On Inner Critics and Neurotic Loops
Or, How I Failed Last Sunday
Disclaimer: I’m trying to talk about a personal situation as generically as possible, so some of this language might be confusingly abstract. While I might be able to illustrate the concept better using a hypothetical, it is therapeutic for me to use this writing as a way of dealing with the unfortunate situation. Forgive me if this writing is particularly confusing.
This Sunday last, I acted regrettably.
At lunch with a person with whom I have a strained relationship, I experienced a negative emotion due to a comment that had nothing to do with me whatsoever.
Associating with the person in the story, the negative inflection in the comment caused me the sensation of a personal affront. However, while the character and I share several (unsavory) things in common, there was no cause for me to so intensely make the connection and, as I said, my lunch date had no intention of referring to me in any way.
This was exacerbated by my critical assumptions about a cluster of contexts and situations within this particular social circle — a circumstance which caused me to feel lonely, isolated, and dejected.
I raised my voice, said a couple of mean things, and had to take a walk around the block to cool off.
While walking, I visualized the CALM-MO Flashlight and, while it did not immediately solve everything entirely, it did at least downshift my mood enough for me to enjoy my meal — after which I felt considerably better.
So, what happened, and why am I talking to you about it?
I had been caught in the grip of a neurotic loop. My experiential self had a negative, but perhaps justifiable, emotion. Then, my ego self created a narrative justifying the emotion, which then caused me to feel even more negative about the situation.
My persona, or social self, was then further injured because I acted rudely to the person out of defensiveness. This then caused me to add guilt and shame to the already tempestuous blend of emotions, and finally I had a dreadful fight or flight response that luckily got me some air which allowed me to address my inner turmoil to a slight degree. Oftentimes the fight response can go the other way, making things even worse.
On What I Had Done
In this video, Dr. Gregg Henriques describes what is happening during one of these neurotic loops.
“This diagram depicts the central features that drive neurotic loops. Namely, it represents the fact that many people try to avoid or control their negative feelings. They do this by adopting a stance of an inner critic that is defensive or judgmental or avoidant in the way they try to cope with those feelings.
Unfortunately, this often leads to a building up of negative feelings and a trigger will then release strong emotions, and the person will feel flooded, overwhelmed, and out of control — and might snap in a fit of rage, or experience a panic or overwhelming anxiety.
Of course, if this happens it just teaches the individual that negative feelings are indeed bad, and they will often then double down in their efforts to control them.”
And What I Had Failed To Do
“What is better is learning to approach emotional functioning — and how to be aware and attuned to one's feelings on the one hand, and how to adaptively regulate them on the other.
This is called the emotional sweet spot.
CALM MO helps people learn how to process emotions in the emotional sweet spot. It starts with the MO — which is a metacognitive observer.
This means adopting a deliberative, reflective responsive (versus reactive) observing position of one's mind.
Now, there were a number of reasons I had trouble getting into the CALM MO that day. Let’s just say they mostly involved a lack of self care, eating and drinking the wrong things and not getting quality sleep. This put my primate, experiential self at a disadvantage going in, and made it all the harder to maintain the meta-perspective necessary to maintain the agile loving-kindness I needed to keep me out of the loop.
Today, being in a better state, I’m practicing Curiosity, Acceptance, Lovingkindness, and a Motivation toward valued states of being to assist me in learning from the situation. Part of this involves the acceptance that, even though I acted badly, I also did at least visualize the flashlight, and it at least partially allowed me to navigate the emotions and get through the situation without exacerbating it further.
So, while I still feel guilty about the situation today, I can mindfully honor that guilt while simultaneously loving myself for at least being self-aware and considering the potential for improvement going forward.
And, with the Holidays coming up, I know that I have my flashlight in hand, and also what to do to better fuel and equip my MO. If I do these things in good faith, I’m bound to have a pleasant holiday, even in challenging situations. And, since challenges are part of the spice of life, that’s something to celebrate.