“Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and gray. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him.”
Last summer, my neighbour spent a lot of time gardening and managed to get rid of all the goutweed in her backyard. Recently, she and I were talking over the fence and I congratulated her on her success. With a laugh, she said: “I did all that work and now, I’ve got horsetail! It’s never-ending!” Having taken care of one invasive weed, she was faced with another.
Her story brought to mind the Nietzsche quote above, which I have posted in my gardening shed. It reminds me of the ongoing and important work of being the gardener, both in the physical soil of the garden, but also within the metaphoric soil of my mind.
For a long time, and like most humans, I largely identified with my mind. I chased any thought that flitted through, often right down some horrible rabbit hole. I didn’t know that I was allowed to question the validity of what went on in my head. All of the negativity and all of the judgments—mostly directed at myself—simply sounded like the voice of truth.
I wasn’t able to see that these opinions about myself were not only mean, but often inaccurate, and definitely not conducive to a state of wellbeing. And I certainly didn’t know that I could exercise control over my thoughts by “weeding” – not allowing certain thoughts and beliefs to take root.
With the help of some good books and patient teachers, I came to understand that we all have an unkind voice inside of us. This “inner critic” easily and mercilessly passes judgment on us, shining a spotlight on our own perceived failings, shortcomings, and inadequacies.
It’s the “Who do you think you are?” voice; the one that doesn’t want us to take any risks or ever play the fool, and the one that doesn’t believe we are deserving of success.
When I work with writers who want to write but are feeling blocked, we start by getting to know their inner critic. This is very much a journey of exploration. We do not set out to “slay” the critic—it is a part of us after all—but to recognize it, understand it, and even befriend it.
There are many layers to this work, but one of the first exercises I encourage is a tuning in. Simply listening objectively and writing down what you hear: a catalogue of the things we say to ourselves. Why did you stop running? You’re getting fat. Melanie is a far better writer than you are. Your father was right – you’re never going to amount to anything. Tuning into the inner critic station and recognizing it for what it is—a litany of unkind thoughts—is a revelation in itself. Finding that there are other stations to listen to is nothing short of a miracle.
I remember the day I discovered that there was actually a kind and supportive voice inside me. It was so much quieter than the critic that I had to strain to hear it, but once I started listening, it gathered steam and grew louder. It was like an open door suddenly appearing in a prison. A solid wall disappearing and instead, sunlight and a vivid green view flooding the room.
While I’ve gotten better at naming the critical voice and not believing everything it says, I’m also very aware that the work with the inner critic is never complete. Your critic’s judgments are the weeds in the garden. When life is routine and uneventful, you may only have to deal with dandelion and clover, but at the first hint that you’re trying to accomplish something big (end a relationship, get in shape, launch a business, write a book), the critic kicks into high gear and it’s all goutweed and horsetail and never-ending mint.
Anyone who has been on the cusp of a major life change or is involved in a meaningful, creative pursuit will understand what I mean when I say that you really need to stay on top of the weeding! Your potential to grow beautiful, fruitful, blossoming creations depends on it.