It’s early in the morning, I’m still in my pajamas, and stuck in indecision. The day already feels doomed.
This is how it started. A last-minute cancelled appointment gives me unexpected free time, which causes a rush of euphoria over the possibilities. “Hey, cool! Extra time… wow, what could I do?” Images of all sorts of options go through my mind: go back to bed, call a friend for coffee, read that new book, or even do some self-care activities I don’t always take the time to enjoy.
But before I can even determine all my options, a pesky (and familiar) voice pops into my head and says, “Oh, but you should get to those invoices.” And another one joins in, “Be careful… don’t make the wrong decision here…”
Judgment. Already. And it’s not even 8:00.
Sure, there’s a lot to be said about weighing opportunities and outcomes. It’s a wonderful feeling to be intentional about what you choose to do, and to know that you’re using your time and energy for something that matters to you. I’m all about that.
But when “getting it right” enters the scene – when that judgment card has thrown a wedge into your positivity – all sorts of saboteur voices can pipe in and spoil the party.
You know the ones I’m talking about, I’m sure. They’re the voices that tell you all the things you’re doing wrong, or could to wrong, or always do wrong. Sometimes called “limiting beliefs” or your inner critic, they tell you you’re too much of something or not enough of something else. They try to keep you safe by making you play small and not leave your comfort zone. We all have them. They just take a different tone at different times for different people.
This morning, mine sounded like this: Don’t make a mistake! Don’t waste this precious time! Don’t be too rash but don’t take too long to decide! Don’t be too selfish! Don’t be too optimistic!
Once these voices hijack the situation, it’s close to impossible to actually bring myself to a decision. No matter what I choose to do next, there’s the fear that maybe it wasn’t truly the right thing. The best thing. The most useful and practical and defendable thing. The thing I can be proud of at the end of the day.
When I pay attention to these voices, I become paralyzed by self-doubt. That once bright and shiny opportunity of extra time turns into a dark and hopeless prison cell. I’m afraid to make a mistake, afraid to be wrong, afraid to move.
The prison of self-judgment
I know this feeling, this prison. At one point in my past, I lived here nearly full-time. It’s not fun in here. The walls are made up of horrible beliefs about myself and how I “should be” to be a better person: should be more organized, more disciplined, more spontaneous, more easy-going… should be better… should be different. These beliefs closed in and held me immobile. They kept me awake at night, thinking of all the things I should have done differently that day, and didn’t.
Through a lot of personal growth work, I’ve learned that there’s only one light that will get me out of this dark and hopeless place, and that’s self-love. The trick is to remember that I’m always worthy, no matter what I do, or don’t do – that I am already enough. With this flame burning brightly within me, when I feel the walls of self-judgment closing in, I can say to myself “You’re okay just the way you are”. And I truly believe I am.
Getting to this stage takes a bit of practice, though, and sometimes a little help from a coach (or other real voices to help you remember how great you are). The more I take notice of the warning signs – those very first tones of judgment that start to form walls around me – the faster I can counter with self-love, break free, and move on through my day. With practice, it becomes a knee-jerk reaction.
Yet there are still times I’m caught off guard and become trapped by limiting beliefs before I know it. (For me, this most often happens when I haven’t gotten enough sleep, and I don’t take time first thing in the morning to connect to that worthiness in me.)
Switching to self-love when self-judgment already has a hold can be challenging, to say the least.
But all is not lost. Even when the walls of self-judgment rush in and you get stuck before you know it, there is a simple process you can use to get unstuck, which I call “The Three Ns”:
Noticing: Notice what’s going on, and allow yourself to feel trapped. Yes, seriously, let it happen. Notice how close the walls are. Notice the feelings that you have, of being frozen, frustrated, indecisive and miserable, whatever your saboteur prison is to you. It feels horrible, yes, so notice just exactly how horrible it feels.
In his book, “Taming Your Gremlins”, Rick Carson paraphrases what he calls the Zen Theory of Change as, “I free myself not by trying to be free, but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment I am imprisoning myself.”
If the walls are already there, then as soon as you notice them, just surrender. This is a very counter-intuitive move – to take a non-judgmental observer’s stance and simply notice all that is going through your head as you experience something negative. (Notice that I said the process was “simple”, not “easy”.)
And, it is the first step of getting unstuck. Similar to finding you’re way out of a hole you fall into, you first have to take a moment to figure out exactly where you are, by actively noticing the conditions of the pit you’re in, as well as your physical and emotional state.
Naming: Name what you’re noticing, out loud. Give a name to every feeling in your body or emotion that goes through you, and start with “I notice”, to keep that observer’s perspective. This prevents you from getting too swept up in every emotion, so that you can keep noticing.
For example, I say, “I’m noticing how stuck I feel, like anything I do is the wrong move, like I have no choices left at all. I notice how miserable this is, how paralyzing, how hopeless. I notice how sad I am.”
And amazingly – I’m always surprised at how quickly it happens – after naming what I’m noticing, the trapped, frustrated, miserable feeling shifts slightly. It starts to turn a little resentful and angry. The voice in my head morphs away from “Don’t make a mistake!” into, “You always end up here! Why can’t you be different? What’s the matter with you?!?”
So I name that, too, saying to myself, “Now I’m noticing how angry and pissed off I am. I’m noticing how pathetic I feel, how much I hate feeling this way.”
And this is where things get interesting. In my case, sadness and frustration shifts to anger, which fires up a little heat from within, and begins to thaw my frozen limbs. Noticing and naming the anger sparks a sense of defensiveness – an emotional pushback, as it were. So now there’s some movement, whereas before I was completely and hopelessly stuck.
For you, it could be a different sort of shift or realization. The important thing is, if you stay with noticing long enough, something will shift, and bam, you’ve got movement.
As soon as I notice this subtle shift in myself, I name that, too: “Hey, it wasn’t me that put me here – it was those flipping saboteurs that made me unsure of myself. I was doing just fine, entertaining all sorts of wonderful ideas, until they started judging me.”
With this realization comes a solid ray of light.
“Those saboteurs.” That’s the turning point. Once those voices are named as not being a part of oneself, the prison becomes illuminated. This is because “naming” truly is powerful. When the observer notices and names a limiting belief – a fear, a negative voice of “should” or “not enough” – some of its power is taken away. Naming them catches saboteurs in the beam of a flashlight, and causes them to shrink back.
That’s when you have the upper hand.
On a roll now, I direct my energy at the saboteurs instead of at myself. I now say, “Ahhhh, it’s you again, Ms. Never Good Enough. You think you can catch me this time? Ha!” This new shift gives me the power I need to move to the third step:
Saying “No!” In my case, I say “No!” to the saboteur telling me to be perfect. I say, “No!” to needing to have everything worked out before I start, and “No!” to living up to other people’s expectations of me, or my inflated expectations of myself.
With each, “No!”, the saboteurs shrink even more, and the prison walls of judgment and fear retreat. As the space around me opens up, I can find my way back to believing that I’m already good enough, regardless of what I do next.
Click! I have found my self-love switch.
Floodlights suddenly appear. The saboteurs know they don’t have a fighting chance anymore, and they’re gone. When they go, the prison walls disappear, too. There I am (still in my pajamas) standing in the sunlight, completely unhindered and ready to move into the next thing.
It doesn’t matter what that thing is, and I’m not worrying about whether it’s right or not. This is because I know I’m already all right, no matter what I do. So I’m free to say “yes” to anything.
My “next thing” this morning was to sit down and write this blog.
What saboteurs do you need to notice, name and say “No!” to, so you can free yourself and move on to your next thing?