disappointment. It is vast enough, deep enough, alive enough, and quite strong enough to experience whatever comes its way. It is curious, open, timeless, and willing to learn.

Naming the parts has power. When I see that I am had by the inner critic or inner protector, I am increasingly able to ask them to relax, to step aside – to reassure them that I’m quite fine, whatever happens, and that I do not need them to protect me any more. And, in the space that this affords, I’m more able to step, willingly and without panic or rush, towards genuine relationship and inquiry, and into the world as it is rather than the world as smaller parts of me imagine it to be.

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Finding joy in a messy life

It’s so easy to fear and despair, and to self-judge, when the world seems so obviously and continuously to fall short of your expectations:

  • when it’s so hard to bring things about
  • when accidents of timing or geography make some paths impossible and you catch on to all the could-have-beens and never-would-have-beens
  • when people are unpredictable and unknowable
  • when things fall apart
  • when you make mistakes, and when others do
  • when the world is so hard to understand
  • when projects and plans fail
  • when things get scary and unpredictable
  • when the sweep of world events is so much bigger than you
  • when you’re filled with a longing that does not seem to be fulfilled
  • when you don’t quite know who you are

It’s a mess. And no amount of effort seems to make the world less messy.

But, perhaps, it might gradually be possible to see that you could love this sacred, unchangeably messy life with all of its inevitable disappointment. And that it is possible to cultivate joy – that the very mess that it is exists at all. And wonder, and amazement – at the miracle that you’re here to be in it, to witness it, and to contribute in whatever way, however incomplete, that you can.

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Not broken

Because you’re not your failures, nor are you your successes, remember this:

Being in trouble, no matter how deep, is not proof you are broken.

And being successful, no matter how so, is not proof that you are saved.

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Taking wing

Perhaps it’s no surprise that our endless and often invisible self-judgement is quickly projected out into to the world and onto others.

We build family cultures and organisation cultures around our wish to find, and correct, the faults we find in everyone. And we can easily make the central project of our lives comparing people to standards and finding all the ways they (and we) fall short.

So how about a different project?

What if you were to see and show people the possibility inherent in them that they barely know themselves? Not platitudes, not untruths, not clichés, not making-them-feel-better. Instead, the difficult and important work of noticing and naming what is waiting to come into the world through them.

Who could you be if you dedicated yourself to finding the as yet unborn goodness in others – that which is struggling to free itself – and naming it for them so that it can take wing?

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With thanks to both Parker Palmer and
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg for the ideas that inspired this post.

Defending against the critic

I write here often about the inner critic because it has been the cause of so much struggle and difficulty since I was very small. In writing I discover new angles and new waysof responding. I hope it will be of help also to some of you who are reading.

For years I did not want to hear anything that others had to say about me, whether praise or criticism, loving or ill-intended. It was all pretty much the same to me – a wounding reminder of my own constant self-judgement. Such harshness in my inner world led me to take on inner self-numbing as a serious project. The comments of others, however offered, simply reconnected me with what I was working so strenuously to avoid.

I extended this project into the outer world too, of course, trying not to draw too much attention to myself. I’d stay out of the limelight when I could. And I developed a reputation for shyness and quietness, for not being too much trouble to anyone, for looking ok, for being humble and self-effacing: all powerful supports for the inner numbing to which I was so committed.

At the time, I doubt I would have understood any of this as something I was actively doing. But such is the power of the critic, it can shape a life from the inside out, and for that reason I think it’s a topic of enormous importance.

It was only in my mid-thirties, when a teacher of mine was generous enough to tell me how self-critical he found me, that I began to see that I had a critic at all. Until then I’d thought it self-evident that the world was made up of exactingly high standards that I could never reach and populated by others who knew my many failings even before I discovered them myself. It had never occurred to me that my hyper-vigilance for criticism, inside and outside, was just one possible way to live an adult life.

The foundational, liberating move was to identify the critic as an entity in its own right – a part of me – and to see that the harshness it generated was not life itself. In this way the critic became something I have rather than something that invisibly has me. And having it opened up the possibility of cultivating a new relationship with it.

I learned how to see the critic as an attacking force and, gradually, how necessary it is to defend against its attack. Reasoning with it (a familiar habit for me) or otherwise engaging with it does not help, because the critic is insatiable. It has higher standards in all domains of life than I can ever reach. Whatever I do it’s on the immediate lookout for what else is undone or not perfect. It cannot be placated by persuasion, by argument or by giving in, and it is not at all interested in the evidence of my eyes and ears and heart. Living with the critic is like living with a rabid dog.

Defending requires meeting the critic with equal and opposite energy to its attacks, pushing them away with considerable force. Expletives help – the more evocative the better. What does not help is passivity: quietly waiting, staying small, until it goes away. This strategy, familiar to me from my childhood, just invites the critic to keep going.

When I remember to defend myself adequately I gain a measure of freedom, some space, into which the longings of my heart and conscience can step forward. It turns out that the critic – though it will defend itself by telling me it is my conscience – is interested neither in what I long for nor in what is right. It cares only about maintaining a vanishingly small world in which nobody can ever be disappointed and no shame can occur. And it’s willing to use the very disappointment and shame it so fears from others in order to keep me in line.

And so I have to remember to defend, every day. As time goes on the attacks become more disguised, more wily. It’s a lifetime’s work. And necessary, if I am to live fully, and if I am to take up the freedom and capacity to contribute that is my – and everyone’s – birthright.

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Please, tell me

Please, tell me – why is it that you are so sure that your inner voice is telling you the truth about you?

Do you believe everything that others tell you in this way?

Do you give your inner conversations credence simply because they are so close in (so close that only you can hear them)?

Is distance reason enough to give up your questioning? your capacity to seek truth?

What would you do, do you think, if you found out how many inner inaccuracies about yourself you were in the midst of believing – and acting upon – every day?

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What your judgements reflect

When you find yourself filled with judgements about other people, don’t be so sure that what you’re experiencing is really anything much to do with them.

It may well be a simple projection of the harsh judgments of your own inner critic.

The critic covers its tracks like that. Wily enough to disguise itself in many ways, it would love to have you believe that everyone else is out to get you or disappoint you. And it would rather you blame what’s outside you than turn your attention inwards, where you might discover its role in keeping your world so small and contained.

For this reason, the first place to look when you’re judgemental of others is towards yourself. You might just find it’s there that your difficulty with them can be most skilfully resolved.

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Basic Failings or Basic Goodness

So many of us, going through life with such interior harshness, gnawing inner-criticism and attendant shame, fear, resentment, and anger.

So many of us, blind to this force within us, unaware that this is the water in which we’re swimming, the air which we are breathing.

And because of this, so many of us projecting our own inner-criticism towards others as  judgement, shaming, name-calling.

Perhaps we don’t even understand we’re doing it, but it settles us to have the outer world reflect our inner world. That way we can say “it’s the world that is this way”, rather than anything to do with us.

And how it spreads, our inner acidity evoking and provoking the acidity of others.

Could today be the day to call a moratorium on this inner battle we’re fighting? To discover how much more there is to ourselves, and to others, than a constant barrage of comparison, belittling, and ‘not-good-enough’.

And to find out that there is another kind of contribution we can make – wiser, kinder, more transformative and not a jot less powerful – if we start by searching for and bringing out basic goodness rather than the basic failings we are convinced are the heart everyone, including ourselves.

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Back to front

When you find yourself in genuine difficulty, which path you do choose?

The path of self-harshness? This is the way of criticism, loathing, comparison. And the way of pushing harder and harder.

Self-harshness, so familiar to so many of us that we don’t even see that it is what we are doing, has the surprising effect of increasing harshness everywhere in our lives.

Or the path of self-kindness? This is the way of taking exquisite care of yourself, asking for what you need, stepping into the deep bonds of support that are so often available to us, turning the loving attention of your own heart towards yourself in the midst of your difficulty.

Self-kindness, so unfamiliar to so many of us that we do not even consider it an option, has the surprising effect of making kindness possible towards many others, even in the darkest, most frightening, most disorientating of times.

Most of us are confused about this. We equate self-harshness with righteousness (perhaps we think we’ll redeem ourselves if we add to our suffering) and self-kindness with a moral softness (perhaps because we’re so convinced we’re broken and at fault already that kindness would be an act of irresponsibility).

But the more I look at the results of my own self-harshness, and that of others, the more convinced I am that we’ve got it all, precisely, back to front.

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Dusting off

When you consciously take up an ongoing practice – running, saying no (or yes), meditating, delegating, gratitude, kindness, speaking up for yourself, writing – and you fall out of your rhythm, out of your commitment for a while… when you find that it’s just not happening, what else is there to do but stand up, smile, and jump back in again?

Excuses, justification, apologetics – none of these do much, in my experience, other than produce a momentary boost of self-esteem.

Even harsh self-criticism and shame are rather wonderfully twisted ways of producing self-esteem by showing you that you care and are not indifferent.

After a rather interrupted August, here I am, standing up, dusting myself off, writing again.

I’m pleased to be back.

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Nothing of the sort

A mistake your inner critic most probably makes is projecting your own inner self-criticism onto what others say to you. Or, in other words, adding criticism to what’s being said.

Under these circumstances even genuine, heartfelt expressions of interest and curiosity from another can feel like attack.

So can love.

Could it be that you’ve misunderstood?

The first and necessary step in finding out is distinguishing your own inner dialogue from what others are saying to you, so that you can find out what’s yours and what’s theirs.

It’s not easy, as the critic is often committed to hiding its involvement in things.

But pay this enough attention, over sufficient time, and you might well find out that what you’ve understood as their attack, or their criticism,

perhaps for years,

is indeed nothing of the sort.

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Not your circumstance

You’re not the failure of your most recent project. You’re not the loss of your job. You’re not the disappointment at not having come first. You’re not that mistake you made, or your company results.

You’re not your success, your fame, your glowing reputation, either. You’re not the letters after your name, your job title, your exam results, your place in the hierarchy.

You’re not your bank balance, your debt, your smart suit, your car, your house, your muscles, your illness. You’re not even your happiness, your sadness, your rage, your shame, your hope.

How could you be any of these, given that any of them – any of them – are liable to change at any time?

It’s a huge misunderstanding of what humans being are, and one that your inner critic can go wild upon, demanding that you fix, or change, or that you hold on ever so tight to what you’ve got for fear of losing it.

You are not your circumstance.

Perhaps there is a new kind of freedom you can find from knowing this. A new kind of acceptance of the transience of the world, and of your own strength and constancy.

And a new kind of hope.

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