Session Three. Imma try coming to you fresh outta the therapy room. Okay…nearly fresh. Just slightly stale. There was some spinning out in the car then a stop at the local grocery, then a tiny bit of stress carbing (tortilla chips & delicious guac, if you must know).
But I’m here now.
I’ll start at the end of the session then work my way back because that’s how it’s in my memory at the moment. When I left the room, I’d been tasked with homework. I love homework. It brings with it a sense of purpose and an easy win for having accomplished something and exceeding expectations. So that’s good. The homework was to not just listen to the running narrative in my head — which I’ve becomed skilled with over the years — but to hear when it is critical.
Pro tip: The very idea of needing to exceed expectations is a red flag.
If you don’t know what a running narrative is, some people call it an “internal monologue” or “inner voice”. It’s that hum of thought that is the undercurrent to everything you say, do, or think. It takes practice to tune in to it but we all have it; it’s part of consciousness. Here’s a non-Wikipedia explanation that’s a little bit fun to read.
I had to work at not rolling my eyes when this “inner critic” line of thought came up. Not because it’s invalid in any way but the contrary, because it’s cliché. “Talk to yourself as you would a friend,” “Give yourself a break,” “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and all the other -isms we hear as part of the contemporary self-improvement narrative.
That there were negative statements beneath the surface was far from news to me. But what WAS news was that Deep Stare had pegged me from go. This therapist not only had my number but had dialed it in from the beginning of one sentence to the end of another. I had been read. Apparently it was obvious when I was being genuine, doubting myself, being punitive to myself, etc. and all within a span of my speaking a single thought. So here I’m thinking Deep Stare was a damned fine choice as far as therapists go. I mean we all want to be understood but this is ridiculous.
Oh look. Here I am already self-correcting that good impression I just laid down. Was Deep Stare actually a good choice or am I being easily duped? Am I buying into the oldest trick of telling the client what they already know but re-framing so it feels like a new insight? Am I wanting so badly to hear anything at all about myself from a “neutral” party that I’m lapping it up like milk? Am I accepting statements of the obvious as insight because that’s what I’m paying for?
This is just damned case in point when it comes to the inner critic, no? There I’d had what may be classified as a positive feeling about my choice of Deep Stare and being heard then that inner narrative rushed right in to “defend” it (a.k.a. negate it). It needs to check that positive thought I’d just had against the life bank of learning and standards I’ve collected and made into an arsenal. Am I keeping myself “safe” with this examining of all angles, this searching for the hidden dirty bomb? Sometimes, yes but it can’t be necessary every moment of every day. This vigilance has got to be unproductive and unhealthy for a full and good life if it becomes constricting.
The homework was to not just listen for the running undercurrent but to hear its tone. As I said, no problem. Turns out the trick for me will be to notice when what I perceive as “helpful” thoughts are actually judgements in sheep’s clothing.
Those countless ideas and standards I have filed away for use in helping me get through daily life? Yeah, those may be great when it comes to driving safely, navigating a Target run, and making public appearances but they’re like a long-game assassin to my soul. Et tu, Brute?
Sidebar: By “soul”, I mean the core of a person. I mean the kernel, the nub, the true essence of all that you are. I do not mean your tastes or behaviors, wants or revulsions, I mean the very ground level of you as a person. It worries me where mine is. Is it so deeply encased in the aforementioned shell that I’ll never see who’s really there? Or is it there, blatantly, for all to see, except for me somehow? And why does it matter anyway when there are nachos?
How might any of this navel-gazing be relevant to you? Well here’s what I think about that. One, it turns out that negative self talk doesn’t just sound like the perpetual insult machine you’d expect. It can also creep in disguised as a helpful friend and guardian, there with only your best interests at heart.
I suppose the way to tell the difference is to see how you feel after it “speaks”. Imma check to see if I feel supported and powerful or restricted and small. I want my inner self to contribute to my feeling good, strong, compassionate, and supportive to others. I do not want it to keep me encased in a glass dome, all dewy and unharmed. I am not an orchid and neither are you.
It doesn’t take a great leap to see where my own inner voice comes from. It developed straight outta the very unhelpful caretakers’ voices I internalized as I grew. We intuitively know that this is how we all get shaped at some level, taking in what we are surrounded by as children. Deep Stare says it’s a well-documented fact that because children rely on their caretakers for survival, those caretakers cannot be seen as “wrong” or “bad” by the child. This is why, I’m told, children blame themselves when they are treated poorly. I’ll sit with that one a while to see what reveals itself.
I can tell you that the caretakers’ messages I took in were that the world is a dangerous, unreliable place and only one person could be trusted. That same caretaker repeatedly abandoned, belittled, and isolated Tiny Me in the name of (over)protective good parenting. If children internalize the messages they are surrounded by, it’s not hard to see what my inner guardian is up to. It’s working overtime to keep this orchid under glass, protected from all harm and withdrawn from all experience and interaction.
Okay. Fine. Our internal workings are not this black-and-white but I’m feeling that something is accurate here. Time will tell. Deep Stare said, “What you say to yourself affects how you feel.” and asked “Do you trust youself?” “Growing up how you did, it would be odd if you know what trusting yourself felt like.” Heavy.
The last thing that resonated was something along the lines of, “If you can’t trust the inward, you look outward for guidance.” This is in line with the relentless measuring against standards that makes up this one person’s inner monologue.
Somehow I get the feeling that those questions sum up the entirety of my existence. That there will be shades and nuances but, in the end, this is it. This is me. Seen and encapsulated by a stranger in a matter of moments. Again, time will tell and I’m willing to find out. The alternative is not an option.
I will keep listening and trying to catch the Inner Bastard in the act. If anyone out there has found ways to switch up the narrative so you’re receiving better messages over the inner wire, man would I love to hear about those.
This post is a snapshot in time. It reflects what I understand about myself and the world at this moment. It contains zero medical advice. To repeat, this entire experiment is one person’s interpretation of events and reflects my opinion only. Do your own research. Draw your own conclusions.