If you are anything like me, or most women on the planet, you have a slight tendency to be …err… I don’t know — incredibly hard on yourself. As in, you wake up every morning with a running list of things to do — not only emails to send, work to tackle, meetings to attend and groceries to buy — but also a more personal inventory of self-improvement. Perhaps you are determined to lose weight? Exercise more? Eat less? Have you resolved to be kinder? Gentler? More patient? Have you vowed to be a better daughter? Wife? Mother? Friend? Is your goal to read more? Work harder, earn more, save more? Perhaps you wish you were more more organized? More mindful? More loving? More present?
More … MORE … MORE!!!!
As a life coach, I have had the privilege of working with many smart, impressive women. Some have come to me in the hopes of taking their business to the next level. Some have been struggling with grief and loss. Others want to feel more connection to their husbands, to stop being so accommodating, to simplify their excessively busy lives. Many are in a transitional phase and are seeking clarity on their next move. Whatever the issue that brings them to me initially, they all seem to share one universal tendency -- a stubborn, pestering inner voice, a harsh critic constantly pointing out their personal flaws, holding them back in the grips of self-doubt while simultaneously pushing them to be better.
I know a thing or two about nasty inner voices. I consider myself a confident, accomplished person. Still, I have my own personal inner BEE-AHTCH who beats me up, puts me down, drives me hard and places incredibly high (often unrealistic) expectations upon me. She wants me to be skinny and beautiful, brilliant and informed. She expects me to be accomplished and successful, sexy and strong, yet also loving, kind, generous and caring. She demands nothing short of perfection - or at least that I constantly strive for it - firing on all cylinders at all times. The kicker? She prefers that I appear effortless, calm and cool at the same time.
I call her Lola.
Lola has been with me all of my life, a constant presence, my supporting act. In some subtle way, I have always felt her, known she was there, even credited her for much of my success. Throughout the years, Lola’s was the voice of determination, hissing constant reminders like Work harder, everything is riding on this one exam! or You don’t have time to eat, grab a power bar and stay at your desk! She was with me throughout college and law school, making sure I never rested, but kept reaching for the brass ring. You’ll sleep when you’re old, keep studying! Later, in my New York City years, she was a like a catty companion on my shoulder, always pointing out the other women who were taller and thinner, more fashionable and more successful, making me feel insecure and unworthy by comparison. Pull yourself together! she might demand. You are falling behind! Power on!
I accepted her rants as part of the cost of doing business, even felt grateful toward her for driving me so hard to achieve so much.
What I never realized was how painful, toxic and unnecessary her presence truly was.
Lest you be concerned for me (or my clients), please know that I am neither insane nor delusional. I know that Lola is not real, but rather represents the voice of fear and insecurity that lives within. Giving her a name and a persona (she is relentless and sometimes mean, a slave driver who probably suffers from a major Napoleon Complex, tiny as can be and invariably clad in a bad ass, all black Batgirl outfit) has not only been fun, but deeply therapeutic. It has helped me to laugh at myself, and has also shed much light on some deeply held painful thoughts and limiting beliefs.
Two years ago, when I began my life coach training program, there was much discussion about how transformative the experience would be, how much I would learn about myself, how much lighter, freer and more confident I would emerge in the end. The symbol for all of this growth was the butterfly, and I was being told that I was a mere caterpillar on the brink of significant change. My instant reaction was a sarcastic eye roll and a hearty guffaw. Perhaps the other trainees needed to look within, challenge their beliefs and gain some perspective, but as far as I was concerned, I was all good. I had always excelled at school, had made the law review, had worked in some of the most competitive, hard-driving legal environments. I had already buried two beloved parents — before I turned 30. I had always coped - even thrived - in adversity. I was a survivor. As an adoring wife and proud mother of three, I had fought my way through oh-so-much to arrive at a happy, content and peaceful place. I just wanted to learn a few tools, get my certification and be on my way, eager to help others on their own personal journeys.
As for me, I was all set!
Turns out, I was also all wrong.
What quickly became very clear to me was that my “I’ve got this” attitude, my sense of “having figured out this thing called life,” and the pride I took in having overcome so much - well, it was the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Relentless Lola, never satisfied with the status quo, was far too much a part of my whole truth, and it was time for me to face her.
Through coaching, I came to see Lola as the personification of all that I am afraid of. I became acquainted with the term “Reptilian Brain,” the most primitive part of the brain, shared by both mammals and reptiles, which controls our instincts for survival. I learned about the “fight or flight response,” which kicks in when we feel threatened or scared. I discovered that most human fears break down into two categories - lack and attack. We either worry that we don’t have enough of something we need (money, love, time, powers of attraction), or that some predator is lurking, ready to challenge us, to take from us that which we hold dear. I came to understand that these ancient survival instincts, developed when we were living in the wild and surrounded by hungry beasts, are still fully operational, alive and well in modern day life. In my case, they manifest as …. you guessed it … Lola! She represents my insecurities and doubts, she is always on guard, striving to wrack up accomplishments or otherwise jockey for position to ensure my security and safety.
Once I learned to understand Lola, not only her motivations and triggers, but also the ridiculous things she caused me to feel and do, I did in fact feel transformed. I am far more at ease, with a newfound sense of freedom. I literally feel 20 lbs lighter! Even better, having learned how to dance with my demons, now I get to spend my days helping other women do the same.
Lola still rears up from time to time, but we are friends now. I have learned how to satisfy her without kowtowing to her constant demands, how to assuage her fears so that she can settle down and relax. Like any misguided playground bully, lashing out at others in an attempt to secure her own position, Lola just needs to feel worthy and loved.
Don’t we all?
Learning to love the one I am with — to accept myself as I am — doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped setting goals or taking pride in my accomplishments. Rather, I have come to realize that when I do set my sights on some new objective, I must also take the time to ask why? What is the feeling state I am hoping to feel? Because, when you think about it, what good is a stellar resume, a thriving business, a healthy body or a loving family if all the while you still feel like it's not enough?
In my case, I have come to see that beneath all of the drive, determination and ambition, there was always just a deep yearning for one simple thing: Self-acceptance. With that, I can finally reap the benefits of a lifetime of hard work. Now, a good day isn't about reciting my resume or checking items off a to do list. It's about feeling whole and true, confident and proud, with absolutely nothing to prove.
Tal Fagin is a Certified Life Coach and former attorney. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Her clients describe her as compassionate, non-judgmental, wise and insightful, among other things. Tal considers herself a problem-solver and a confidant, and works with people one-on-one and in groups to help them achieve their goals. Sessions are held by phone or in person, so geography is never an issue. She would love to hear from you!
Tal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.