By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
Some of the harshest words ever said to me never made a sound. Because they happened silently inside my head. In the melodic, wise words of Taylor Swift, “I’m the problem. It’s me.”
The Voice In My Aggressive Head – I’ll call her V.I.M.A.H – is part drill sergeant, part judge, and part critic. VIMAH is also mean. She thinks I should be able to do it all, at the highest performance level possible, all the time.
Do you have a VIMAH, too? I think most of us do. We judge, criticize, and even berate ourselves internally with words we’d never say to another person. We wouldn’t even say them to our dogs. But somehow our own tender hearts are fair game. Why?
As far as I know, animals don’t internally torture themselves the way we do. Bears don’t beat themselves up for sleeping too long. Squirrels don’t cringe over the size of their bushy tails. And sharks clearly don’t care if people like them. This is a uniquely human conundrum.
The problem with VIMAH is that no matter what we do, it’s never enough. No matter how many things get marked off the to-do list or how well they’re done, I can sense VIMAH standing in the back of my mind, tapping her foot with her arms crossed. She’d like to have a word with me about all the other things I haven’t done yet. She says I’m not making enough money. She says I look too big and too old in pictures.
When I try to argue with VIMAH and point out the good things I’m doing, she dismisses me with a wave of her imaginary hand. She doesn’t say “Great job.” She says “It’s about time. What took you so long?”
An unchecked VIMAH can crank up levels of stress, anxiety and even depression – conditions known to trigger serious health conditions. Some people drink too much, overeat or abuse drugs just to shut VIMAH up. But it doesn’t work because she’ll come back with even more ammunition with which to criticize.
Our society is big on self-confidence and self-motivation, but we keep missing one critical component that makes those things possible – self-compassion. It’s something I’m learning more about lately because there are times when my VIMAH gets so loud. Even though I’m compassionate with family, friends, and animals, I can be a real jerk to myself. And it’s exhausting.
For so long, I’ve assumed that critical self-talk was a way to “crack the whip” and make me a better version of myself. But all the research on this topic disagrees. When it comes to motivation, love is more powerful than fear.
I’ve also realized that the stuff we so often measure ourselves with – money, status, achievements, good looks, and expensive stuff – is not the stuff that will matter in the end. In January when my dad was in a hospice unit during his last days of life, the things that mattered weren’t things. It was love – the people you love and the people who love you back.
My dad wasn’t a wealthy guy with a long resume of awards. He worked his whole life as a landscaper, which he called “playing in the dirt.” And when he wasn’t working, he stayed busy loving his family, friends, pets, God, good food, and fun times. And all those solid relationships and sweet memories are what surrounded him in the end. He didn’t leave pain or harm behind. He did a good job of being a good human, and I’m so proud of him for knowing what mattered.
So, when those harsh internal voices get loud and hurtful, let’s tell them to shut up, shall we? This life is too precious and short to spend it with a brain-based bully.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book is available at Amazon.