I have been thinking a lot about my inner critic these days, partly because we are teaching a workshop soon on just that topic.
I have been noticing when and how my inner critic shows up in my life – in my art, my business, my relationships, and tries to keep me in a box of safety by threatening or belittling me when I step out of that box. I have been consciously cultivating a relationship with this aspect of myself for a long time now, but, recently, my inner critic took me by surprise.
I was facilitating Art as a Healing Practice, which is one of my favorite things to do. Even better, our session was focused on making mandalas for healing and integration, and mandala-making is my favorite art form. And, on top of that, there were just 3 of us – a nice, intimate little group with an established connection and sense of trust. What better setting to sink into a delicious couple of hours of guided meditation, mandala making, writing, witnessing and sharing? Not a place I would expect my inner critic to show up!
I waited until the others were engaged in their art-making and had what they needed, and then I sat down and looked at the spacious, empty circle on the piece of square watercolor paper, inviting me into what would potentially be a relaxing, contemplative, art experience. I created a grid in pencil, joined some lines up with a ruler, and found myself with an interesting star shape. I felt satisfied, curious, yet a little stuck about where to take it next. I liked the shape, so I decided to outline it with a black line, and I enjoyed that too. After that, though, I just sat and looked at it for awhile, uncertain, and seeing no real possibilities for the next step. (in mandala-making this is unusual for me, as my mandalas usually simply seem to grow, organically, on the page).
Without any real sense of direction, I decided to add color, and got some watercolors, filling in the spaces. While doing this, I felt strangely bored and impatient (again, not feelings I associate with creating mandalas). As the facilitator, holding space for others, I was dipping in and out of my own process, not sinking in as deeply as I would if I were on my own. So, I just kept painting in the shapes and noticing my feelings. I made the star-shaped structure black. Although I liked the black, I also felt like I had created a cage, a fixed structure with “no way out”. This was getting a bit weird, and again, I had no idea what to do next. I realized that my inner critic had showed up in full force, but I didn’t yet realize that my inner critic was actually the subject of my painting.
Continuing to feel somewhat immobilized with no sense of direction or potential for growth, I decided to just add some detail. I took my black pen and made spirals all over the purple/pink section. This was OK, and gave me a little sense of growth potential, but still felt very caged in. Then I added white dots to the black grid, hoping to add a little lightness, but, when I finished, I thought they looked like the rivets of a black metal cage.
By this time, we were almost out of time for art-making, and I stopped to give the writing prompts to the others. Before I did any writing myself, I spontaneously added the scallops to the outside of the yellow circle, hoping to add some growth potential but actually creating more of a border or impermeable barrier.
Although I don’t usually write until after I finish a piece, I decided that writing now might open up some possibility.
Some excerpts from my writing:
What, what, what are you becoming?
I am waiting for something to grow. Something organic, mysterious, and beautiful.
Where, where, where are the openings?
Full of questions, I am. With no answers. Stay with it.
I know that when things become uncomfortable (in art and in life) it makes good sense to be with that and work with it and find a way through. So, I shared my unfinished image in our circle, as well as my writing and my feelings.
And then I took it home with me, feeling somewhat confused and a bit disgruntled.
The next morning it suddenly hit me that this mandala I was creating is actually a picture of my inner critic! The straight, hard, riveted black lines that form a cage, with all of the color and growth potential within, or behind this cage, with no way out. It made perfect sense. The invitation into mandala-making was about healing and integration, and this mandala was all about my relationship with my inner critic! Once again, my art was ahead of my conscious knowing.
With this realization, frustration changed to curiosity. I looked at the image that was emerging on the page, fascinated. The black lines formed a structure, and, in also a cage, in my art. In my life, I know there are times that I feel caged in by my inner critic, and unable to free myself? Do I also experience my inner critic as a structure?
Of course! My inner critic tries to keep me safe. That has always been its function, from an early age. It uses a harsh voice and unkind words, and plays upon my fears, but it is trying to keep me out of harm’s way by caging me in, keeping me within my comfort zone, where things are predictable and risk-free. Hmmm.
In my mandala, I had built a structure (the star shaped black lines), reinforced it with rivets, keeping all the life and light safely contained within. The result, though, was that the structure had become a cage, with no way out. Could I change this in my mandala?
Even though it was just lines and colors on a piece of paper, and it was never going to be a piece of “art”, is was a slow and careful process to do this. Each step felt like a risk, and I was aware of finding that edge between being careful and being free.
I have finished the mandala now, I think. Ultimately, it will go in my file of process-oriented art. For now, though, it stays propped up on my work table, reminding me of its life lessons. It helps me to acknowledge that there are areas of my life in which I am moving out of safe structure, and into unknown territory. It helps me to remember that this can be difficult and deliberate work, even while it is freeing. It reminds me that change is often uncomfortable and releases fear, anxiety, and old beliefs.
The arts are the perfect place to shift and play with our relationship with our inner critic. If you would like to experience this for yourself, there are still 2 more days to register for Transforming Your Inner Critic!
p.s. It seems, now that this is the beginning of a series of explorations. Here is the beginning of the next one. I wonder how things will shift, in my mandala and in my life?