“You are stupid, worthless, a failure”, the voice inside my head repeats in an endless cycle, over and over again. Like a waterwheel inside water, generating an endless flow.
Whenever I sit down to write, the voice inside my head pops up out of nowhere and forces her prospective. “What makes you think that you can write?” she starts with a faint sarcastic whisper. “ There are talented writers who have written brilliant works of literature, think Carol Shields, think Tayeb Saleh.” Then the voice inside my head gets louder, commanding attention. “You are not one of them. You have nothing new to say that hasn’t been said before.” Then she screams in a commanding voice, like a church bell announcing a funeral. “Everybody who reads this will laugh at you. ding! ding! ding! Everything you write is pathetic. ding! ding! ding! You have no talent. dong! dong! dong!”.
I used to say that writing is a battle of self-loathing. About 10 years ago, I began to fight back. Like knight in shining armor, I picked up a sword determined to slay the multi-headed dragon that is the voice inside my head. With the sharp swishing sound of metal cutting through air, I came back with clever retorts: “I do have something to say. Swoosh! I have a unique voice. hack! I have a perspective that is a blend of many cultures. Take that!” One of the dragon heads would be sliced off. Dragon blood dripping on the floor. The other heads would get irritated and begin spitting fire in my direction. “You were never good at writing, not even in school. Remember that essay that you wrote in grade 6, it was pathetic”. When my metal sword stopped working I picked up a lightsaber, hoping to mesmerise the remaining dragon heads with the unusual sound effects “I am a stubborn person with a will of steal. Bzeeew! I am intelligent. Vvvvvvvvvvvv! I am an avid reader of literature. Bb-Zshooooo! I can write a book if I put my mind to it.” On most occasions the dragon would eventually leave me alone, to grow a fresh new head. I would arrive to my writing laptop exhausted from battle, sweaty, hair singed and in hurry to write as quickly as possible before the inner critic appeared again. The amount of time and effort I expended on the battle was far greater than what was expended on the actual writing. In fact writing seemed easy compared to the daily blood bath that preceded it.
As if my struggle with writing was not enough torment, I decided to also dance. There I faced a far greater monster. An ogress with a muddy face and hairy shoulders would should up as I was about to perform and declare with absolute certainty: “You shall not pass!”. Her voice sounded exactly the same as my writing monster nasty voice inside my head but this was a far more terrifying experience. I would find myself paralyzed with dread and unable to move a finger in my own defense. I would shout at my own limbs: “Come on useless arms and legs. Move! Lets fights the same way we do the dragon.” But my limbs would protest meekly: “You are not wearing any armor. Where is the sword? Where is the lightsaber?” I would try to cajole them into movement: “Come on you guys, I can’t wear Knight wear to a dance performance. Let’s kick and punch.” My dance monster wouldn’t waste any time and go straight for jugular. “You are an overweight, middle age mother of three, you dance like a monkey on drugs.” Yearning for my writing dragon, who at least leaves my physical appearance alone and only insults my intellect, I try to push the ogress out of my path. She is quick on her feet and hands me a paralyzing blow while laughing at me: “Go ahead! Make a fool of yourself in front of all these people.” I retreat licking my wounds hoping to shake away the paralysis.
I would never dare say the things the nasty voice inside my head says to anybody else, for it would be vicious and cruel. If anybody said something so horrid to one of my children I would be fuming with anger. Somehow, saying those things to myself is ok.
When I began to paint, there was a childish joy involved with the act of it. Like a toddler with a big pile of play dough. The sense of discovery when mixing different colors, the fun in playing with different brushes. When I finished each painting, I would flash down memory lane to an 8 year old that is proudly showing her mom one of her creations: “Look mom! what I did!” I could feel the loving pat on my head even when the painting turned out nothing like what I had planned. One day while painting I suddenly stopped and realized that there was no painting monster, none whatsoever, no nasty voice at all. There was no voice in my head, only silence, sheer joy and a heart expanding sense of beauty. A most remarkable of feelings. Later the same day, I contemplated the reasons for the absence of a painting monster in my life. I realized that painting had certain characteristics that writing and dancing didn’t have. For one, I wasn’t taking what I was doing seriously, therefore allowing myself to simply play and have fun, not even pretending for a second that I knew what I was doing. There was a sense of mischief in the act of painting, I felt completely free to paint anything silly, ridiculous or funny. I catch myself laughing out loud as I make silly shapes. “What would happen if I made the nose bigger? I bet I can make that scowl more pronounced”, I find myself thinking while giggling. Finally, not an ounce of me cared what anybody thought of my paintings. Producing them and looking at them afterwards, brings me boundless reserves of pleasure free of guilt.
Given that Halloween is right around the corner, I thought this would be a good occasion to tell a story about the scariest of monsters.
After years of battling the writing dragon and the dancing ogress, where 90% of my energy was eaten up in fighting rather than the creative pursuit itself. I decided on a new tactic all together. Whenever my inner critic arrives, I don’t resist, I don’t lift a single finger to fight back, in fact I agree with her. I say: “Yes, yes, yes, I know, I am stupid, I suck and everything I do is worthless. BUT, doing this fills my heart with joy and so I want to do it anyway.” The nasty voice in my head doesn’t have a good retort to that one. Oh she hasn’t gone away all together. She starts the same words of abuse, but when she realizes that the dialogue became a monologue she eventually gets tired and leaves me alone.
Turned this story into a video here: