Identifying, Naming, and Taming the inner critic
Many women compare themselves to others. Women recovering from food, weight, and body image issues and, often, new mothers, have often honed this skill to an excruciatingly sharp pointed edge that goes right back into the self. As a colleague of mine has put it “an eating disorder is an over-developed superego,” and “Supermom doesn’t exist, but we all keep desperately trying to be her.”
Some common self-judgments for women in eating disorder recovery that I often hear include:
- If [insert body part such as stomach, thighs, or arms here] was different, I would be more successful in my career, lovable in romantic relationships, and not have these feelings (ex: anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, shame).
- If I were not eating this [insert “bad food” here], then I would be “better,” “good,” not feel this way (see above list).
- “She’s thinner, and therefore more attractive, lovable, worthy, than me.”
- “She’s sicker than me, and therefore deserves treatment/to get better more than me.”
- “She has a real/valid reason for an eating disorder (ex history of abuse) and I don’t.”
- “There is something wrong with me that can never be fixed or healed.”
- “She’s in a romantic relationship and therefore more lovable than me.”
- “None of my romantic relationships have worked, so none will ever work.”
- Her eating disorder (whether it be starving, bingeing, or purging) is more dangerous than mine. I don’t deserve to tend to my recovery and self-care because it’s not that dire or important.
- I’ll never be a Mom if I can’t even take care of myself.
OUCH! Obviously they all fall into the categories of Great-Palace-Lies and Cognitive Distortions such as personalizing, emotional reasoning, and globalizing. New moms, like women in early eating disorder recovery, are also in the terrain of developing a new self identity. Growth periods such as these are often when the critical voice is loudest. Below, I have named a few of the many critics that attack many moms internally:
- The ecological critic: That mom has never used any kind of plastic in her child’s lunch, even if it is BPA free. All her food has been made from scratch and the vegetables have been grown in her organic backyard garden. If I use plastic, have anything not made from scratch in my child’s lunch, I suck as a Mom.
- The Body-image critic: She lost the baby weight sooner (or at all) and is therefore a more attractive, functional, lovable successful career woman/mom/wife.
- The stay-at-home-mom critic: I am mommy-tracked and my skills are not valuable/outdated/my sleep-deprived brain-body doesn’t remember how to have a career. I can’t move ahead with my career, because people won’t take me seriously anymore.
- The work-outside-the-home-mom critic: My kid(s) are more attached to the nanny than me. I should start saving for therapy now, as I’ve probably already damaged them with abandonment issues/insecure attachment.
- The Attachment-parenting critic: I stopped wearing and co-sleeping with my baby, and therefore they feel traumatized and insecure. I should breastfeed at all costs for the first three years. Moms who leave their kids in daycare are bad.
- The Feminist Mom critic: I should be able to bring home the (vegan organic) bacon, fry it up in a pan, while simultaneously playing with my non-screen watching child after writing an updated introduction and research study on The Second Shift and presenting it to the National Association of Feminist Sociology conference.
OK, so I have an overdeveloped Superego (Critic). What do I DO about it?
Here are some strategies for combatting the critic and assist yourself in arresting the Compare and Despair Trap.
- NOTICE IT.
In eating disorder treatment, it is often encouraged to notice “ED” (the voice of the eating disorder). You can also think of this as “Inner Critic.” Although this can be painful (it is not a kind voice), it is important to notice that this part of your self is just that- PART of you, not all of you. And as you start to notice it is not all of you, you can then begin to cultivate other parts of you that are more fiercely kind and compassionate rather than shaming and harmful toward you.
- NAME IT.
Naming the “ED” or “Critic” voice can be helpful in continuing to separate and dis-identify from it. It can be fun to make a collage, picture, or funny character name for it. Though this may sound silly, it can actually help take some of the power away from it. Sometimes I think of my critic as a Spikey haired teenager: it looks fierce, but really it is a soft mollusk inside and the spikes are trying to protect its vulnerability. This allows me to invite the scary-looking critic back into my larger Self rather than try to cut off from it.
- GET SUPPORT
It can be hard to develop a fiercely compassionate voice within yourself to assist in combatting the critical voice and making peace with/tolerating distressing emotions. Sometimes a wise therapist, person further along in recovery or motherhood can be helpful to verbalize kind, discerning support until you can cultivate strengthening this voice within yourself.
- IF YOU ARE GOING TO COMPARE, BE FAIR.
For example, if you are a newly postpartum mom, when you wear a bathing suit, it is NOT fair to compare yourself to an airbrushed image in a magazine or even a woman’s body who hasn’t given birth. Your body is different. If you MUST compare, then compare to another newly postpartum mom (though my recommendation would be to talk about what is really going on regarding the stress of being a new mom!)
- FIND AND CULTIVATE A REGULAR CREATIVE AND/OR OR SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
Fighting the critic needs to include rather than cuting off from your feelings and your body. This can be sitting meditation, moving meditation, writing, collage-ing, art-making. It is usually an activity that includes the right (creative) brain and somatic (body) awareness such as movement or following the breath. You will know that you have found a practice that works for you when you discover (usually after the fact when it returns) that your inner critic was quiet for a time. Cultivate that activity, whatever it is for you. Keep returning to that Big Mind, Big Self, Coonected-ness again and again. Your critic will start to lose its power when it is invited into a larger, more spacious creative and enticing place to be. I will end with an affirmation borrowed from 12-step program reading: Just for today, I will not compare myself to others. I will accept myself and live to the best of my ability. Don’t compare—identify. Don’t intellectualize—utilize. To keep it, you have to give it away. You can’t give away what you don’t have. May the growth continue!
Self-Help: Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way By Rick Carson 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder By Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb Creativity and Spiritual Practice: Women, Food and God By Geneen Roth The Artists’ Way and The Artist’s Way for Parents By Julia Cameron Soulcollage Evolving: An Intuitive Collage Process for Self Discovery and Community By Seena Frost Sweat Your Prayers By Gabriel Roth Buddha Mom: The Path of Mindful Mothering By Jacqueline Kramer Humour: Shitty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us By Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo and Mary Ann Zoellner Ketchup is a vegetable and other lies moms tell themselves Robin O’Bryant