Her name is Harriet and she is the WORST.
After 26 years of living together I’d finally given a name to the voice that lived in my head, criticizing my every move.
To be clear, this was not my idea. My therapist Lisa, suggested it to me after a few sessions working together.
I had begun seeing Lisa when things starting to implode in my world.
Everything was going really well in my career. I had a great relationship with a man I loved. From the outside things looked great.
But, on the inside, I was crippled with anxiety.
All the skills, I’d used to become “successful” had started to backfire.
Pushing through, turned to panic attacks.
The anxiety itself wasn’t enough to get me to go to therapy. It wasn’t until my body showed signs of physical burnout that I decided it was time to make a change.
So, there I was seated across from Lisa in her high-rise San Francisco office.
Naming Harriet wasn’t easy. When Lisa first made the suggestion, I felt paralyzed. As much as I wanted to be “good at therapy” (HA). I actually wasn’t able to do it in the first session.
Harriet even weighed in on the naming process.
“This is dumb.”
“Look at you, you can’t even come up with a name.”
I told you she was brutal.
The next week, I sat on the couch and when Lisa asked me if I came up with a name, I laughed nervously and looked down at my lap. “Harriet”.
In many ways that day marked the beginning of a lot. Most important, it marked the beginning of a de-identification process between me and the critical voices in my head.
Let me go ahead and get this out of the way right now: we all have critical voices in our head. It’s not abnormal and it’s actually not even a problem.
The problem isn’t that they’re there. The problem is that that we identify as them.
We believe them. And we give them control over our lives.
Naming our critic creates a separation between ourselves and the voice. When I did that, I could hear the criticism for what it was: just a thought. Not me. Not my identity. In this process I created distance. In this distance, my freedom began to grow.
What I didn’t expect when naming my critic, and one of the reasons that I often recommend this practice to my clients is the levity that it brings to the situation.
Something about animating this voice by giving it a name, brings some silliness to the situation. “Harriet was really on one this week!” I’d proclaim as I plopped myself across from Lisa.
I began to notice trends. When she showed up and when she stayed quiet.
Then, one day it happened.
I was standing in office kitchen of the start-up that I worked at in Redwood City. As I grabbed a glass from the cupboard, old Harriet started her engine. She was on about something I said or did in the last meeting.
This time it was different though. Something unexpected happened.
A new voice: “Don’t talk to her like that.”
I rasied my eyebrows in surprise and smiled to myself.
I don’t know who that was but something was working.
Since then the nicer voices have gotten louder and the Harriets of my inner world have gotten quieter. As I grow and take on new challenges, I meet different versions, different flavors, deeper layers, new levels.
I strengthen the parts that protect and support me and take power from the parts that criticize or sabotage.
Harriet’s not so bad after all. She shows up every once in awhile when I’m depleted, worn out, or hungry. When she does, I see her for what she is: a call back home and a reminder to give my inner world some much needed attention.