What if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness; that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then?”
- Carl Jung
Inside jobs can do more damage than outside ones. Think of the times when you criticized yourself contemptuously. It might have been for a major or relatively minor offense: You didn’t do the taxes on time, clean the yard, make the money...you name it. It could be a screw up from your distant past revamped by a current voice reminding you of your poor choice or actions. An inner chiding voice knows just the right buttons to push and precisely where to strike: “You’re so lazy. What’s up with you?” And while that particular voice may not fit for you, there are others that have the unerring ability of knowing where to sting you. It’s the very rare human (think Dalai Lama) that doesn’t occasionally fall prey to intense self-criticism.
Who are these characters that threaten us from within, that tilt our positive self-regard southwards or topple it altogether? Not surprisingly, it’s our traitor characters. Many of us feel the sword of self-criticism always ready to be unsheathed. In our worst moments, with sword in hand, our traitors spew nasty lines like: “I screwed it up;” “You are a screw up;” “I can’t do anything right;” “I’m hopeless;” “Why bother;” and/or “You’re so pathetic.” The voices of the traitor characters feel confident in their assessment. They are more certain than our lingering doubts. When this critical traitor character emerges, our ability to transform or even neutralize this negativity can feel knee high to a grasshopper.
While there are hardwired reasons for negativity bias, there are also soft-wired (learned) ones: the critical verbal and nonverbal expressions of a parent, teacher, or other influential figure(s) are often internalized as critical traitor characters. Through the process of what we call psycho-osmosis, these powerful energies penetrate the permeable membranes of our brains, coagulate into characters or characteristics, and then take residence inside our own heads. And while they’re not invited guests, they act as if they own the place.
I have a sad, sharp memory of my mother hovering over me as I tried to put a model airplane together as a 6 year old. The longer my difficulty lasted, the more her body tensed and facial muscles tightened. Finally (it didn’t take long), her frustration broke through. She grabbed it from my hands as her voice pierced my ears: “I’ll do it! Can’t you do anything right?!” It wasn’t really a question. However unintended, the intensity and power of that message during this and other interactions, clung to me over the years, grabbed me by the neck and, at times, pulled me ever closer to the ground: “Can’t you do anything right?!” It echoed through time.
I’ve challenged this painful belief many times over the years. I’ve become more mindful about this traitor and less susceptible to the depression that believing this voice led me to. What I’ve learned is that while there are many roads to healing negative self-talk, the most immediate and direct first step begins with the practice of self-compassion.
It turns out that most of us aren’t very good at this. Raised with more criticism than compassion, we naturally internalize the critical teachings—both verbally and non-verbally. The good news is that self-compassion can be learned. In contrast to the many fallacies about self-compassion, it can lead to personal power and great accomplishment.