A while back, I realized something that had never occurred to me before. It’s quite amazing how it actually NEVER entered my mind in any way, a total blind spot. This particular blind spot was causing so much stress inside of me that when I DID realize this most important truth, and was able to shift my focus a bit, I could feel my stress levels fall, my heart open, and a lot more love was able to get in and get out.
I had rarely, if ever, validated my own feelings.
Oh, and I rarely validated anyone else’s either.
A feeling. A simple enough thing. Some emotion arises in me that is a response to a thought or situation, and if it’s anything other than one of the “good ones,” I relate to it like a bother, like I’ve done something wrong, like it’s something to run from, even HATE. It’s something that shouldn’t be there, right? I mean, if I was doing life the right way this pesky feeling surely wouldn’t be here. Anger, sadness, envy, disgust, even depression were all met with an instant rejection, even shame.
I didn’t realize that I had become my very own abuser. If these feelings were children, I was slapping them, locking them in closets, yelling at them, and making them feel guilty and wrong. Hardly ever (ok so maybe never) did I just say to the feeling: “You have a right to feel this way. It’s ok. I’ve got you.”
That’s a sobering thought–that I could be so cruel to my own emotions.
But then I went looking deeper. It can’t be just that I’m being cruel, surely there’s some reason why I’m relating to my own emotions this way, right? Which begs the question: Why am I really doing this? And, what do I do to stop it?
Over the past few years of deeply working with myself and working with others as a coach, I’ve observed something about what we call our “inner critic.” In nearly every case, the inner critic is the voice of our mother, our father, both all rolled into one, OR an interpretation of what we think they “might” say. As children, our need to survive in our environment causes us to subconsciously absorb the voices around us that are displeased with our behavior, and use them as a way to self-regulate so we don’t get “kicked out of the tribe” so to speak.
Why do we do it?
Our parents RARELY validate us as kids. And, in all fairness to them, kids can be a giant pain in the ass. We need TONS of love, attention, and validation, much more than most parents could possibly give. Plus, in some cases, parents they’re doing the right thing by letting their screaming baby cry themselves to sleep, putting them in time out, or punishing a child for having those very emotions. Kids can be exhausting, and most parents are doing only what they know how to do. Which, unfortunately, is very counter to what really creates a thriving human.
Right now, the system and norm of parenting doesn’t work. Kids really do need a village to raise them, but now people think that the way to do it is to have kids and then claim sole responsibility to provide financial support, education, love and attention, and of course, validation–which is more than anyone can do on their own. The system needs to evolve to something that works better, but for now it IS that way, and inherent in this system most of us grow up with a loud inner critic, telling us to shut up & stop crying or something of the like.
Now, here we are, and as adults, we must learn how to be emotionally intelligent, how to name, feel, and process our own emotions, how to validate and love ourselves unconditionally, with very little experience of how that actually feels because most of us have never had it. All we’ve known is conditional love, conditional approval, conditional validation. By our friends, our partners, even our work colleagues. We wear masks because we feel we have to, that our survival depends on it. We can’t go into a meeting at work and express how we actually feel, which may be angry, frustrated, or sad, and have our boss give us a hug and empathize. Our friends remind us time and time again that our negative emotions are uncomfortable, every time we try to talk about something and they attempt to “cheer you up.” Even the partners in our lives say and do things that tell us they prefer the happy face over the sad face, and because we don’t want them to leave… well, we just try to keep the happy face.
The inner critic is busy all day, every day, trying to push down anything that’s going to get us hurt, rejected, shamed, or abandoned. That voice is so familiar we never stop to question it. It’s become normal. We all have it and for some people it’s fully taken them over.
For some people, being too HAPPY is just as “bad” as being too sad or angry–depending on what they were told growing up. In cases of abuse, “Wipe that smile off your face” could have been said more than once, so now you have someone who grows up and can’t validate ANY feeling–good or bad. There’s a constant war inside of them, as their truth comes up, the critic comes in and then you have someone who is actually gaslighting themselves. (If you don’t know what gaslighting is, the definition is: to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.) When you do this to yourself, well, it’s difficult to enjoy anything because you have an ongoing inner war with your own truth.
Now what do we do about it?
Ah, the age old question. Now that we know the problem what the hell do we do to fix it? The short answer is: there are NO quick fixes. This takes attention, patience, practice, and lots of awareness. In short, the things that you probably needed as a child but didn’t get enough of. Your adult self needs to re-parent the child inside, because it’s the child that created the inner critic. It’s on that level that you begin to heal this for yourself.
Here’s 3 practices that can help with that healing:
1. Keep a daily validation journal.
This is really just a practice in which you sit for 10-15 minutes, and simply acknowledge what you feel.
Begin by writing down the experience, feeling, or thought that you’re currently having, or something that happened recently, something that you may have criticized yourself about.
Now just look at it. For a moment, I invite you to just observe it with no judgement, no shoulds or shouldn’ts. Just see it for what it is, which is some cases is a response to a past trauma or an unmet need. Just sit with it and consciously allow it to be there.
Now, write down a message. Something like, “it’s ok” or “you’re absolutely entitled to this thought/feeling” or something else that’s accepting and loving. Basically, something that you wish someone would say to you when you’re feeling kinda crappy.
Notice and name the thought or feeling
Observe it with compassion
Consciously invite it in. Do NOT push it away, shove it into a corner, and never say “thank you for sharing” but give it some real love. Imagine this is a small child that you adore, so never punish it in any way. Just hold it.
2. Inner child meditation
This is a simple but effective practice of closing your eyes, connecting to your inner child, and imagine yourself holding him or her closely. Maybe even saying some loving things, or even playing. When you connect with this part of yourself, you’re much less likely to think critical or cruel thoughts.
This is a great exercise to also do with others that you’re frustrated with. Imagine yourself holding, talking to, or playing with THEIR inner child. The effects can be really beneficial to you as well, because practicing acceptance and compassion always feels good to do.
3. Practice validating the emotions of others
Instead of trying to fix others, practice listening to them and simply offering witness. It’s a really amazing thing to sit with another person who is angry or sad and say, “You have a right to feel this way. I’m here. You’re not alone.” What we say and do with others has an impact on the way we are with ourselves.
We all need validation. We’re social creatures, and there’s a reason why it feels good when another person not only deeply sees who we are, but accepts us for ALL that we are and all that we feel. It can feel tempting to put a wall around your heart and say that you don’t need this, but that’s not exactly true. There’s a difference between feeling attached to outward validation and appreciating being seen and recognized by another person.
Validation from others won’t make a dent if we can’t do it for ourselves, because we can’t let it in. It’s an interesting dilemma because sometimes we need it so badly, but even if it IS coming in we block it from properly nourishing us. That’s why it’s vital to make self-validation a priority. You will NEVER allow anyone to treat you better than you treat yourself, for long. You will unconsciously seek out voices that match the one that you hear all day inside of your own mind.
Remember, what you resist persists. A very true statement. You don’t heal a wound by trying to push it away, and you don’t quiet the inner critic with punishment, shame, or rejection. Love heals. Remember that.