By Elizabeth Perlman, Founder & Executive Director of The Intuitive Writing Project
“I’m searching for something that I can’t reach.”
—Halsey, from Ghost
Although I don’t like the self-negating theme of this particular song, I always want to cry when I hear Halsey’s voice: “My ghost, where’d you go? What happened to the Soul that you used to be?” That one refrain always gets to me. Again and again, I am reminded that everyone we meet is a mirror, and that the love we think we’ve “lost” in someone else is really the love we’ve lost for ourselves.
My ghost is inside me, but I don’t where she went, and I cry for the Soul—for the magical little girl—I used to be. It is an all too universal loss. For all the girls and women I write with on a weekly basis, the transition from childhood to adulthood was the metaphorical “fall from grace,” the end of self-trust and the beginning of shame. To become a woman in this country, in this time, on the far edge of this history, is to inherent millenniums of female shame, self-doubt, and “inadequacy.”
Every week, the point of writing is simply to write, to plug pen to heart, and express whatever is alive in us, in all its messy, immeasurable glory. There are no grades. There is no good or bad or right or wrong. There is only the process of self-revelation: declaring what we think and feel in that moment. We write, trusting that whatever comes out on the page is what needs to come out. And we know, from personal experience, that if we don’t let it out, it may very well eat us alive. It is writing for self-knowledge, for catharsis, for freedom. And yet, every week, there is a demon that tries to block us from it.
This demon has many names. It’s been called the inner critic, the gremlin, the saboteur. Psychologists Jay Early and Bonnie Weiss have identified seven different types of inner critics, “the perfectionist, the taskmaster, the inner controller, the guilt tripper, the destroyer, the underminer, and the molder.” All humans suffer from this inner critic, this hyper-rational, left-brain bully who tells us that who we are isn’t enough and that (at its worst) we should just shut up and die. But I believe this inner-critic is the symptom of a much larger, self-destructive social paradigm, what scholar Riane Eisler calls “The Domination Society.”
According to Eisler, the Domination Society first emerged over seven thousand years ago. It was manifest as an aggressively hierarchical society in which a few people at the top used force and fear to control everyone else. In such a stratified system, both women and non-Europeans were relegated to the bottom, perpetuating the illusion of “better than” and “less than” which became the “have’s” and “have-not’s.” That’s why I believe this inner-critic is particularly ferocious among women. Since women have been trained to take responsibility for everything (including our Biblical “fall from grace”) we blame ourselves when we aren’t able to meet every single demand upon us, even if the demand is impossible or degrading. I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t feel inadequate and unworthy, measured against our insane standards of “beauty,” and the equally insane expectation that we must—at all times and in all ways—“please” everyone. Because no one can ever be beautiful “enough” to be loved by unloving people, and because it is impossible for anyone to please everyone, we live with a constant sense of anxiety and failure.
As small children, our creative, right brain nature created a sort of bubble, imaginatively shielding us (to varying degrees, depending on our environment) from the world of rational, left-brain adults. But sometime around the age of eight, when the left brain fired up, we began to mimic and internalize the actions of the adults around us. We learned to judge ourselves as we were judged, to compare ourselves as we were compared, and to talk to (or yell at) ourselves as the adults talked to (or yelled at) us. We learned that some kids were “better” than us and that “love” was not unconditional. That meant learning to work really, really hard to make sure we created “the correct conditions” for love, even if real love demands nothing. And so, the stage was set.
All too often, my students will tell me that what they wrote “sucks” or is “stupid” or “isn’t good enough” to read out loud. Every time someone says this, my heart breaks into a million pieces, both because I know it isn’t true and because I know how true it can feel, because I still feel that shame a million times a day in myself. Since I’ve spent most of my life in a chronic state of shame, I know better than to argue with it. Instead, I encourage my students to lean into it, to embrace it, to let it suck and be stupid…and bravely share it anyway. Of course, if and when they do share their writing, it never sucks and is never stupid. When we write from the heart, it is always eloquent, always astounding. And yet, that inner critic just keeps howling at us, keeps pulling us under, keeps us from writing or speaking or being free. And it’s not just when we write. It’s all the time. It’s the drone of “not enough” that plagues us every moment of every day in everything we do. The underlying message—that who we naturally are will never be “enough” to make us worthy of love, support and success—is absorbed like osmosis through the very air of our industrialized world, a world resigned to keeping a few “stars” on the top deck while everyone else slogs it out in steerage. At this point, I don’t think it’s a conscious conspiracy, as much as it is a very sticky and persistent remnant from a very old and unconscious pattern. But as with Rumpelstiltskin, the moment we are able to see it and name it, we can begin to break the spell. So: what does “not enough” actually look like?
I regret to say that “feeling who you are is not enough” can sometimes look a lot like me, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week (and then lying awake most of the night, worrying), because I love my organization and also because I fear that who I am and what I do will never be “enough” to provide a real and lasting service to the world. 15 years ago, it was me working all night in design school, because they told me that “just” working during the day would never be “enough” to get a great job and be successful. And 25 years ago, it was me burning my skin in the sun, because I could never be tan “enough” to be pretty “enough” to be accepted within the beauty-based social structure of my South Carolina high school.
Among my Bay Area high school students, the feeling of “not enough” demands that they take all AP classes, study late into the night, play three sports, get perfect grades, have perfect bodies, perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect clothes, and perfect makeup to take perfect selfies, and then retake the SAT and ACT a dozen times to ensure the perfect score to get into the perfect college so they can get the perfect job…with no time to feel what they’re feeling or think about who they are or what they value or what would actually inspire them in life.
Among my contemporaries, the feeling of “not enough” is getting Botox to hide the evidence of having lived and then dieting to hide the evidence of having eaten. It is staying in touch with 1000 “friends” on Facebook and working long hours and weekends for companies like Amazon, where even cancer or the death of a loved one is “not enough” to justify time off. Right now we live in such a hyperactive, hyper-polished digital world, even the old standards of success—a job, a family, time to smell the roses—are “not enough” to win that first class ticket. No one wants to wind up in steerage. But what if we could get rid of steerage all together? What if we could just design planes and trains and ships that are comfortable for everyone? What if it’s safe to take time off to rest and eat and let our true faces be seen? What if it’s safe to give our kids the time and space to think and feel and be who they are? What if it’s safe to stop pushing and fighting, and just sit still and be who we are, trusting that it’s already enough?
In her seminal book, The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler points us toward what she calls “the Partnership Society,” the original and most intuitive structure of human societies, a structure based on collaboration, cooperation, democracy, and compassion. Interestingly, it’s what all reasonably-sane human beings naturally gravitate toward, a world in which everyone is free to contribute to the world, according to their innate strengths, interests, and passions. Think about it. If we could believe that every single one of us is equally valuable in our own unique way, there would be no need to compare ourselves and no way for anyone to be “better or less than” anyone else. It would mean we would all get to be equally and uniquely wonderful, entitled to all the love and support we need to thrive.
If this sounds like a Pollyanna pipe dream, it’s only because we are so habituated to the old way of suffering and struggle. Our history is one of relentless suffering and struggle. But what if that could now begin to change?
In life, pain is inevitable. But the suffering that comes from self-comparison, self-negation, shame, overwork, and violence (against self or others) is completely unnecessary. Contrary to the notion that suffering “builds character,” I think that socially-sanctioned suffering just makes us angry, depressed, and dangerously unhealthy. But what if—as a culture—we could collectively agree to replace shame with love? What if struggle could be replaced with flow? And as the poet Barbara McEnerney writes, “what if my words were children, squealing with glee, splashing mud, making a mess, discovering themselves?… Could I love them as they are, could I give them room to grow and a chance to shine?”
After years of therapy, I know that these negative voices can be slow to shift. But together, believing in each other, I believe we can love each other back to life. What was lost can now be found. In answer to Halsey’s question, the love we seek is inside us. We are love. And love is enough.