“… let the soft animal of your body love what it loves …” (Mary Oliver)
Hearing these words recited this morning brought tears for how unkind I’ve been to myself. Judging. Dissatisfied. Rarely grateful, welcoming, or loving. Sixty-nine years of life with this harsh and critical voice in my head. Why?
Not Good Enough. A witchy figure sits in the corner of the room, hovering in a dark shadow over the open notebook of my manuscript. She wags a disapproving finger at me. Exhorting, demanding, criticizing. The time I spend on writing and editing is not good enough. The effort, the creativity, the authenticity I put into the manuscript—not good enough. The manuscript in its entirety … not … good … enough.
Imagine my surprise at my niece’s response to my whining self-disparagement.
“It’s 860-some pages! Ridiculously too long. It must be cut down.”
Upon hearing this, she gasped. “860 pages! I’d be clapping at such an achievement.”
Clapping? How is it possible that clapping has not once occurred to me?
She and I ponder our shared burden, carrying this harsh and heavy inner figure on our backs for as long as we can remember. A hag who goes on and on, endlessly repeating insults: Inadequate. Insufficient. Not good enough.
Can we try to see her differently? What if she needs our help? What if our hag were partnered with a light-bearing sprite? Might she be less miserable? For miserable she surely is, hence, misery is what she brings. What if, rather than wishing to banish our witch from the house of our psyche, we were to accept her as part of the inner multiplicity of being? Each subpersonality haunts … or … offers to guide, remind, inspire. What if we were to dig deeper, to look for what emotions, needs, and complexities drive Not Good Enough? She could embody the (distorted) longing to give, create, and be our best selves. She could personify too-high standards, the urge for creative expression that has sadly run amok. Perfectionism carries a fearful and desperate wish to be in control. When life, disappointment, love, or grief unsettle our sense of how we need our world to be, we may ally or bind ourselves to perfectionism. Not Good Enough. When we are less than aware of whose arms we’re running into, we lose the opportunity to choose. When we judge the judge, we’re caught on the treadmill of futility and self-harm. If on the other hand, we give every inner voice a receptive ear, every figure in our inward cosmos a seat at the table, we might find they have something to say, something to remind us of, something to teach. Even Not Good Enough.
Not Good Enough might serve to keep us humble. She might return us to a gentler sense of proportion when we’ve unwittingly become inflated with self-importance. (I’m reluctantly looking at the possibility that my self-denigration is yet another unwitting form of too much attention to self.) Not Good Enough might remind us of our place in the larger, more beautiful world and spiritual dance to which we belong, in which we wish to participate and contribute to. She might even gently mother us when we fail. What might that be like?
What if Not Good Enough were seen as a kind of inward balancing force. If befriended, might the gray, heavy-handed, finger-pointing hag offer useful and mediating energy? When I’ve slipped into taking myself too seriously … When high expectations become impossible perfectionistic demands, maybe I can shift from admonishing, fault-finding, scowling, and glowering. Maybe the Sprite will invite me to a more playful and generous way of being. In her contrasting translucence and light, she could hover over my manuscript smiling, waving, beckoning. She might point to what’s been accomplished, what’s gone well.
She might clap!