By Geneen Roth
The biggest obstacle to transformation is the critic in your head telling you it's impossible. What's the point? It says. You've always been like this; you'll always be like this. No one ever really changes. Might as well eat. By the way, what were you thinking when you wore those pants today?
People have called this inner commentator the superego, the internalized parent, the inner critic. I call it simply The Voice.
Everyone has The Voice. It's a developmental necessity; you need to learn not to touch a hot stove or walk into traffic. When parents, teachers, and other authority figures communicate instructions about physical and emotional survival, we internalize those voices into The Voice. Operative in most of us by the time we're four years old, it can be a valuable deterrent to unsafe behavior. But if, as we get older, The Voice steps in when we want to challenge the status quo or do anything our parents wouldn't have wanted us to -- from traveling to Asia (all that icky malaria!) to changing our relationship with food and discovering our true nature (Your true nature? It's you snarfing down potato chips!).
Within two hours of welcoming students to a retreat on using food as a doorway to their inner lives, I ask them to list 10 criticisms they've hurled at themselves since they arrived. "Just 10?" someone usually asks. Then I introduce the concept of The Voice. I ask a few people to read their lists out loud (using the tone in which The Voice usually speaks to them). Some things I've heard: "I can't believe I came to another thing on weight." "What is wrong with me for thinking I could wear a sleeveless dress?" "My toenails are disgusting." "I'm wasting my time and I should go home."
Sometimes The Voice says you're trying too hard, and sometimes it says you’re not trying hard enough. But its main message is always the same: Your impulses can't be trusted. Listen only to me. Otherwise you'll die a failure.
You probably wouldn't let anyone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself. You're inured to insults from this inner critic who sounds so much like you that you believe it is you. You think you're telling yourself the truth.
For example: You're happily humming along with your morning routine when you pull on an old pair of pants. But you can't get your right leg into the designated hole. The Voice says, Look at you! You are pathetic. Your thighs are the size of the Rocky Mountains. The Voice says you should be ashamed of yourself, and you agree. Look how I've let myself go, you think. The Voice says, Bad bad bad. You think, Bad thighs! Bad me! In minutes, you've ricocheted from getting dressed to feeling worthless. And yet not one thing has changed since you awoke feeling spunky, feisty, irreverent.
Early in your life, The Voice kept you from being rejected by those upon whom you depended; it protected you by convincing you that trusting yourself was dangerous. But now, despite its former usefulness, it's rendering you incapable of acting with true discernment.
After my students read out loud as The Voice, some feel sure that it's an exact replica of their parent's voices, and that nothing short of an exorcism will rid them of its harangues. Even if you were lucky and your parents were kind, loving and attuned to your needs, The Voice is installed in your psyche -- and must be challenged. Because even the most attuned parents see their children through biased lenses. They pass on their own definitions of success and love, which inevitably are sometimes out of sync with their child's needs.
Whatever your parents were like, The Voice is almost always irrelevant to who you are today. It treats you as if you were a child and leaves you unable to contact your own authority. Think of The Voice as a GPS from the Twilight Zone. When you follow its directions, you spend your life trying to find streets that no longer exist in a city that vanished decades ago.
How do you free yourself from The Voice? You begin by becoming aware that it exists. One good way to do that is by listing the ways you've berated yourself and reading the insults out loud in the voice of The Voice, the way my students do. Next, you work on disengaging from The Voice -- understanding that it isn't you. You can begin to separate from The Voice by remembering a time when you knew the delight of being happy for no reason, a moment when The Voice was silent and you were your essential self. I tell people who haven't experienced themselves without The Voice that they need to act as if they deserve to take care of their bodies, as if the possibilities they long for do exist. Living as if creates a bridge to a new way of being.
Another way to banish The Voice -- or deal with it successfully -- is to talk back. My retreat assistant Loren says that when she was first learning to disengage from The Voice, she needed to speak to it in ways she was not allowed to speak to her parents. She had to say things like, "Go Away! Pick on someone your own size!" She had to use foul language. And since anger wasn't allowed in her family, it was both shocking and liberating to tell The Voice to go stuff itself. After mustering the courage to defend herself from The Voice's cruelty, she felt relief, and a sense that she was occupying her body again instead of being controlled by a clone.
When you stop believing The Voice, when you know it isn't you, when you talk back to it (The Voice says, You are selfish and shallow, with a dry, withered heart and an elephant-skin-neck and you say, Uh-huh, right, so what else is new? or Honey, sounds like you need a couple dozen margaritas) -- you are free. You have access to yourself and every thing The Voice pretends to offer, but doesn't: clarity, intelligence, strength, joy, compassion, curiosity, love. When you stop responding to the continual comments on your thighs, your value, your very existence, then you can ask yourself if you are comfortable at this weight; if you feel healthy, energetic, awake. And if the answer is no, you can ask yourself what you could do about it that would fit into your day-to-day life. What you can live with, what you can maintain. What feels good, what stirs your heart. And you can give that answer in your own voice.
If this article resonates with you, you can learn a whole new way to relate to food – and explore the foundation upon which you build your life and your relationships – at my next 6-day intensive retreat in Pacific Grove, CA this November 8-13, 2016.
You’ll learn the tools of inquiry, body-sensing, meditation and the Eating Guidelines that are the basis of the journey itself. Rather than getting rid of your conflicted relationship with food, you will become aware of what’s standing in your way. You will learn to welcome what is already here, contact the part of yourself that is fresh and alive, and live the life you truly want.
Space is open at this life-changing retreat for you. Join us. For information, call our retreat manager Judy Ross at 703-401-0871. Or click here: http://retreats.geneenroth.com/fall/