I roll over in bed and grope in the dark for my phone, resting on my nightstand. Squinting to read the time on the screen, I grimace. 2:58 a.m. I’ve already been awake for a while, and this is feeling all too familiar. The increasing frequency of my nocturnal anxiety-fests is clueing me in to the fact that all is not well with me.
On this particular night, the absurdity of the critical voice in my head was enough to jolt me into reality. The weeks leading up to this had been focused on preparations for our daughter Katie’s graduation celebration, while holding all of the emotions I was feeling about this milestone: pride, grief, joy, love, loss, fear, hope. I wasn’t surprised by the anxious voice in my head worrying about whether we would have enough food, if the weather would allow us to be outside as planned, if people who had been invited would actually show up, or if Katie would be happy with how things turned out and feel loved and celebrated.
My to-do list was a mile long, yet I felt like I had done a good job of enlisting help from family and friends, as well as being realistic in the amount of work I wanted to put into all the preparation myself – resulting in a sanity-saving catering order from Qdoba. All things considered, feeling a level of anxiety in this case was not a surprise to me, it felt like a perfectly normal response to a major event.
It was when that anxiety and fear took on a life of its own, firing up the inner critic to begin a barrage of harsh accusations, that I began to recognize the seriousness of the path my mind was taking, even while “at rest.”
Here’s the absurd part: the day of the open house was absolutely beautiful, sunny and warm, but not oppressively hot. We had tables and chairs and tents and centerpieces and picture displays all set up on time, and looking even better than we’d hoped. The food was delicious and plentiful, our only real trouble a clogged spout on the lemonade dispense – a problem easily solved with a ladle. Many of those invited came, some for a few moments, but more who lingered long enough to enjoy conversations and food and a sense of celebration and life. Our “people”, our closest community, lingered the longest, and the “after-party” was yet another sweet reminder of the goodness of life lived in close relationships. So much goodness to savor…and that night is where I began this story, awake at 2:58 a.m., my mind running in critical circles.
As I replayed the day’s events in my mind, I kept coming back to the amount of food we had left over at the end of the party, and I realized I was feeling shame about having so much. The words that interrupted my sleep that night were full of accusation: “You’re so stupid, you can’t even figure out how to accurately figure for serving large numbers of people. Your anxiety is a problem, if you weren’t so anxious you wouldn’t have worked so hard to avoid running out. Your inept planning was costly – look at how much money you spent for more food than you needed – what a waste! And you wouldn’t have needed to spend that much money if you had just made it all yourself, what kind of a mom are you anyway? Your friends are going to think you’re crazy, being so worried about having the perfect amount. You should be better by now at not letting fear have so much power over you.”
Putting the words down on paper, I feel their harshness more deeply. I realize how untrue they are, even though they felt absolutely true in the moment. My heart feels vulnerable, and I find myself wondering what others will do as they read the words of my inner critic’s rant – will your mind be echoing with similar rants, products of your own inner critic? My experience tells me I am not alone in this, shame tells me I am.
It feels like these themes of criticism and judgment are big ones for me this year, and I am coming to realize how often my peace is interrupted with thoughts and words that are anything but kind. As I’ve wrestled with how impossible it feels at times to separate the truth of what I am feeling from the harsh, critical voice inside me, I remember a phrase that is as powerful today as it was 6 years ago when I first heard it spoken in a therapy group dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse: “The voice of God is always kind, always.”
I was not alone in that group of women, struggling to block out the voices of accusation that told us our shame was permanent and deserved. That was the beginning of what will be a life-long journey to bring kindness to those parts of me that are still holding pain – places where my inner critic is simply a young part of me, trying to protect me from more pain. The next time I find myself anxious and awake in the middle of the night, I want to bring the kind words of Jesus, speaking words of love and blessing and delight to the places in my heart that are letting me know they need care.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to embrace her depth and sensitivity. Inspired by Mary pondering things in her heart, Janet writes about her experiences here. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband of 26 years, as well as her 4 children and 2 grandchildren. She is a life-long lover of words and looks forward to reading and sharing at Red Tent Living.