The Artist and Little Miss What-the-Hell


Years ago, when I first started spiritual direction, my spiritual director sent me a book* with a goofy title that depicted critical voices as gremlins with colourful personalities. She asked me to read through and find “my” gremlins. And that is how I met The Artist and Little Miss What-the-Hell.

The Artist is the gremlin who paints a picture of Your Best Life and then convinces you that if you can just recreate the image exactly as it is in the painting, you will be Happy and Fulfilled. So, you work hard, chasing the dream, maneuvering to align your life according to the painting, and just as you’re starting to make good progress, you notice that The Artist is still painting! The scene is changing, and as you redirect and realign, it changes again and again – always out of reach.

Little Miss What-the-Hell is not as subtle as The Artist. She is the one who, when you set yourself a noble goal and then mess up, ever so slightly, says, “Oh, what the hell – might as well give up!” She is the one who convinces me, after eating one candy during a week of giving up sweets, that I might as well just eat the whole package - since I’ve already blown it. “You’ll never change,” she mutters. It’s always her voice I hear when I miss a day of exercise (“You’re stuck with this body”), get one mediocre grade (“You’re obviously not smart enough”), or lose my cool with my kids (“You’re a bad mom”).

The Artist and Little Miss What-the-Hell tap right into the heart of my perfectionism, on the one hand heightening my expectations while at the same time telling me I haven’t got what it takes to meet them.

I can’t tell you how much damage they’ve done. They’ve harmed relationships, as my expectations became unbearable in both directions. They’ve closed doors to opportunities I didn’t even attempt because I figured I wasn’t good enough. They’ve thwarted dreams before they even took flight. They’ve told me over and over again that I’m not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, and I’ve been hobbled, cut off from my gifts, strengths, and inner resources.


(They’ve also left me with a very messy house.)

The Artist and Little Miss What-the-Hell tap right into the heart of my perfectionism, on the one hand heightening my expectations while at the same time telling me I haven’t got what it takes to meet them.

I’ve lived with these gremlins for four decades and I’m still figuring out what to do with them. Noticing them is an important first step. Accepting their presence in my life is a second one – they’re here, and as much as I’d like to evict them completely, I’m stuck with them (their rental contract is iron-clad). So, I’m left with no option but to renegotiate my relationship with them. I thank them for their invitation to dream big and for their honesty about my flaws. But lately I’ve relocated them over to the peanut gallery part of my brain. They get to have a voice, but the volume is turned down and the focus is shifted.

Now, I’m working on normalizing Good Enough. Lately, this looks like: starting a spiritual direction practice before I feel 1000% qualified, submitting a paper after only two rereads instead of a dozen, and publishing blog posts without obsessing with all the ways they might be critiqued by others (or myself). I’m also reminding myself that modeling failure is a gift in itself: I’m showing myself and my family what it looks like to start over, to apologize, and to practice self compassion.

***

What about you? Do these particular gremlins live in your head? Where are you at in terms of noticing, accepting, and renegotiating your relationship with these unruly tenants?

*Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way, by Rick Carson

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