Tamara Jones: In Dialogue with Self
Let me introduce you to Jade. She’s judgemental and self-defensive, insecure and full of herself — a hypocrite to say the very least. She tells me I’m unlovable, contradicts me, invalidates my feelings and controls my every move. “You might as well not even try,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone, including you, knows you’re not good enough.” If I’m successful, her first thought is, “wow, you tricked people into thinking you’re worth their time… enjoy it while it lasts.” The worst part is I let Jade speak to me that way. I let her berate and degrade me on a daily basis without pushing back. For years, she controlled my narrative dictatorially.
If you haven’t deduced from the title of this piece, I am Jade — or at least part of me is.
Following the advice of an improv instructor, one of the first steps I took when I committed to managing my anxiety was to develop a persona for my inner critic. I listed every belittling remark Jade spat at me and in return, I called her every insulting word I could think of. It was cathartic, but it didn’t make me feel better. I closed my journal and walked away feeling defensive, fractured and weighed down by shame.
I put off dissecting my inner critic again until I was sitting in my therapist’s office. We were working through the thick of my perfection-paralysis when she suggested we try something different. “I think you’re incredibly naive and annoying,” I said quietly turning inwards. “Honestly, it’s embarrassing.” I stood up, turned around and settled into the chair I’d set up across from myself. Locking eyes with the now empty sofa directly in front of me, I confessed, “I think you’re scared and hurting but you’re also incredibly cruel and I don’t know how to help you.” I think verbalizing these harsh truths about myself was the most honest I’ve ever been with myself, the most vulnerable.
As I made my way home after my session, I felt lighter. It hit me that all this time I’d been trying to fight fire with fire. I talked a lot of shit about Jade but I never tried to talk directly to her. I make a concerted effort to be compassionate towards others, to be mindful of their boundaries, intentions and perspectives. It didn’t occur to me to award myself the same treatment.
I was an incredibly sensitive child, some might say (and trust me, they did) a crybaby. From a young age, my parents (most likely sensing my need to harden myself and “fix my face” in order to get by in the real world) discouraged and even punished displays of sadness. Anger, however, wasn’t punished as harshly; it was usually respected. Even in my earliest memories, my parents expressed themselves with explosive anger. Yelling was regarded as a show of strength, of power. Tears were seen as a surrender to weakness, a death sentence. My parents tried to protect me from the perceived dangers of expressing vulnerability in the public realm, but with no outlet to do so in private either, anger consumed me; it was the only way for me to channel my pain. But the thing about anger is just a symptom of deeper emotions. In my case, sadness, loneliness and fear manifested as anger, and the more I leaned into it the less necessary it felt to acknowledge my pain.
In her transformative novel Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown wrote, “healing happens when a place of trauma or pain is given full attention, really listened to. Healing is the resilience instinct of our bodies.” Jade was vocal in her criticisms but had never been called to speak for her actions. If I listened carefully, if I give Jade a safe space to explain herself, maybe the thought that I “must be perfect” might really sound like “I’m afraid I’m not worthy of love and acceptance”.
I think Jade, misguided as she may be, ultimately tries to protect me by managing my actions, ambitions and expectations. She’s not so scary after all — she’s just scared. Scared of conflict, scared of judgment, scared of disappointment. Understanding my motivations helps me nurture a part of myself that I tend to unquestioningly submit to in order to avoid internal conflict. But I’ve also come to terms with the idea that leaning into the conflict to work through it is where healing begins.
I recently came across Becoming Wise, a podcast by Krista Tippet. During his interview, the late poet John O'Donohue described beauty as a “more rounded, substantial becoming”. I’ve become hyper-aware of the beauty in vulnerability since beginning my conversation with my inner critic, so this sentiment immediately resonated with me:
“When we cross a new threshold, if we cross worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us, that had us caught somewhere. I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth and a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”
From this understanding of beauty, I can see my tumultuous relationship with my inner critic as nuanced, overly caring rather than solely combative. Hitting the point where engaging with the darker parts of myself felt relatively less painful than continuing the cycle of trauma pushed me into self-compassion. It’s helped me honour my past experiences and be thankful for my adaptability and resilience but recognize that some of those ways of being don’t need to follow me into adulthood.
Building my capacity for compassion towards my inner critic helps me explore some of my more harmful tendencies with curiosity instead of judgment. Being curious about my inner critic’s protective inclinations makes me wonder what she’s fearful of and gently question her assumptions instead of agreeing with her or shutting her down. It allows for an honest dialogue within myself where my boundaries, intentions and perspectives are respected.
Now, when I feel Jade bristle I try to take a step back and ask myself: what am I trying to control that my ego is pushing back against? Which parts of myself do I need to embrace to feel freer? What kind of an environment do I need to feel safe enough to do that? Sometimes it’s simply letting Jade have her five minutes of uncertainty or anger and thanking her for her concern, but reminding myself that her perspective doesn’t need to dictate my reality.
I think holding space to nurture the most difficult parts of myself, especially during a healing process, is the foundation of self-love. The ongoing conversation between me and Jade is still messy, but I’ve learned to see the beauty in its ebbs and flows and I’m grateful we’ve finally found common ground.
If you’re open to sharing, I’d love to know how you navigate your relationship with your inner selves. How do you think you can show more compassion for your inner critic?