By Maninder Cheema
With the speed of a lightning bolt, Maninder Cheema’s entire inner landscape was lit up, and she became aware of the judging and critical voice that ran her life.
As far back as I can remember, I have never taken kindly to criticism. I could not stand being criticized or judged. It made my blood boil, and I felt almost a violent reaction to it. Of course, I could not always express my reaction to criticism. I just boiled within, thinking this was something I would never do to anyone else. On the surface, it made me something of a people pleaser, never overtly wanting to be critical or judgemental of others. I favoured the underdog, the one everyone else found wrong. I was kind to those criticised by everyone else.
Imagine my shock as I slowly discovered the critical voice in my own head. It started on a day when I declared to a group of friends that I hated people being judgemental. One of them pointed out that I might be very judgemental myself. I was taken aback. But the remark stayed with me, and I started noticing the occasions when I was being judgmental. As my awareness grew, so did my shock. I became aware of a mental slotting of people, situations, surroundings and circumstances into various categories. The labels started with good, bad, acceptable, unacceptable, pleasant, unpleasant, neat, untidy, organised, disorganised, successful, unsuccessful, and so on. I realised that I didn’t see things as they were. I saw them through these labels, slotting, categorising and labelling things all the time.
As I became conscious of these labels, I started to consciously drop them. But the shadow self is invisible to oneself. What became visible was only a very tiny part. At the time, I thought of it as only a tendency to categorise. I consciously tried to drop judgment whenever I became aware of it. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometime later, I was at a week-long retreat where I discovered that I have a tendency to be self-critical. I became aware of the subconscious drive to constantly punish myself by denying myself small pleasures and comforts. For years I slept on the floor, kept no maids, watched no TV, bought inexpensive clothes, spent as little money as possible, and even tried to eat as little as possible. These were not very conscious choices. They seemed like default choices for me, as if this was the way I was. As my awareness expanded, I began to see the self-critical inner voice telling me that austerity was necessary to make me good, because I was not good enough. I started to see the judgement directed at myself, and the tendency to prove myself worthy by denial of simple pleasures. The feeling that I was “not good enough” was so deep-seated that I wasn’t consciously aware of it. From the subconscious or maybe even unconscious level, it drove me into self-denial. Awareness helped me ease up on myself. I became a little less severe in my lifestyle, a little less punishing. I became conscious, at least partly, of the times when I was being self-critical. I started to be more forgiving of myself. But there was still a long way to go. I had been for many years puzzled by the way inter-personal relationships shaped up around me, always leaving me feeling distant and disconnected.
As I became conscious of the judging and criticising voice within me, to the extent that it related to others, I tried to drop it as it came. This happened strictly on need basis. I became aware that my inner dialogue affects how people perceive me in my workspace. This awareness was initially limited to the people who mattered most in my day-to-day interaction at work, i.e. my colleagues and superiors. As I dropped my inner critical dialogue about such people, I noticed a visible improvement in my interactions. The work relationships became smooth and easy. However, the inner judging voice never went away. It would jump up with strong criticism every now and then, and leave me feeling annoyed that I had to deal with situations not entirely to my liking.
Recently, I was attending a discussion which spoke of how what is unknown about you runs you. In a flash, I became aware that the deep-seated inner voice which criticised and judged was not just intermittent, but a constant presence in my head, unknown to me, passing a non-stop commentary on every single thing in my environment. The commentary was not pleasant. It bordered on the contemptuous, calling out adjectives like ugly, dumb, stupid, no good, useless, incapable, clumsy, dirty, cruel, heartless, selfish, greedy, dishonest, pitiable, unfair, wrong, and so on. This happened completely unknown to my conscious mind, and the only sign it left in the conscious mind was a vague sense of uneasiness. I would feel a bad mood coming on and not be able to put my finger on the exact reason. The mood would float in and leave me feeling low, depressed, angry or resentful till something more pleasant happened to shift the mood. Or even when everything was going perfectly, a vague sense of unease would come in, nagging somewhere in the back of my mind that something was not quite right. The unconscious part of me was running my life, determining my moods, and affecting everyone around me.
The awareness of this constant inner stream of dialogue was like a lightning flash. It lit up the entire landscape of my personality, revealing to me parts I never knew I had. It was the first time I came face-to-face with my shadow self, the self which is always there and runs us in ways we are never aware of. I had for years felt that there was something missing in my ability to connect with people, that I couldn’t really make a deep connection with others. How could I, if part of me was busy judging every aspect of the other person. With awareness, I could palpably feel the energy of this unspoken criticism and judgment around me, like a wall surrounding me on all sides.
As I became aware of this shadow self, I eased up and became honest about how I was really feeling about myself and about people around me. I was able to bring that dialogue into my conscious awareness. And when I acknowledged it in my conscious awareness, it somehow mattered less. I was able to put it aside and get on with life. The judgment still comes, but at a distance. I can watch it, and not let it affect me. I can say to myself that so and so has betrayed me and I don’t like him for it, and at the same time I am aware that the person has his own path and I have mine, and that nothing is personal. Because this part is no longer in the shadow, it is no longer able to affect everything about me.
Part of the spiritual journey is to bring into light all shadow parts of oneself, to shine the light on the dark hidden corners of the soul, so that we are an
integrated and complete whole. Part of me has come into the light. I can see the difference in the eyes of the people around me. I do not need to try and be
polite, and yet the interaction is so much more authentic. I am able to connect in a way I never could earlier. The invisible wall is no longer invisible. The vague sense of uneasiness has lessened. The moods don’t float in so unexpectedly. I feel easy and nice. I feel okay in my own skin and okay with others. When anger or sadness or resentment or guilt comes, it doesn’t take me over. I can choose to step away because there is less hidden stuff going on. And so the spiritual journey continues, to the next milestone, whatever it might be.
About the author
Maninder Cheema is based in Mumbai and works with SEBI. Searching for answers to the puzzle of life is her engaging interest.
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