Yesterday, I came up with an exercise to assist people to get to the root of certain destructive behaviours or patterns. The behaviour I had in mind when I designed the exercise was that of judging or criticising.
Last night, I wondered if I could do the exercise. Who am I judging or criticising? I realised that the person I’m currently judging most is myself.
So I completed the three steps to this exercise. The first step is to ask yourself these questions:
1. When you’re judging, is there an underlying fear? If so, what is it?
My answer astounded me and brought me to tears. My fear is that I’m imperfect. I go deeper with this realisation. If I’m imperfect, I believe that I won’t be loved or accepted. I go deeper again. Then, I’ll be rejected. Cast out. Abandoned.
Suddenly my mind is flooded with snapshots of childhood, teen years and early adulthood, where I felt my imperfection brought about rejection, humiliation, anger, fear and withdrawal of love.
Messages I internalised from an early age convinced me that I had to try to be perfect in order to earn love or even just acceptance. I couldn’t be myself or feel the things I was really feeling. I had to try to be what others wanted me to be. Otherwise, I’d be left alone in this world. And to be all alone in this world means certain death.
This made perfect sense when I read Harville Hendrix’s brilliant book Getting The Love You Want. Hendrix describes the structure of the human brain.
The brain stem, which is the most primitive layer, oversees reproduction and vital functions such as breathing, blood circulation and sleep. Then there is the limbic system, which generates vivid emotions. The main concern of this portion of the brain is self-preservation. It is constantly on the alert, trying to ensure your safety. Hendrix refers to these two parts of the brain as the “old brain”.
The third part of the brain is the cerebral cortex, which is most highly developed in Homo Sapiens. This section of the brain deals with cognitive functions. It’s the part of you that makes decisions, thinks, observes, plans, organises information and creates ideas. Hendrix calls this the “new brain”.
The new brain is logical and tries to find a cause for every effect. This part of the brain can moderate some of the instinctual reactions of your old brain.
With regard to my self-judging, I believe that I need to be perfect. If I’m not perfect, I won’t be loved. I will be abandoned. This primeval fear comes from the old brain logic that tells me that the world is not safe. When love is withdrawn from me, I am filled with a fear of death.
So, in answer to the first question about the fear underneath my self-judgment, I am afraid of abandonment. I am afraid for my very survival.
This leads on to the second part of the exercise, which is to ask yourself the following:
2. When you judge, what are you hoping to achieve?
When I judge myself, I’m hoping to change aspects of myself. I’m longing to be perfect. Maybe if I criticise myself enough, I’ll change. Then I’ll be loveable. Both to others and to myself.
I am hit by another huge insight. When I see myself as imperfect, I question my right to be loved.
This makes me feel depressed. I close off a part of myself. My vital force shuts down. I no longer feel alive.
I am abandoning myself. I’m actually killing off a part of myself. Yet again, the old brain is pretty sure I’m going to die.
Having answered these questions and hopefully arrived at some interesting insights, you’re ready for the third part of the exercise, which is this:
3. For one whole day, every time you notice yourself judging, stop and ask yourself: “What would it be like to accept this?”
Yes, it’s good to be the best that you can be and to do things that make you feel good. But for so many years, the only way I could silence my inner critic was to do do do.
However, this was just a temporary fix that didn’t unearth the root cause of the problem. And so these deep-seated beliefs, fears and behaviours were repeatedly resurrected. When I got sick or tired, or when I just couldn’t do all the things that boosted my self-esteem, my superficial confidence crumbled.
Finally, I was no longer prepared to continue running on this ridiculous treadmill of turmoil. I kidded myself that it made me feel good to be doing something but it got me nowhere and, every so often, I’d slip off and smack myself in the face.
So, I’ve stepped off and decided to look deeper. And this exercise has facilitated the process.
Now that I have an understanding about why I’m so self-critical and why these judgements make me feel so bad, my behaviour ceases to be unconscious. I’m now conscious of my seemingly destructive patterns. I understand what’s happening and why it’s happening.
Therefore, I can consciously introduce a new way of thinking and behaving. A way that’s healthier and more beneficial than my previously misguided, outdated attempts at self-protection.
The next time I call myself fat or wince at my grey hairs, I’ll remember that what I’m really experiencing is fear. My critical voice is just trying to prevent me from dying. It wants me to be loved.
As an adult, I am my primary care-giver. I am responsible for caring for me. I have a choice to love and accept all of me as I am. I’m not going to abandon myself any more. I am safe.
This exercise can be applied to any thought process or pattern of behaviour that is causing you to suffer. Remember, the old brain got its name because it’s been here for a long, long time. So be patient with yourself as you recondition your thinking. And know that you are safe.