Shortly, I’m going to introduce you to Hannibal, he’s a nasty piece of work, able to eviscerate with a single word, crush dreams and lay waste to my progress. Before I do, I want to explain how I met him.
Default mode thinking
All of us will have been battered or unsettled by our own thoughts about ourselves and our behaviour or performance at some time in our lives. That time when we drop a glass or stub our toe, are prime examples where we can bark abuse at ourselves, “Idiot!”.
This, often automatic, dim view of ourselves is horribly embedded in modern minds, and whilst many of us can live day to day without issue, it can, over time, lead to negative impacts on our mental health, how we relate to others, and also how we behave. Worse though, is that it often determines what we believe about ourselves.
Negative self talk is fuel for the imposter in all of us (more on that in another article). Our imposter holds us back, make us fearful and requires more effort than is actually necessary when adopting challenges and stretching ourselves.
Over 10 years ago, I was very overweight, a situation that I had been hurting myself about for several years. Every morning I would look at myself in the mirror and say to myself “Today’s the day.” Every day that it wasn’t, added to the self disgust inside me which accumulated to a point where I just didn’t believe I could, or would do anything about it. On the topic of body mass and fitness, I was well and truly disarmed, by myself.
I am thankful that I eventually managed to overcome this. I was exasperated with myself at the poor role model I was setting for my young, energetic children. One day, became THE day, and I slowly got my health and fitness under control but I learnt something about myself, and the way I thought, during the early months of the journey.
THE Day, Mark, behind me, is a normal sized human.
One cold morning in March, I was cycling through the woods local to my home and was proceeding up a small hill. I felt a sense of dread because I had never managed to get to the top of this hill without getting off my bike and pushing it. I changed gear, and stood up on my pedals and pushed. At about half way up the hill, the hill kicked up slightly steeper, usually the point where I’d get off. I gritted my teeth and pedalled harder. It hurt, and I kept going. I slowly became aware of two very different narratives running in my thoughts. One was saying “ Go on! Keep going! Push! You can do it, you’re nearly at the top!”. The other said, calmly and cynically, “You’d be quicker getting off and walking!”. I had never felt this archetypal Angel and Devil conversation going on in my head before, it struck me quite hard and I wondered if I was going a little mad. I decided to side with the positive narrative and pushed on, energy renewed. I got to the top for the first time ever, I was elated.
Gradients are relative to fitness.
Now I had consciously heard this negative voice, I decided there and then to violently throttle it to death. I figuratively buried it in the woods alongside that track and I never walked up that hill again.
Can’t be unheard
With hindsight, this event was a first turning point for me. I continued to progress, lost 5 1/2 stone and began running; first 5k, then 10k, then half marathons and after a couple of Marathons on to Ultras, which I still participate in today. And even though I buried that vile, critical voice on that cold morning in March 2009, it has made reappearances elsewhere in my life over the years. I have never thought anything of calling myself an idiot or a moron after some minor drama or accident happened. These days I very successfully resist that instinct, and am working hard at being nicer to myself.
It was ultimately therapy that got me into a position where I understood what this inner critic was all about, and how automatic it is in many people, partly due to cultural norms in raising children and partly to do with our innate, negative bias, the Default Mode mindset that is the risk averse and survival orientated operating procedure our brains use to keep us out of danger. This predisposes many of us towards negative projections about the future. The good news is that we can change that perception, if we want to.
The time I spent in therapy was without doubt the most valuable time spent of my life to date. I was able to assign frameworks and models to the way my mind worked that explained some of the thought processes and patterns I was habitually using. I was able to see that my true inner voice was held hostage to my own, rather dark and unpleasant inner critic. Realising this meant I was able to choose to release myself from that unapproved arrangement.
Bringing your critic into the open
Having a rabid critic had made many of my relationships hard and certainly not for the fainthearted amongst my family, friends and colleagues. I have spent a lot of time in recent years resolving this situation and the final stage happened whilst reading or listening to a now forgotten podcast or audiobook, about how naming your inner critic, giving it a persona that matches the specifics of your own “inner asshole” can neutralise it. I thought this was a fabulous idea and although it took me some time to find a metaphoric persona for my inner critic, ultimately I settled on Hannibal.
The cold indifference with which he can cut me dead, the psychopathic way in which he can put a stranglehold on my dreams and the way he can consume my spirit are all wrapped up in the character Hannibal Lectur. However, I also chose this name because there is one aspect of my critic that is more than negative. Hannibal of antiquity is associated with overcoming huge barriers, using guile, tenacity and leadership. When my mind is in the right mode, Hannibal can help me drive for bigger and better things, almost the opposite of what he does when I shirk or relax too much. He CAN be useful.
Name and shame