Pushing the heavy pressure cooker back into place, I marvel momentarily at the metal shelving unit and its insistence on staying fixed to the wall.
I don’t have this feeling with everything in the house.
I don’t stare in wonder at the ceiling staying up, or the stairs refusing to give way, or even the bookcase holding firm in the face of an ever-increasing number of volumes crammed onto its already overstretched surfaces, but that’s because I didn’t put up the ceiling or the stairs or the bookcase, but I did install the kitchen shelves and, quite naturally, expected that they would have fallen long before now.
In my work, I spend a lot of time with people who have very powerful inner critics and who invariably answer my question, “Whose voice is that?” incorrectly.
“It’s my voice,” they tell me, having absorbed experiences of the past so effectively they are no longer able to differentiate between it and the timid whisper of their own.
When you want to understand why you berate yourself with so much voracity and glee, ask yourself when you have heard similar voices before.
Parents, caregivers, teachers, and peers, can all have a powerful impact on the way we talk to ourselves long after they are gone.
In my case, the powerful inner critic who emerges at the first suggestion of any DIY came not from what my father told me but from what he showed me.
He was a gentle, kind man fulsome with his praise, even when there was nothing to admire, but he displayed dizzying levels of practical ineptitude.
Over lunch once with colleagues, someone revealed that their husband had tried to make “mash” by attempting to crush the potatoes before cooking them.
“What did he mash them with, a hammer?” came the witty retort of someone else at the table, but it was exactly the sort of thing I could have imagined my father doing.
He would have considered himself unable to put up kitchen shelves, and so the easiest belief to absorb was, “I won’t be able to do that,” which has been at the foundation of every home improvement disaster I have been involved with.
Belief is the forerunner of ability
My mother’s influence was different but similarly encouraging to my inner critic.
As the youngest of three I saw it as my role to be “the good child”, to balance out the challenges presented by my troubled older siblings and the frustration and exasperation my mother felt at having married a man who would probably try to make mashed potatoes with a hammer.
Attention came as a result of being good and doing what I was told, so my inner critic picked up on this and would pipe up in any situation where there was doubt over my being good, where “good” is defined as whatever I had perceived my mother required.
I came to believe the widely held misconception that “achievement,” i.e. being a good boy, and “value” were related.
If you happen to believe that you are more valuable as a human being as a direct result of what you achieve, you too have been duped by this fallacy.
The truth of it is that achievement and feeling like a valuable person are both important, but they are not connected.
Ironically, the ability to separate them makes achievement easier because you stop getting in your own way with constant self-criticism and unnecessary evaluation.
For good measure, I was also bullied through secondary school.
One of the most destructive factors of being pushed around and ostracised by a group of your peers for no apparent reason is that you try to find a reason, and the easiest one you can come up with is, “I’m not good enough.”
By the time I reached adulthood, carrying clear ideas about what I couldn’t do, who I had to be, and that groups of people were liable to take indiscriminately against me, the past I thought I’d navigated sat lurking in the shadows ready to tear me down whenever I put a foot out of place.
But I learned that things can be done to help.
The first is identifying the sources of the inner critic.
Who does the voice remind you of? Where have you heard something similar before? What feeling do you get when you hear it, and when did you feel that in the past?
If you know where the critical voice comes from it becomes easier to separate it from your own.
A client of mine, having identified his father as the origin of a particularly destructive inner critic, stuck a photo of his dad on the dashboard of his car and, when he felt his father revving up to offer unwelcome feedback told him, out loud, to “fuck off”. It’s an experiential approach that seemed to work well for him but probably surprised any unsuspecting passengers he may have had on board at the time.
The other thing that helps is acting despite the scorn of the critical voice.
That’s how I came to put up the shelves in the kitchen and how, these days, I approach any DIY project, laughing at my incompetence with kindness rather than listening to the doomsayer in the background.
Taking opportunities to act contrary to the sneering advice of your inner critic is helpful but actively sharing the results of those actions can be truly cathartic. It teaches you the world doesn’t end every time you fall short of unnecessary perfection.
Pushing beyond what we believe we can safely turn a hand to not only makes life more enjoyable but it keeps that annoying voice in check.
For example, this month, I’m taking part in the “30 Days Drawing Habit” with Wendy McNaughton to wrestle with my inner critic’s assertion, based on a pretty solid body of evidence to be fair, that I cannot draw.
I scored an early success after my daughter recognised I had drawn one of our dogs.
“That’s Nelly! Crossed with a horse,” she replied.
The addendum was unnecessary but I didn’t let it shake me.
Anyway, the thing is, in summary,
The voice that shit-talks you all the time isn’t yours, so you don’t need to listen to it.
The best way to quieten it is to do the things it says you can’t do because that helps you to hear your authentic and supportive voice.
Then you too can erect kitchen shelving that won’t fall down and draw dogs that look a bit like horses.
This week on “Sideways” we’re talking about the impact of genetics on addiction even though neither of us knows much about it.
To cover up our inadequacy we move onto more certain ground when discussing Freddie Mercury supposedly appearing on a teaspoon, getting chocolate stuck to our bare flesh, and our connection with the late David Bowie.