Category Archives: Reframing your shame

Critique vs. Inner Critic: How to Grow without Crippling Self-Judgement

“Being an artist is kind of like being a nudist,” she says. “You can’t get into the club unless you bare your naked truth, but wearing your skin suit in public is an act of discipline.” – Critter, on exposing yourself to judgement so you can grow.

“Do I have to look?” I mutter to myself as my finger swipes the notifications off my phone’s screen. “I really, really don’t want to.” I swallow a flare of heartburn and lay my phone on the kitchen counter so my hands are free to flap.

I swallow a flare of heartburn and lay my phone on the kitchen counter so my hands are free to flap.

I’m freaking out, man.

The messages are from my friends – fellow writers and/or lovers of a story well-told. Why wouldn’t I want to see what they have to say?

It’s because they’re not just friends today, they’re beta readers. They are giving feedback on the first complete draft of my book. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to say it’s cheesy, half-baked, and fucking awful. My heart is in my throat.

It’s been four months since I committed to turning the stories and messages from this blog into a book. In that time, I have been tossed like a rubber duck on tidal waves of emotion.

It started with ecstatic freedom – knowing that my fate is in my own hands.

“I’m going to be my own freaking fairy godmother!” I sang inside my head. “I’m gonna turn myself into an author!” All I had to do was learn the steps to the self-publishing dance and follow them. Simple as pie.

Next came slice of juicy satisfaction. It felt indescribably good to reject the traditional publishing route. Much like starting my blog, producing my own book freed me to dig my fingers into wet and smelly stuff without worrying about soiling a publisher’s image or offending their marketing sensibilities.

No one was going to stop me from saying the things that I felt needed to be said or water-down my tone. I was completely free to amuse myself with all the gross and unsettling imagery I craved. The sensation of creative control was like bacon-wrapped filet – arousing, addictive, and nourishing to a part of me that was always hungry.

But with all that dizzy liberty came huge responsibility. Every time I caught a giddy swell of possibility, I’d fly off the crest and freefall into twenty-league trough of doubt.

You can’t do this, the doubt in me hissed. You are too scattered to make your deadlines, you’re too flighty to make it polished, and you’re too egocentric to make it satisfying to anyone but you.

And that’s what I was sure these messages from my beta readers were saying.

“What the fuck on god’s green earth made me think I could do this?” I moaned to the kitchen cupboards.

“LEARNING how to do this, dummy!” came a squeaky voice from near my feet. “You learned, and then you tried it. What is there to fuss about?”

I look down and see warm green eyes smiling up at me from a furry black robber’s mask. I start to bend over to pick up my imaginary raccoon. But part-way over, I freeze, staring numbly at the floor behind Critter, my hands working open and closed.

Critter tilts her head and frowns at me, then thrusts her arms in the air to spur me back to action. She looks exactly like my two-year-old, her face saying, “Yeah yeah yeah, I know you’re having all kinds thoughts… but come on. Pick me up and let’s get on with this.”

Critter’s movement catches my eye, and my focus rolls onto her face for a blank pause. Then, I complete my initial motion and lift my scruffy friend to my shoulder. I heave a sigh.

Critter nestles her head against my neck and exhales with audible contentment. Usually, her cosiness radiates into me, but today, it’s bouncing off like heatless rays from an LED bulb.

“What’s up with you?” Critter asks sleepily. “I thought you’d be basking in the afterglow of orgasmic completion today.”

I frown as I pat her back absently.

“What completion?” I ask.

Critter pushes her chest away from mine and looks up at me with an eyebrow cocked in disbelief.

“The book?” she says. “The one you just finished? How are you not dancing right now?” She tilts her head and peers into my eyes, searching for signs of madness.

I shake my head sadly.

“Oh, it’s not finished,” I report. “That was just the beta draft. I was thrilled yesterday because I thought it WAS almost done, and it was such a relief. I was ready to collapse – it’s been a hard push to meet my beta deadline.

But as soon as the first feedback comments started rolling in, I realized the manuscript is nowhere near done. It’s a steaming coil of thoughtless turd, and I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. I have no idea how I’m going to make it fit to publish.”

I sigh again, and it makes my chest ache. It’s like trying to breathe through wet sand.

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

“Are you serious?” she chides. “You’ve finally made it to Mount Doom, and you want to hand-off the ring to Gollum now? I don’t mean to be rude, but are you a moron?” She gives me a crooked smile.

I blink at her, not sure if I’m about to burst into tears or a tirade.

Critter pulls herself out of my arms, crawls onto my shoulder, and leaps onto the counter. Then she stands on her hind feet, so our faces are level and puts her paws on my shoulders.

“What’s your problem?” she huffs into my face with catfood breath.

“What happened to last week’s humble acceptance of your imperfection?”

I crinkle my nose and pull away from the spoiled meat breeze that carries Critter’s words.

My stubborn raccoon narrows her eyes, grabs handfuls of my shirt, and clings to me. As I pull back, her body stretches away from the counter like an accordion, following my retreat.

“Oh no you don’t,” she laughs. “Quit evading the question, or I’ll reach up there and give you mouth to mouth.”

My stomach lurches, and I step forward, clasping my hand over my mouth. This brings Critter back toward the counter, and she shoves off my shoulders to regain her stance on my food prep area.

“Ha!” she says. “You’re helpless before the power of putrefied Purina.”

I swallow hard and scowl at my pushy friend. She scowls right back.

“Spill it, Captain McQueasy,” she says. “What happened to realizing that your best effort was good enough?”

I breathe deep and think about it. An image of last week’s peaceful surrender in the bathtub floats into my mind.

“It’s all about nakedness,” I say to Critter. “Last week, I was just being naked and honest with myself. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom and security.

But this week, it feels like I’ve just dropped my trousers in front of my friends. And it’s only a practice run for the big show when I release the book on the market. I’m basically a stripper, Critter, and I don’t have the body for it!”

Critter covers her eyes and sniggers. Then she opens them and shines her mossy-hued lamps at me kindly.

“Being an artist is kind of like being a nudist,” she says. “You can’t get into the club unless you bare your naked truth, but wearing your skin suit in public is an act of discipline.”

I chuckle. Critter tilts her head at me.

“You’re not that far off on your analogy about stripping,” she continues. “Trying to make a living with your art means you are exposing yourself, ostensibly for the benefit of your audience. If you ask for their sweaty dollar bills, you’d better give them a good show.”

I chuckle again.

“It’s weird how right you are,” I say, shaking my head and scratching Critter’s ear. “Only you could make me feel better about the prospect of training for stripper-cise.”

Critter grins and leans into the scratch.

“You realize how lucky you are to have that terrifying feedback lurking in your mailbox, don’t you?” she asks with slitted eyes.

I take a deep breath and nod.

“Those are your exotic dance instructors,” she says, pointing her nose toward my smartphone. I watch it’s message-alert blinking green a few times, and notice the quiver in my guts.

“They’re giving pointers to help you put on a show you will feel good about,” Critter finishes.

I take another breath and sigh.

“You’re right,” I say. “This judgement is kind; they are trying to help me.”

“And they will, if you let them,” Critter adds.

I nod.

“Somehow, I have to muzzle the terrified voice inside me that just beats me down,” I say. “I need to clear my ears so I can hear the helpful critique and move forward.”

Critter tilts her head and considers.

“You need nudist therapy,” she announces.

“What?” I laugh.

“Nudist therapy; stripping is all about polishing your moves to please people, and it forces you to submit to judgement,” she explains.

“Nudism, on the other hand, is about abandoning judgement and just letting everyone be what they are. There are no beauty pageants on the nude beach.”

I laugh and shake my head.

“You make the nude scene sound meditative,” I reply, “But I’m not quite ready for that.”

Critter smiles at me.

“I know,” she says. “Why don’t you start with a swim?”

My eyes and mouth open wide and I suck in a rush of air.

“That’s… freaking…. Brilliant!!” I gasp. “I always feel scared to step out in my bathing suit, but as soon as I start moving through the water, nothing matters. The curve of my belly, the shape of my thighs… all the things I am so afraid to have judged… they just become body parts once I sink below the surface and start to blow bubbles.

The rest of the swimmers are just collections of body parts, too. We are all exposed at the pool, and we just let each other be. Holy crap, Critter! You just invented bathing suit therapy!”

My self-assured rodent grins and polishes her claws.

“I’m going to do it!” I sing. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going for a swim after I drop the girls and daycare and school.”

“Atta girl,” Critter says, “and don’t dig into your beta feedback until your bare feet are planted firmly on the ground.”

I scoop up my imaginary raccoon and hug her fiercely.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I whisper to her, “but you make this terrifying shit doable.”

Critter looks up at me with mischievous crinkles around her eyes.

“It’s what I do,” she says. “And if you want to show your gratitude, I could go for a can of something wet and stinky.”

“Yuck,” I say, grimacing. “But to be fair, you’ve earned it.”

So I fix Critter a bowl of slimy stuff from the garbage can and wash my hands three times. The next day, I follow-through on my plan for a swim.

It feels amazing, and the sound of my bubbly breath fills my ears until the voice of my inner critic fades away.

Now, I’m ready to face the beta feedback on my book. I’m going to let my feverish ache to provide a satisfying show pull me through the next phase of gruelling revisions.

And I’m going to make sure I tell my beta readers how much I appreciate their brave critique of my literary lap dance.

Critter and I know that you face daunting challenges, too. We hope you find a way to balance your stripper-training with nudist therapy and give yourself room to grow without crippling self-judgement.

Serenity Prayer for Mental Illness

“God, grant me the clarity to recognise what I can control and what I cannot, and the imagination to walk through my own warped storylines like a badass.” – me, right now.

“Is this hell, Critter?” I groan to my imaginary raccoon. I am sitting up in bed with the light on. It is 1:00 am and my two-year-old is cough-howling in the next room.

I lay George RR Martin’s A Clash of Kings face down on my bed. In the back of my mind, I can hear the spine silently straining and feel the glue threatening to let go. I picture the pages of this well-loved tome creaking toward the same heart-rending explosion that befell my worn-out copy of Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

My heart sinks.

“Please… hang on!” I whisper to the book.

I paw frantically through tangled layers of blanket to find my bookmark while my sick baby chokes and wails next door.

Jesus Christ, woman, GO! A clear-eyed version of me shouts to myself.

“Fine!” I say out loud. I rush around the end of my bed, but take the corner too fast and whack my thigh against the edge of the frame. That’s gonna leave a bruise.

“Ow! Fuck!” I hiss.

I stumble the few steps into the hall, then wrench my little one’s door open and drop to my knees at her bedside.

“Shhh, shhh, sweetheart. Mommy’s here. Shhhh, shhh… come here, just breathe, Baby,” I mutter as I scoop her up.

My little lovey buries her face into my chest and hacks and howls. It takes two or three minutes before the obstructive goop works itself free in her airway. When she can finally breathe, she sucks in a lungful of air and pushes it back out as a piteous wail.

Jesus Christ, this is awful, I think.

A few days ago, I’d sat in the doctor’s office with my little pestilence culture on my knee describing these scary plugged-chest episodes.

“I know it sounds like she’s dying,” the doctor had said, “but really, she’s fine. It’s just a nasty bug. It will take at least a week to work itself out. Bring her back if she’s not starting to get better within two weeks.”

What if I can’t make it two weeks? I had wondered.

My husband had just left on a work trip. I was getting tag-teamed by my most dreaded foes with no backup. If I had had a nickel, I wouldn’t have risked it on my odds of victory.

I was struggling as a solo-parent, night nurse, and freelance professional. The past three days had been excruciating: my oldest daughter had overwhelmed me with a constant flurry of infuriating arguments, while with my youngest (the human petri dish) bawled and clawed at me 24/7, begging me to let her crawl up underneath my shirt.

I had a deadline tonight. The client had emailed three times today to touch base and add new thoughts to her project. I was straining for every word on her piece, with my brain running on the fumes of four hours of sleep in the last two nights.

It felt like infant care all over again. It felt like hell.

Back in the baby’s bedroom, I stand beneath the dim blue stars projected by her night light and hold her tiny hot head against my skin. I rock for her comfort, and for mine.

What the fuck am I going to do? I wonder.

“Whatever needs doing,” comes a whisper from my shoulder. “You’re the mom. Just do what needs doing.”

It’s Critter. She has climbed up next to my ear and is gazing at the top of my little one’s head with melting kindness.

“She’s having a rough time,” Critter says, and strokes the baby’s soft hair exactly the way I do.

“She’s SO miserable,” I whisper. “I need to make her feel better. I need BOTH of us to feel better!”

Critter turns her soft green eyes to me. She touches my cheek with her delicate black fingers and breathes deep.

“I know,” she says, “But you can’t. You can’t control this. It sucks. But she is okay. And so are you. You just gotta ride it out.”

A tear swells in the corner of my eye.

“I don’t think I can, Critter,” I whisper.

“One thing at a time,” she answers. “Let’s start with some Tylenol. I think she’s due for another dose.”

I check my watch, and as usual, Critter is right. The last dose was at eight o’clock. Maybe another mouthful will give my baby’s battleground body some relief.

I cuddle my hairless gorilla child under my chin and Critter rides effortlessly on my shoulder as we descend the dark stairway.

The baby flinches when I click on the hood light above the stove. Then she sits up eagerly when I grab the familiar bottle of ache-relieving suspension.

My left arm starts to go numb with her small weight on my elbow. I manage to shake the bottle and fill the syringe mostly one-handed, without dropping anything or anyone. The little one drinks her dose and sighs. At least this is one task that doesn’t give her pain.

Next, I dip a Q-tip into a mix of antacid and anti-histamine and dab it on the sores lining her lips and mouth. For a “harmless virus”, this bug has been vicious.

Then, I stand in the dark kitchen and cuddle and sway my sick girl until her breath starts to soften and slow.

I carry her back up the stairs and lay her gently in her bed. I curl up next to her in the converted crib (yeah, I’m that short) and listen to her suck her thumb and whimper until she falls asleep.

I carefully peel myself out of the bed and slip the door closed behind me. As I crawl up onto my own bed, I find my freaking bookmark. I slide it between the ruffled pages of my abused paperback, and press hard on the covers as if this will straighten out the kinks and waves. I put the book on my dresser and stare at it.

“Aren’t you going to bed?” asks Critter. I had forgotten she was there. She hops down off my shoulder and arranges some folds of mussed-up blanket into a nest. Then, she curls her grey-brown body into it, sighs contentedly, and looks up at me expectantly.

“God, I wish I could just shut down and go to sleep right now,” I say. “I know I need to. I just can’t. My brain is fried.”

Critter considers me.

“I know this isn’t really hell,” I continue. “It might be if the baby was seriously ill. Or if my husband wasn’t coming back.” I start thinking of the people I know who have been through these trials, and worse.

And then I think of my friends who have infants and are living this kind of constant, gut-wrenching demand month after month.

Then I think of my loved ones who have had recent devastations, and ones whose nights of heartache and bleary-eyed torment have lasted years.

“This is nothing,” I say. “But it feels like doom. I’m fucking useless.” My heart goes thud-a-thud in my throat, and I can hear myself screaming in the back of my mind. I am too strung out to cry. I just stare, and rub my burning eyes, and feel the pressure building behind them.

“What do you need?” Critter asks.

“I don’t know!” I cry. “God, I wish I knew. So many people have offered to help. I just can’t figure out how. The baby is stuck to me like an octopus. It’s not like I can just peel her off and plop her on someone’s lap and go to the spa. By the time I finished explaining about the small handful of things she can kind of eat right now, and the popsicles, and the meds, and the salt-water swish, and the Q-tips and the…”

Critter puts her paw up to stop me.

“I get it,” she says. “Good lord, that’s enough.”

My eyes brim with water.

“I keep thinking,” I say, “about how if someone asked me for advice, I would tell them to make a plan… figure out what you need, and just ask for it… but I can’t. I can’t see past the end of my nose. I have no idea what I need. I need sleep, and that can’t happen right now.”

Critter listens patiently.

Her quiet makes me want to scream. I am bracing myself for a splatter of judgement from her mouth… she’s going to tell me I’m being dramatic. I just know it.

Critter just keeps looking at me, her moss-coloured irises reflecting the lamplight like warm little torches in her soft black mask.

My hands ball into fists.

“Stop looking at me like that!” I shout. “I know I’m being ridiculous. I know it, okay?!? I can’t stop! I can’t! I can’t make it stop! I’m ridiculous! I can’t!!” My cries dissolve into sobs, and I cover my face with my hands.

I feel movement on the bed, and then a gentle touch strokes my back.

“Shhh… it’s okay. I’m here,” Critter soothes. “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’re going to figure this out.”

I lift my face and wipe my eyes with the back of my wrist.

“Huh-how?” I hiccough.

Critter tilts her head, thinking.

“Bring on the drama,” she says.

“Huh?” I ask.

“If it feels like drama to you, let’s go with it,” she explains. “We’ll save your life with role play. Pretend that you are going through epic hell – like a horror movie. And then become the badass heroine who survives.”

I let this thought sink in. I think I like it.

“Like Michonne, on The Walking Dead?” I ask.

Critter grins.

“Exactly,” she says.

That new frame changes the whole picture.

Suddenly, I don’t give a shit anymore about how other people would handle this mess. The dead crust of shame flakes off my skull, and the shiny pink flesh beneath is grim and determined.

I let myself dive into the reality of it – the hideous way it feels, the non-negotiable things my girls need from me, the degree to which I am handicapped right now, and the tasks I can honestly let go.

My scenario starts to come clear. I know what I need to do.

I’m going to make myself get up and take the big girl to school tomorrow. But I’m not even going to try to get dressed.

I’m going to finish this piece of copywriting work, and then help my client find another writer –  someone who has the time and energy to maintain the intensity her project requires.

And forget dragging the kids through the grocery store. I’m ordering that shit online.

And I’m ordering in our dinner for the next couple of days. I don’t care if it has to go on my Visa. I’ll figure that out when things are better.

Fuck it. Let’s do this.

I’m going to get it done like my favourite dreadlocked ninja.

Here’s why Michonne is my favourite character on TWD; it’s not just because she works a katana like a Cuisinart and is as cool and inevitable as the Columbia River in the face of fear.

I love Michonne because she always dives into the mess, rather than running away.

She neutralised the zombie corpses of the men who took everything from her and used them to walk safely among the dead. That’s not just fucking brilliant, it’s wisdom and courage and clear-eyed honesty. This fictional woman represents unassailable emotional strength, right down to her made-up marrow.

Michonne can admit when things are shit. She can also admit when she’s been too hard on the world, and pry herself back open.

And she never hesitates when the way out of a jam is to plunge your fist straight into its rotting middle. She slimes herself with gore when it gets her where she needs to go. And she gets there. Every time.

I can’t help but wonder if Michonne has a guardian raccoon, too. She certainly finds many interesting uses for rotting meat.

“Alright, Critter,” I say. “I’m going to be a badass. I’ll get through this fortnight of hell. Even if it’s not pretty, I’ll still be standing when the sun comes up. Or when the cavalry shows up in the motorhome. Or whatever.”

Critter stands up and hugs me around my neck.

“Atta girl,” she whispers. Then she turns, and with a wink at me over her shoulder, my imaginary raccoon hops off my bed and trots out of the room.

Here’s what Critter left me with this week, and which we hope will help you, too:

  • Just do what needs doing.
  • What do you need?
  • We’re going to figure this out.
  • Bring on the drama.
  • Become the badass who survives.

And I’d like to add – Get your food delivered. Critter says she’d be happy to bring you a care package, but I promise, you won’t want what’s inside a dumpster-diving rodent’s Tupperware. You can take Critter’s advice, but not her catering.

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