On August 11, I crawled out of bed early, drove through pouring rain and met up with 8 other members of Escaping Your Comfort Zone for something I’d been looking forward to since I saw it come on the calendar – going to the snow at Lake Mountain! Now, I might be 37, but I’ve never even seen snow before, so this was a big day for me!
We met up at Marysville, transferred into two cars and drove to the mountain. I was excited and apprehensive. As we got further up the mountain, the rain turned to sleet, and then finally to snow. We got organised, fitted for jackets, pants, snowshoes and poles, then met up with our guide to go snowshoeing.
It was magical – crunching through powder, as it gently fell from the sky. I felt I was in a fairy tale or a Christmas movie! We went along a couple of ski trails, and then started on the snowshoe trail towards the small lake on the mountain (not the reason for the name!), and found ourselves flailing though deep powder, walking through eucalypt forest and falling into drifts – giggling as we got up, were helped up by our long-suffering guide Felix, or dug out by each other.
It was at this point I found myself face down in the snow. Struggling to move and get up, but where I pushed down to brace and get up, my arms and legs just sunk further into the snow. Felix tried to help me up, and with some struggle, he hauled me up. I was fine physically, with a bit of water on my hands that was easily squished out of my gloves. But my face contorted with the effort of not crying. I asked for people to continue, and I moved back in the order of the snowshoers. I cried and cried.
As I continued, I spoke to the wonderful Sarah, and explained that falling down in the snow made me feel so fat and helpless that I couldn’t get back up. I was angry and embarrassed with myself that I couldn’t even stand up after falling over. I was angry with myself that I had fallen over to start out with. I was an adult and should be able to cope with these things after all!
Sarah gently reminded me that it was reasonable to fall over – I was wearing big snowshoes, and when you fall over in deep snow, you’ve got nothing to push against, making it really difficult to get back up. And yet I still felt so fat and helpless and stupid. My inner voice was telling me that I was too fat to do adventurous things. I was a danger. I was holding everyone back. I had no business being at the snow at all.
Beating your inner critic
This kind of negative self-talk is really common – so many of us struggle with the inner voice that causes us to lose confidence and second-guess ourselves. The problem is that often the negative voice – “You’re too fat for that, No one likes you” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We get stuck thinking that we are too fat to do fun things or wear funky clothes, and so we never do. We get stuck thinking that people don’t like us, so we withdraw from our friends. As a result we undermine ourselves, becoming less confident by the day.
So how do we get out of this loop and move forward? If there was a magic pill, they would be making millions! I’ve researched some great strategies from psychology, social work and from our very own members, who had lots of great suggestions.
Notice the thoughts
Psychology tells us that the best way to start to defeat negative self-talk is to start to notice them in the moment. That is often easier said than done, however, as what it means is we need to chill out and take time to slow down and notice the thoughts as they are happening. Another way that our members suggested was to use feelings as a signpost to recognise the thoughts – if you’re feeling ashamed, worthless or guilty, try to work through what the inner critic is saying to make you feel that way.
Separate your inner critic from yourself and talk back to it
My favourite piece of advice was from one of our Canberra hike leaders Emma, who told us about how she had named her inner critic Max, and when the critical thoughts start to undermine her confidence, “I picture Max sitting up there with me. […] I acknowledge what’s been said, but add […] ‘That’s not helpful Max, so shut the f**k up!’ I don’t know why but it helps break up the flow of the negative inner monologue.”
Separating ourselves from our inner critic is powerful because it allows us to take control of the situation – rather than continuing to beat ourselves up, we can enter into a conversation. We can evaluate the thoughts of the inner critic (who sometimes might be correct!) and tell them why they are wrong and why.
I’ve also found it helpful to put some of the thoughts into a wider context. So, for example, when I was feeling ashamed about not being able to get up, a lot of the shame I felt about my body was built up from a lifetime of messaging telling me that my body was too big, and as a fat person I am morally deficient, lazy and inactive. Being able to appreciate the wider social structures that enable our inner critic can be just as powerful as recognising the thoughts themselves.
Richelle suggested that another way to talk back to the inner critic is to ask yourself if you’d talk to a family member or treasured friend the way you’re talking to yourself. If you can’t see yourself saying that to someone you care about, maybe you should take some time to consider how you speak to yourself, and find a more constructive way of working through the issues.
Replace the critic
Ever noticed that when you do something good, people rarely notice, but when you make a mistake, everyone seems to turn on you? You probably do this to yourself too – when was the last time you reflected on something you did well? When you notice your inner critic getting into gear, and tell them that that they’re not being helpful, you can use positive things you do to shut them down. For example, if you’re feeling thoughtless because you got lost on the way to a hike, remind your inner critic about all the times you’ve found your way safely to strange places. Doing this helps remind you to be your inner cheerleader and not let the critic hold sway.
Setting and achieving goals
Speaking of activating your inner cheerleader, setting and achieving goals is a potent ingredient in this process. Gail from Geelong explained how she has a “To Do” and a “Done” list, and in the past three years she’s moved a go-by-the-seat-of-your-pants trip around Europe and an overnight hike in Wilson’s Promontory onto her “Done” list. Tracey from Melbourne explained how she works to make goals reality, by accepting that she has limitations and not judging herself by what other people do, but what progress she has made towards her own goals. Reflecting on your progress and achievements really gives you something to help your inner cheerleader speak more than the inner critic.
Surround yourself with people who will cheerlead for you, not tear you down
One of the pieces of advice that came out many times throughout my research was the need to surround yourself with people who will join your inner cheerleader in encouraging you through your struggles and congratulating you on your successes. The advice columnist Captain Awkward refers to the idea of Team You – a group of family, friends and professionals (including therapists and medical staff) who are looking out for you when times get tough. Building relationships with people who genuinely care about you and want you to succeed helps you find an external focus of positivity, to ignite your internal one.
While silencing the inner critic isn’t the easiest thing in the world, the more we listen to our inner cheerleader, the more amazing things we can do. We can climb mountains, or go on our first Escaping Your Comfort Zone hike, or go snowshoeing and fall over, and then get up, cry and write a blog article about it. What are your favourite ways to silence the inner critic and listen to the inner cheerleader?
Want to meet up with other positive women and gender diverse folks to encourage you to achieve your goals? Come hang out with us!
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