It was a rough week at work. It got off to a bad start and didn’t improve much. Maybe you’ve had one of those weeks.
It all started when one of my supervisor decided to observe me talking with a client. In my view, the conversation went really great. In fact, in the middle of our discussion, I literally thought, “I’m so glad my supervisor is witnessing this! I’ve built great rapport with the client, I’ve elicited his story, and he’s talking about his emotions and his relationships!” I decided that the universe was clearly on my side, because as we left, the client said, “Thank you so much for this conversation. I feel much better. You really brightened my day.”
In other words, I nailed it.
Then my supervisor wanted to debrief and provide some “constructive criticism.” After asking what I thought was good about the conversation, he proceeded to “should on” me. Have you ever been “should on?” It’s no fun. He said things like, “You should have done this,” “You should have done that,” “You shouldn’t have pushed so much with this,” “You should have noticed when he said this.” He said nothing positive about the conversation. Except at the end when he claimed, “You’re doing fine.”
Then I started to get critical.
“I’m doing fine?!?” I thought. “What does ‘fine’ even mean? Is that some kind of backhanded compliment? Fine is bland. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s like the word ‘interesting.’ I hate that word. Tell me what you mean by ‘INTERESTING!’ Well, in the context of this “constructive criticism,” fine apparently means that I’m not good.
And that’s when the voices came. I’ve had them before. I’m sure you’ve had them, too. It’s the voice of doubt that says, “Do you really think that you can do this? Well, you can’t. You’re a joke. You’ve been studying this and practicing this for six months, and you’re still making rookie mistakes. Even when you think you are doing great, you fail.” Then comes the kicker, “You aren’t good enough and you will never be good enough.”
Jesus and the Voices
We all have those voices in our heads. Even Jesus had to deal with those voices. At the beginning of his ministry, the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. “If you are the Son of God … command this stone to become a loaf of bread. … worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the world … throw yourself from the temple and God will save you … ”
The voice played mind games with Jesus. It invited Jesus to doubt his relationship with God. It told Jesus that he wasn’t good enough until he proved himself worthy of the title Son of God. Jesus refuted the voice each time he was tempted. In an interesting display of biblical interpretation, the devil tested Jesus by quoting Scripture. Jesus performed some interpretive biblical Ju-Jitsu, proving once and for all that “biblical inerrancy” misses the point. Any time someone quotes the Bible to demean another person and hides behind “inerrancy” they are quoting the Bible like the devil.
Jesus had none of that. In fact, he repudiated the devil every time and soon the devil’s voice went away.
Managing the Voices
I’m glad that method worked for Jesus, but his way of dealing with the voices doesn’t work for me.
If confronting the voices works for you, then Amen. Keep doing it. But whenever I repudiate the voices, it only feeds them and they grow stronger. I know some people who banish the voices to a metaphorical closet and slam the door. But they can’t hold the door closed for very long. Soon, the voices come back and haunt them all the more.
Those voices are mimetic. In other words, they don’t originate within us. They are given to us by others within our culture who told us that we weren’t good enough – a parent, sibling, peer, teacher, co-worker, boss, or supervisor. While the voices don’t originate with us, they do become a part of us. And as part of us, we can begin to take responsibility to manage them.
We can manage the voices in one of two ways. First, we can be against the voices. You can set up a rivalry with the voices. In my experience, this is a losing strategy because the more against something we become, the closer we get to it and the more we become just like it. Even worse, when we are against the voices in our heads, we become against a part of ourselves. We end up scapegoating the voices within. We become a self divided as we scapegoat parts of ourselves.
The second way of managing those voices is to play with them and even to bless them. Play with the voices as you would play with an old audio tape. You can turn the voices up really loud, but you can also turn them down to a whisper. You can fast forward the voices, but you can also play them slowly. You can take the tape out and put the tape back in. This tells the voices that you can manage them and that they’re not as big and scary as they want you to believe.
Blessing the Voice
But you can take this second way of dealing with the voices a step further and actually bless them. Take my supervisor’s “constructive criticism,” for example. Sure, it stung, but he was trying to make me better. The voice inside of me that said, “You aren’t good enough,” also told me, “You have so much more to learn.”
And that’s true. In fact, I love my job because there is so much more to learn. If I can manage the voice in a way that doesn’t shame it, that doesn’t shame myself, then I don’t have to be shamed by the voice. Instead, I can learn from it.
A surprising thing happens whenever I bless the negative voices within myself. They become much less negative. In fact, they start to become helpful.
The voice that says, “You aren’t good enough” begins to lose its edge. The voice may never go away, but it does get smaller and smaller. Soon, it starts to say, “You know, there might just be better ways to do this. I’m going to check with others and see if they can teach me how to do it better.”
In my experience, blessing the voice within is much better than shaming it. I think that’s the way to find atonement within ourselves. Atonement refers to reconciliation with God, others, creation, and ourselves. Shaming the voices leads to a divided self, whereas blessing the voices leads to reconciliation and peace with yourself. Blessing those voices, finding reconciliation with them, is one of the keys to fulfilling the second part of the commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.
Image: eyeretina / Shutterstock.com