I’m frustrated today. I’ve been for a few days now, and I’m not really sure why.
What better time to write out my frustration with a core part of me known as my inner critic?
If you’ve followed my meanderings in writing for a while, you’d have known by now that my inner critic features in a lot of my depression and therapy issues. But if you think that’s normal and natural to everyone, then I hope today’s writing will help you to understand inner criticism in depression a little better.
It’s a given that most of us have our own inner critics. That part of us, if we can identify it, that measures what we do to see how we can do better. Where we can improve. It protects us, by warning us of how we’ve failed in the past, pushing us to do better, helping us to doubt our successes so that we don’t rest too easily on our past conquests, seeking to do better every time or at least maintain a standard. And that’s right, and healthy, and sometimes when it gets too loud, we learn to ignore it, or squash it. Work on despite our doubts. Transfer our fears, and accept that we can grow and learn from our mistakes – by first making our mistakes. Pray, trust in God, let God handle the fears and doubts.
My inner critic is different.
Since the start of this pandemic, I still physically visit the public mental health hospital every two or three months, as my medical team has assessed the need to see me often enough to keep tabs on my suicidality and self-harm. One of the new procedures that the hospital has, is the accepted need to scan for flu symptoms at the “gate”, before you even enter the compound proper. But at the entrance of the clinic, after scanning in my card, they now have a desk where you have to take your height and weight, and then they take your SPO2 (concentration of oxygen flow in your blood, a good hidden indicator for health issues including Covid-19, as oxygen levels will be significantly lower if you are unwell), and your blood pressure. Still not sure why they need the bp and weight readings.
For some reason, when I take my blood pressure at the station, for a few times now, my blood pressure has sky rocketed. It got to the point that the nurses at the entrance kept repeatedly asking me whether I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, and even got irritated and kept loudly scolding me for being anxious. “Breathe!!” was the constant, irritable refrain, accompanied by frowns under their face masks. I would only get more anxious of course, but still try to consciously breathe, and relax, until they would scribble off a value on the sheet that bore my weight (BMI too high, you need to lose at least 10kg, the sheet helpfully explained), with some frustration, and then hand it to me wordlessly without even looking at me before going “Next!”
On the last session, when I finally admitted that I hated the blood pressure machine, the elderly nurse asked me why, and when I recounted everything, she was so kind to the point that I almost teared up. She told me that there was no reason for anyone to be frustrated with me. And she looked up the history and said that the values were actually normal for my age, before taking my reading for that day. As it turned out, it would be one of the lowest in my record.
What she didn’t know was that she was also strangling my inner critic. See, even blood pressure values were a problem to him. The anxiety in my head wasn’t due to me being worried about my health. It was him, continually insinuating that I was useless, unable to trust God, unable to relax and breathe. It was my fault, according to him, that the nurses were frustrated and kept having to retake readings. My stupidity that led me to eat unhealthy food, so that’s why my blood pressure was high. Even though when I went to my family GP, the values were never that high. Still, my bad. I’m wrong. And a simple thing like a blood pressure machine now became a source of stress, a reason for him to laugh at me, and to remind me just how useless I am in the face of everything. I could, if I really wanted to, ignore the nurses. I couldn’t, so I’m useless.
“You’re fat.” “You’re hopeless.” “You can’t even walk 16 km without feeling pain.” “You’re UNHEALTHY.” And then “You’re scared of a silly little BP machine.” “You can’t ignore cranky nurses.” “Gosh. You’re useless.”
If you look behind your sink in your toilets, there’s usually a main pipe leading from the water mains towards where the tap is. It’s the same for the water cisterns behind your toilet bowl that needs to be flushed. But that pipe is rigid, and to get to the actual tap or cistern, there is a small length of pipe, usually made of steel, known as a flexible hose, a flexible hose connector or a flexible hose pipe. This helps to reach that last distance more flexibly so that your rigid pipes don’t have to be measured to the last precise centimeter to connect up to your fittings.
So when I was brushing my teeth one day, and I felt water dripping on my feet, I had a sinking (haha) feeling. I checked, and yep, that flexible hose, which is surprisingly prone to rust and therefore wear and tear under pressure, was leaking. I stared at it for a while, and then went to bed. I simply couldn’t cope with the idea that it needed to be changed. I was angry that it was broken, but more concerned about the need to do something about it. I didn’t sleep well. There was a nagging feeling that I was avoiding the issue, and there was a low level rumbling in my head.
So the next day, I told my wife about it. Then after my morning activities and lunch – this was during Singapore’s Phase 2 heightened alert where we couldn’t eat out – I dug out some tools, turned off the water connector under the sink (God bless my plumber who’d added that little gem after we’d had lots of plumbing issues), and then undid the flexible hose. I wanted to do this part first, in case the problem was worse than I’d thought, or in case my tools couldn’t loosen the nuts enough which would mean I’d need new tools. The hose came off easily enough.
I stared at it lying on the floor for a while, before I went out to the kitchen to tell my wife not to use the sink. I then forced myself to go down to the shops, no matter how I felt. Bought a replacement hose – a shorter one this time, which would help ease the pressure of the bend – and then came up, washed my hands, threw away my mask, and then screwed it back on. Turned on the water. No leak.
My critic however was at full force. “You don’t deserve any credit.” “Any MAN would have done the same thing, only faster.” “You did what you were SUPPOSED to do. Did you want a pat on the back? Childish.” “That took you what, so much energy? Your dad can fix plumbing issues like that without even thinking about it. You are absolutely useless and terrible.” “Don’t expect anything out of this. You should do this and more, as time goes by. Are you even really unwell?”
Things have changed already. A year ago, whenever such things happened, I would be hiding in my head, trying not to listen, trying simply to breathe it all away. Some things still haven’t changed. I still scratch my palms whenever I feel like I need validation, to remind myself that I don’t deserve any. I still physically flinch when the critic screams his imprecations particularly loudly. If you see me suddenly wincing and leaning to the left, that’s when my critic is screaming. I also physically have to recoil when I hear praise. My critic is in the way, shouting down the words. It’s involuntary.
However, I’ve already come a long way, from a very dark place from November 2020 to May 2021. That period was bad, as we finally dug deep enough to force me to confront some dark truths that I didn’t want to be true, about something that happened to me in the past. With that came the awareness that perhaps while I have never gotten the validation I had hoped for, it possibly wasn’t about me. The people I’d come to love and respect, sometimes hopelessly so, simply did not necessarily have values that aligned with mine. They measured me by their values and I came up short – and to measure up, I needed to realign my values to meet theirs, which I simply could not, because of how strongly I held on to mine. What was more, my wife and I have gone through my strongly held values, and she respects them and loves me for it. I know this very well.
But because she wasn’t someone “senior” in my life, my critic refused to let her words hold any space in my head.
It’s much easier, during therapy now, to immediately identify when the critic is talking, even before my therapist has a chance to say, we don’t need to hear that. It’s easier now, even as I try to explain this hidden part of me in this post, to delete paragraphs that twist the truth so that I blame myself and point at myself as the only possible problem among many. That is not to say that I do not hold responsibility for how I have developed to this point. But I am not the *only* or sometimes even the *main* problem. That is now a possibility which would have been screamed away last year, when I launched my book.
In fact, that was one of the biggest struggles in my book launch – I could not accept that I was any good, therefore that my message could not be good. But there was a part of me that knew that my struggles aren’t totally unique. Someone else would need to hear that it’s okay to struggle and seek help. So I went ahead – but it was a huge, huge struggle. And no, it’s not because I can’t deal with success. It’s because I can’t believe that I can succeed in anything. At all. And going ahead meant fighting the critic even as he screamed, holding myself together long enough to try to ignore him, trying to reinforce my defences to live up to the hard work my publisher team and all my friends (including from other agencies) had put in, to help me to get to where I was.
My critic is overblown. During one of our recent sessions, my therapist got fed up – sort of. She actively had me put him out of the room and out of my head. I told her, I could hear him screaming to get back in. She had me soundproof our room of safety.
And for the first time in a long while, I didn’t hear a thing. And I started to cry.
The sobs were long, hard, and I think I wailed. I only remember that I was blubbering and that breathing was next to impossible. I shook, and I kept telling her that he would be back. I was hugging on to my therapy dog for dear life, and my tears and even snot was covering his face and I was pathetically wiping them up with a towel I kept on hand for tears. I was reacting the way an abused person would, when the abuser was finally removed safely. But in my case, my bully and abuser lives in my own head.
And he did return a few days after. Before then, he quietly upped the standards for my kids and my wife, and I lashed out at them because they couldn’t meet those standards – and caught myself doing it. And quickly apologised and adjusted the standards. I can’t adjust the standards for myself yet. And just before I felt him return, I was shaking and telling my wife, he’s coming back, I know it, and I hate it.
It’s taken me a long while to admit this. Even my wife was happy – sorta – that I could finally tell her this. I can’t keep repeating it vocally, somehow. There’s a physical impediment to the words. But when I get as frustrated as today, I acknowledge openly, that he’s a bloody bully, that his standards are totally unreachable, he shifts the goalposts when I’m close to hitting any standards he sets, and if he was a real person, I’d want to beat the crap out of him and then some. While crying my heart out. And then have nothing to do with him ever again.
Sometimes, I do feel like it’s a hopeless fight. Sometimes I wonder just how much I contribute to my own pain. How much I make all this up. And then I realise that it’s him again, slipping into my forethoughts, to colour my opinions so that I don’t get disappointed when I fail. You can’t fail what you don’t start. You can’t disappoint more than by disappointing up front. You can’t hurt others more than when you hurt them straight off the bat, by making sure that you let them know you won’t ever succeed. The potential of failure cripples, not because I fear the failure itself. I usually fear not trying rather than fearing failure.
I fear HIM, screaming at me, making me scratch, flinch, want to pound my head into somewhere painful so that the pain takes him away from me for a while. Just a blessed minute of peace, so that the screaming can stop. Because he’s so loud, it’s so easy to believe him, so that he will stop screaming. And then he will start talking… and the pain will get worse because it means I have to listen and agree.
But I see you now, critic, and I’m starting to learn some of your tricks.
It’s almost wrong to call this progress, by most measures of the word. Yet progress it is, slow and painful. And I don’t know what’s at the top, I don’t know what comes after cresting the top which is still many many many steps away. But each step is a step forward, rather than back, even if it *feels* like it’s moving back. I get so tempted to listen to him and think that no, it’s actually too slow, or that it’s backward, or that I’m imagining all this. I now usually close my sessions with my therapist when I cry more during the session, by asking if I made any of it up. She always tells me she doesn’t think that it’s possible to make up what happened during the session.
So I’m starting to learn to see the poison. I’m starting to see how much harm it does. Knowledge is the first step, a very important step, but to move beyond knowledge to action will take a lot more than I think I have currently. So with prayer and with hope, all I can do is take the next step towards action. And the next. If you believe in God, please pray alongside me for this fight. A fight to learn to forgive myself. Learn to forgive those who inadvertently hurt me or others because they couldn’t understand. Learn to live with myself.
Learn to love myself.
And learn to live with him without listening to him.