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  • Conversation with the Critic

  • There was a time in my life when I was very aware of the person I was supposed to be. And while I wasn't entirely comfortable with that person, I was very comfortable inhabiting that person. Sometimes I miss him. I miss the theo that was confident in every thought he had. Who was sure of his beliefs and his relative infallibility. I miss the theo who felt safe sharing his thoughts even when they were half formed and blatantly wrong.

    There are plenty of things I don't miss about that person, but that's not what's on my mind right now. It's not that I miss being wrong. It's that I miss feeling safe being wrong. The theo of today tries to be wrong only as tactic. They're more cautious, more calculating, more strategic.

    Those aren't all bad things. I mostly think that I'm a much better person now than I was 10 years ago. But I'm considering a part of myself that I think has grown too big. I call it the Critic.

    I didn't create the Critic. He's been with me since childhood. Probably since the first time someone told me to shut up, to stop singing whatever song was in my head. Not because I was making noise but because the sound I was making was bad. I think everybody has a critic inside them. A voice that is grading us against imaginary, subjective, but somehow rigid standards. A voice that tells us that anything less than perfection is worthless. And that WE are worthless as a result of our worthless expressions of self.

    But I have fed the Critic. I internalized the voices that told me I wasn't a good singer. I internalized the constant rejection. I internalized the hatred laid upon me, both spoken and unspoken. Because what else was I supposed to do? I didn't have anybody telling me that I shouldn't.

    Except my mother of course. And from her I internalized that I'm better than my abusers, better than everyone who rejected me in fact. I internalized that I should take solace in my being better than everyone else, and let me tell you, that wasn't really very helpful.

    Cause there's something that my mother didn't understand, that my therapist couldn't wrap her head around, that I'm still figuring out.

    I don't hate myself. I don't have a self-esteem problem. Or I didn't. I had an other-esteem problem. I actually really like myself. I like my stims and my voice and the songs that I sing to myself. I like the fact that I'm into weird things. I don't feel bad for not liking sports or getting overwhelmed at loud bars. I don't have a problem with the fact that I'm Queer. I don't even dislike my depression.

    What I dislike is the way I've been treated my whole life. What I dislike is being discounted because other people can't understand the way I interact with the world. What I dislike is being cast out of spaces that should have been safe because adults couldn't see through the image my peers projected upon me.

    None of the things that caused me pain growing up were my fault. And I never wanted to change who I was. I liked me.

    But I also didn't have the tools or language to know who I really was. And through all of the horror of my youth the Critic was growing within me. Eating up every insult and slight.

    I was suicidal my senior year of High School. Not because I hated myself. Because it just seemed easier. There was no way to just be myself. Everywhere I turned people were telling me I was wrong, broken, damaged, defective, or just unwanted. The Critic ate that shit up. It was a very difficult time in my life.

    Still, I didn't hate myself. No, the self-loathing came later. And that's when the Critic started to get some exercise.

    You remember how I said that my mother told me I was better than everyone else? Well I believed it. I held on to it like a lifeline. It's what kept me going. I was able to move through the constant horror because I was better than that. Above it.

    But somewhere along the line, I realized something really transformative. Something that began the transition.

    I'm not actually better than other people.

    I don't know when it dawned on me. I do know that it took years to process. It took years to begin to actually accept it. I still catch myself wondering why someone would wind up on the streets or out of a job. And that is the point at which my Critic, fat and salivating, lashed out at me.

    He told me that if I had been blind to the challenges of others for so long, I must be a monster. He told me that all the rejection and abuse I had endured must actually have been deserved. I must actually be horrible. My therapist liked to say that "they really convinced you that you're horrible." And they did, it just took a while to actually set in.

    Now I know, and I've known for a long time, that the Critic isn't actually telling me something true. I may not be better than other people, but I'm not an easy mark. I knew I was being sold a vial of poison, but the call was coming from inside the house!

    So I've done a lot of work on myself. I've become a different person. And I like that person. I mostly like them more than the theo of my youth.

    Today I'm trying to be the adult that young theo needed in their life. I strive to be compassionate, to make space for people to have unpleasant experiences without judging them for it. I want to make the Fellowship of the Phoenix a community where people become themselves the way I am trying to become myself.

    But the Critic is still very powerful, and very present. I'm sitting here writing this, and I can feel him telling me that I'm appropriating disability rhetoric for my own purposes. That I'm incredibly privileged even to be able to write this. That I AM better than other people because I can have this conversation with myself. That the throwback to feeling superior is just more evidence of how awful I am.

    So that's my current project. Learning not to listen to the Critic. Or rather, learning to listen to him the same way I listen to other parts of myself. With compassion. I'm learning to ask WHY he feels it's so important that I perfect every single thing I say before saying it. I'm learning to hold space for the fear, anxiety, and pain that gives him his power.

    Because he's part of me too. And as I said earlier, I actually do love myself.