Most of us are hard on ourselves at least some of the time, and most of our friends will tell us to cut it out. Easier said than done.
For me, understanding when and why I started criticizing myself helped me to reclaim a very special creative part of myself – and it happened in Italy.
In grade school I was a smart kid, a leader, popular. I liked learning and I liked school. I liked recess just as much as school, and often played out ongoing, imaginative scenarios with my circle of friends.
But in the middle of fifth grade, my parents and I moved. We relocated to a rural area, and I quickly learned things were different there. Kids there weren’t impressed by knowledge. When I spoke up in class, they laughed. When I wore a new outfit to school, they laughed. I had the wrong clothes, the wrong face, the wrong set of tools to deal with this new world.
For several years, from the time I got on the bus in the morning until I found my way home, I endured ongoing and sometimes terrifying harassment from multiple directions. I had learned one thing at this school: It was not OK to be myself. I stopped speaking in class, and with few exceptions, remained silent through high school.
My parents tried to help as best as they could, but these were the days when schools still viewed bullying as “character building” and blamed the victim.
I escaped the only way I could – internally. I started reading more. I wrote. I threw most of my frustrations and rage onto paper, and it came out as fairies and goblins and space travelers. I daydreamed constantly. I was trapped at school, forced into this place full of enemies. So in those Reagan-era Cold War-burnout days, I became an American spy, undetected in a Russian government compound. At home, I was a Jedi-in-training, Luke Skywalker’s lost sister (before I knew he really had one).
That inner light of imagination had come to my rescue.
But the dark thing had also settled in, the one that told me I wasn’t good enough, that something was wrong with me. It stayed and grew stronger, furiously constructing a false ego out of the need for protection. It led to fear-based decisions that pushed my authentic self deeper into a hole.
Years later, in a place where I’d largely reclaimed myself (and was now an equal fan of Star Wars and Star Trek), I found myself in Italy with my Goddard classmates, Regina and Dulcie, on Wide Open Writing’s inaugural Tuscany retreat. We’d completed a shared experience at Goddard, telling our stories in different ways, always from a place of authenticity. I had embraced my creative side and built upon my love for sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction, eventually winning awards for an asteroid story.
But that dark thing had followed me to Italy. I felt an intense pressure during our writing sessions to get it right, to produce something amazing, to impress.
The retreat included a session with therapist and creativity specialist Troi Boulanger, who met with me one afternoon when I was feeling particularly tense. She asked a series of questions to find out what was making me feel blocked by that internal critic – and when it had started.
It didn’t take long to realize ‘when.’
What would it look like, Troi asked me, if that 11-year-old girl was unfettered by criticism, free from the danger of being hurt?
Suddenly, she was there, my alter ego, the one who had helped me to survive. My Space Girl. I had never really lost her; she always was there somewhere in the shadows, nudging me toward dystopias and space stories and haunted places. But I thought she was simply my past younger self, and maybe even an imaginary part, the me-inside-my-head part.
Oh, no. Space Girl was alive and well.
It happened so fast, like magic. Troi had helped me to dig a tunnel to that dark hole, to reach down through the years of emotional detritus and garbage and take that girl’s hand.
This is what Troi had to say about her process:
In my work, I help people identify their blocks by using energy, magic and “getting into the zone” to be able to feel in their body, see an image, have a memory or just know (in a sense tapping into their own soul's knowing) what is needing to be healed. Because of our wounded parts, we develop patterns of thought, behavior and emotion (usually a self "protective" measure, even if it's self-sabotage) that at some point stop serving us. The process I facilitate involves identifying all this and developing deep compassion for all of these parts and all that has been, so to transform and evolve into our true creative beings. Part of my gift is being able to help people get to this place quickly. It's by no means instantaneous healing. However, once we make the connection of what has been and how it is present in our present, mostly our higher selves want to evolve. Lucky us!
That evening during the writing session, I began writing a letter to Space Girl. She took over and wrote it instead.
Dulcie was wandering around taking photos. “Something is happening,” I whispered to her as I scribbled. Space Girl had come leaping out of me while I sat under my favorite tree at the farm, orbiting me like a sprite, spinning galaxies around me.
She was and is the part of me that is unstopped by the fear of failure and criticism. She is the one who nurtures and cares for my soul. The empathic me, the anything-is-possible me. And how appropriate was it that a counselor named Troi had led me back to her?
Space Girl had led me to writing, of course, but also to more: To decisions that didn’t make sense on paper, but made sense in my soul. She was the one who led me to leave situations that were no longer healthy, to step into new experiences without knowing the outcome. She had always been with me, always growing with me, yet still remaining 11 years old – innocent and true, pure and alive.
What good could we do for others and ourselves (and our creativity) if we found our authentic selves again, reclaimed them, burned the trash that buried them in the first place?
Troi will be joining us in Tucson this year, and I hope you and your inner-alter-egos will come, too.