How I'm Learning to Release My Anxious Inner Critic
“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’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 my 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 a 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 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 free fall into 20 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, silly!” 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 2-year-old, her face saying, “Yeah yeah yeah, I know you’re having all kinds of 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 cat food 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 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 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 judgment is kind; they are trying to help me.”
“And they will, if you let them,” Critter adds.
“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 judgment,” she explains.
“Nudism, on the other hand, is about abandoning judgment 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 grueling 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 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 debilitating self-judgement.
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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.