My dad left my mom a week after her own mother had died, and just shy of my fourth birthday. Prior to that, we had seen my grandma almost every day of my life, and spent weekends with my aunt, uncle, and four older cousins whom I adored. After the split, everything changed. My dad found an apartment nearby, and almost immediately moved in with the woman who would become my stepmother four years later. My mom went to work as a secretary at a publishing company. I spent three nights at one house, four nights at the other, alternating that fourth night every other week.
My dad had lots of “lady friends”, and we would spend time with them after school, and before going home to my stepmom for dinner. My dad would say we’d been at the park or the museum, and I would just nod, because I understood it would hurt her feelings to know we’d spent time with other women. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew when women called the house, my stepmom would retreat to the bathroom, taking hours-long baths, and sobbing quietly. So I learned to follow my dad’s lead. I felt worried for him, too, because he would cry in my arms and tell me he needed to be free, and all these women wanted him to commit. I thought he was the victim of these awful women who were all trying to get a piece of him.
Keeping Everyone Happy But Myself
At my mom’s I would worry about my dad, but I knew to keep that to myself. At my dad’s I would miss my mom, but I learned to be quiet about that, also. Sometimes at pick ups or drop offs, there would be fighting, and I would want to disappear. Once, when I was seven, my dad and mom had an argument when he came to get me. Halfway from my mom’s house to my dad’s, I started crying. I said I wished I were dead. My dad grabbed me by the shoulders and told me to never say anything like that again. He was visibly shaken, as I’m sure I would be if my seven year old said that to me. Nonetheless, the feelings didn’t go away, I just learned to keep them to myself.
Over the years, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to help my dad, and how to be perfect for my mom. She was elusive to me, always tired from working to take care of us, or running out the door to go on dates. She was a gorgeous and mysterious creature to me, with her high heels and long hair and delicious smells. I wanted her attention, love and approval. I wanted my dad to be happy.
I was so focused on my parents’ feelings, I learned to devalue my own. When they would arise, I’d scold myself for being selfish. I excelled in school, and spent most afternoons in the ballet studio, spinning and spinning en pointe until my toes bled, only to get up and do it again the next day. I thought if I was perfect, somehow everything would be okay. My dad would be happy. My mom would pause and realize how wonderful I was. No matter how hard I worked, though, it didn’t seem to matter.
Dismantling the Inner Critic with Yoga
As an adult, I can easily spot my faulty thinking. First of all, you can’t make another person happy, that’s inside work. Secondly, both my parents loved me. My dad was in a dark place, and my mom was focused on making sure we could eat. Decades of time and my own healing process have given me a lot of compassion for all three of us. Nonetheless, you learn what you learn as you grow, and sometimes you end up with a lot of unlearning to do. Not surprisingly, my desire to try to fix things by being perfect led to an unbelievably harsh inner critic within me, because human beings are inherently imperfect, and so I set the bar at a level where constant disappointment in myself was the only possible result. And so, as I started practicing yoga and began the process of rewiring my system, I realized that was going to be my biggest project. How to dismantle this nasty witch who lived in my head and pointed out all the many ways I was blowing things all the time?
If you have an inner nasty witch, too, then you know how debilitating it is. You take a left when you should have taken a right, and there’s that voice, calling you an idiot, and berating you for your poor sense of direction. You say something you wish you hadn’t, and there she is, making you twist in the wind for being human. Someone rejects you? Forget it, she’s going to tell you why that person is right, and you really do suck, and are unlovable at your core. It’s a horrendous way to live, and you don’t have to accept it as the way things are.
Here are the three tools I used to banish the witch, and develop a loud inner cheerleader.
#1. I made my yoga mat a witch-free zone.
There’s that saying, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything”, and I have found that to be true. Whatever your tendencies are, they’re with you all the time. If you’re hard on yourself, you aren’t going to “check that” at the door when you unroll your mat, it’s going to come along for the ride. However, you don’t have to heed or feed that nasty voice. Whatever you feed will grow and strengthen. On my mat, if I fell out of a pose, or couldn’t do it “perfectly” and that witch started talking to me, I’d tell her (calmly, and with a little smile on my face), to eff off, and I’d replace that voice with a kind one. I’d remind myself that it’s okay to fall, and that the real yoga is about falling calmly when you fall, or balancing calmly when you balance. It’s about breathing deeply and consciously. It’s about your state of mind, and not the shape you’re making with your body.
#2. I developed a seated meditation practice.
If you want to cultivate a sense of humor about yourself, meditation is the way to go, because you can just sit back, and watch all the crazy thoughts go by. You don’t have to believe everything you think, as the saying goes. Sometimes our thoughts are not even ours, they’re things we’ve been taught to believe. Developing some distance so you can witness your experience is enormously helpful when it comes to healing. Learning to focus on your breath, and other sensations in the body makes you present; your inhales and exhales always happen in the now. If you can pick your mind up and bring it back to your breath, you can pull it away from thoughts that weaken you, and direct it toward those that strengthen you. If your mind starts to spiral, or you’re dealing with obsessive or catastrophic thinking, you have the ability to pull yourself out of that nosedive, and level yourself off, so you can notice the horizon again, or the sun shining overhead. I have found over the years that the more I focus on my meditation practice, the less I have to fend off the inner critic, because I see her coming a mile away, and she’s not even strong anymore. She’s a ghost of herself. She has no power over me. I fought the witch, and the witch is dead.
#3. I created nicknames for myself.
I’m sure this might sound weird, but don’t knock it without giving it a shot. You can absolutely shift your inner voice so you have one that roots you on instead of living with one that tears you down, but if this is a habitual thing, it’s going to take time. I love the first two tools, because with your physical yoga practice, you’re dealing with habitual patterns as they arise in your own body, and with seated meditation, you’re dealing with thoughts as they arise in your own mind. As you develop a kinder inner voice, it will naturally follow you off your yoga mat and meditation cushion, and into your life, but it takes time, patience and effort. If you’re feeling tired, tested, or vulnerable, those old habits may crop up, and having a nickname at the ready is a great way to catch yourself as you’re driving in your car, folding laundry, or doing the dishes–anytime your mind might wander into that old terrain. For me, I am fond of “Sport”, “Tiger” and “Chief.” If, for example, I’m going through a tough moment and not being mindful, and suddenly I realize that ghost of a witch is trying to take me for a spin on her broom, I catch myself with a little, “Hold on there, Chief! You made a mistake, you’re human, it’s okay.” And just like that, the witch disappears in a puff of smoke. I have a friend who happens to be a manly dude, and his nickname for himself is “Doll-face”. It amuses me to no end to think of him catching himself with a little, “Slow down there, doll-face!” I think picking your nickname is personal business, and you certainly don’t have to share it with anyone, but give it a shot.
The yoga practice has eight “limbs”; the physical practice is only one of those eight. The first and second limb are made up of the Yama and Niyama, yoga’s moral and ethical codes. Ahimsa is the very first Yama, and it means non-harming. Most people get that. Of course we want to be kind and conscious as we move through the world, and think about the way we treat other people. Sometimes there’s a disconnect, though. If you heard the words you’re saying to yourself coming out of someone else’s mouth, would you characterize them as abusive or unkind? If you get a yes on that, I hope you’ll try the tools above. Life is too short to live with a witch in your head, and it’s impossible to offer up the best of yourself that way. A loud inner cheerleader makes life a lot more fun, it’s essential for your inner peace, and it’s the best asset I know when it comes to sharing your particular gifts. Don’t let the witch steal your spark!
Ally Hamilton is co-founder of Yogis Anonymous with a Santa Monica-based brick-and-mortar studio and an online yoga video site. She wrote a book about her process, “Yoga’s Healing Power: Looking Inward for Change, Growth and Peace”, in the hope that it would be helpful to anyone else who might need to a little rewiring or unlearning. Yoga’s Healing Power is available on August 8th. Ally lives in Santa Monica with her two young kids, and one crazy Labradoodle named Chewbacca. Find out more at yogisanonymous.com.