As far back into my past as I can remember, I had a loud, dominant inner critic–a voice that forced me to see myself through the eyes of negativity, failure and condemnation. Even as a small child, the act of making an error when playing a game, a less than perfect piece of schoolwork or a clumsy, confused response to a question in a conversation, would send me into a spiral of self-criticism, where words such as ‘useless’, ‘failure’ and ‘stupid’ were common utterances I used against myself.
Although, as a very young child, I couldn’t articulate these self-attacks as I do now. These critical attacks meant I believed that I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes and I had to strive for perfection at all times.
As I got older and with increased awareness of myself in relation to other people, the line I felt I had to walk without triggering my inner critic felt finer. It was no longer just about what I did or said, but also how I was perceived by others and what they may be thinking, that could cause a type of self-attack, that left me feeling paralyzed to do anything.
By the time I was 15, my inner critic had convinced me that I wasn’t worthy of having friends, companionship, affection or praise at any level. I had talked myself out of almost all of the usual teenage experiences and I had come to believe that enjoying life was for other people, not me.
This ongoing internal battle left me feeling isolated, lonely and chronically depressed. By the time I completed my undergraduate degree, I was battling the early signs of something that would culminate in a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa at the age of 23. The voice that had berated me for life choices, grades and minor imperfections had honed its focus into the contents of what I was allowed to eat. The diagnosis allowed me to get the support I needed and gave rise to important first-time engagements with my inner critic,
The years that followed allowed me to look back on that twenty something woman with empathy, kindness and gratitude for having survived an experience that could very well have killed me. However, with increased self-awareness, I came to see the life choices I had made subsequently, demonstrated that my inner critic was still a dominant force in my life. I had a job that I was massively overqualified for, living in a house and location that felt alien to me and was in a marriage which I knew had to end despite the pain and anguish I knew we would both endure.
My divorce happened, and I earned an MA in psychotherapy. I could feel myself changing at quite a rapid pace and I was finally engaging in a career that felt immensely fulfilling. I was able to see myself more for who I really was, than the person I had convinced myself (and others) that I had been. The dreams, ideas and creative pursuits I had talked myself out of were re-emerging. Re-engaging with these parts of myself allowed inspiration to peek its head into my life once again.
One evening a particular vision came into my head clearly, precisely and powerfully. I sat upright in bed, it was 3am and I knew clearly what I needed to do next.
‘I need to walk; I just need to walk.’
I knew exactly where I needed to go, I had delicately shared the idea with a few people over the past two years after being inspired by a documentary of someone who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. The Trail is a 2600-mile trail on the west coast of the USA, spanning from Campo California at the Mexican border to the Canadian border, covering all three states, California, Oregon and Washington.
My decision made, I tentatively set about arranging the complex details of traveling to the USA from the UK to spend half a year hiking and living in the wilderness. Months went by where my only focus was my trip. I spent hours online researching tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and started querying such things as ‘which merino wool base layers are the warmest yet most breathable’ in the varying temperatures I would encounter.
The time invested in this research proved worthwhile and I compiled a combination of gear that I trusted would see me through. As I boarded the plane from Heathrow to San Diego, I felt like I was entering into a complete unknown, entirely unsure of what to expect and with that my emotions felt equally as confused.
Being driven to the start of the trail, at the American side of the Mexican border, felt immediately scary, exciting and utterly isolating. I became suddenly aware of how far away I was from everything and how being alone here was different than any solitude I had felt in my life before. I genuinely didn’t know the next time I would speak to anyone.
The first couple of weeks on the trail were hard, really hard. I missed home; the UK, my friends, family, my cat, and with the awareness of the escalation of the pandemic, I knew there was a real possibility of long stretches on the trail without seeing anyone. Many American hikers had cancelled their plans, which created doubt in my own mind. Yet, the possibility of going home also felt out of reach: I had given up my home so I could afford to do this, put all of my belongings in storage which I couldn’t access due to the closure of non-essential businesses, and flights to the UK were in short supply.
In addition, I also didn’t want to leave the trail; despite the pains in my back, shoulders, feet and hips; I could feel my body adapting to what I was asking of it. I had never been as certain about something as I had about this; I knew that this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Even on bad days, I felt at peace and despite the bodily discomfort, the strength my body was gaining felt like an honouring of what it had fought physically and emotionally to get me here.
However, this also meant I was alone with my thoughts. I realised how often in my usual life off trail, if I felt sad, alone, scared, confused, I would reach for things that I knew would provide comfort; music, books, work, watching TV. This noise helped distract me from these intense emotions and without them I felt raw and vulnerable.
Leaning into this vulnerability, I was able to tune into all the nuanced ways I communicated to myself about who I believed I was and what I needed. To my surprise, when I really listened to myself, I realized that the goal of walking to Canada felt increasingly less necessary. Looking too far ahead and aiming my energy to some goal in the future had been something I had done many times previously in my life. “When I get this job, when I complete this course, when I meet this person, then I will feel whole, fulfilled, content, desirable.”
So rarely in my life had I focused in on the present moment; so rarely had I brought my attention to the now. The inner critic doesn’t always like the now, it gets irritable, frustrated and seeks to remind you that only by ‘doing’ are you valuable.
I felt that the trail was telling me to slow down, breathe and just listen. It became quickly evident that Mother Nature is in no hurry, even with all of its apparent spontaneity, there was always stillness. The stillness guided me and I took each day at a time, each step at a time, to see where that would lead me. With this decrease in physical pace, my psychological pace mirrored it and I noticed an increase in gentleness, and self-acceptance. Without as much judgment, I was able to make room for the information I was gathering by listening more closely, not just to myself but to what the trail and mother nature were communicating to me.
Through this experimentation, I could feel how confused my inner critic became. I could sense she didn’t quite know what to do. Whilst hiking up mountains had earlier been a cause for her to give me hell and tell me that ‘I would never make it to the summit’, she was losing power quickly. I was literally climbing mountains all day every day.
I could feel my self-trust growing and flourishing with each mile I walked and whilst her critical presence did not disappear altogether, I could feel the grip loosen and despite carrying up to 40 pounds of gear, food and water on my back every day, I felt increasingly lighter.
In moments of despairing loneliness that would cause me to feel like the wind had been pushed out of my chest and which earlier would have triggered my critic to tell me all the bad things I thought about myself. Now, these moments, were opportunities to pause, close my eyes and be aware of the life that surrounded me: the wind blowing in the trees, the birds singing, the rustle in the bushes of the chipmunks, rabbits, lizards. The connection to life around me, allowed greater awareness of the connection I had to all parts of myself. This connection was vast, limitless and allowed for ideas to flow. I began making a list on my phone ‘when I leave the PCT I will…’ Surprisingly, many of the creative pursuits were things I had thought about years ago, that I had talked myself out of. Yet the list kept growing, and bringing it home with me, acting on it, is a daily reminder of that connection.
My Pacific Crest Trail journey was different than I imagined it would be. I stayed on the trail for most of the time I was in the USA, hiking 1300 miles in total. At other times, I chose to come off trail, meeting beautiful people along the way, two of whom offered me their homes as a place of refuge in times of great uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic. Kate from LA, who I stayed with on a couple of different occasions; we quickly became roommates, travel buddies and great friends, still very much in contact and with that share an ongoing emotional support system for one other.
Brenda, who’s from Portland, was a trail angel turned beautiful friend, with whom I shared the final weeks of my journey; spending time with her at her Sanctuary in Portland, learning about our similar life experiences, fears, hopes and goals for the near future as well as watching her build a fire on the beach, that rivalled anyone else’s. The generous, open, beautiful spirits of these women offered me a type of kindness and lasting friendship, that I am eternally grateful for.
Sitting here in the UK writing this I am struck with how idyllic I am making the PCT sound to be. Let me clarify, it was tough! Learning to survive in the outdoors with temperatures ranging from 25 -110 degrees is a shock to a bodily system that is used to down duvets, hot showers and flushing toilets. Yet, that appears to be the point, at least for me.
You see, I had the idea of the PCT for several years, but that negative voice said: ‘This is not for you, you can’t do it or it will be too tough.’
I did it anyway. I had to. It was the only way to demonstrate how much more I was capable of, how much I had been guided by my terrified inner critic and to what extent I refused to let that theme continue in my life.
I have seen and supported individuals whose self-attacks have presented as eating disorders, addiction, workaholism, extreme perfectionism, long-term depression, anxiety, alcoholism, procrastination. Yet, through my recent experiences, I have come to see how approaching ourselves with gentleness, patience and with an ear to what we may need at this very moment in time, can be an effective way to begin to understand where our critical self comes from, what it is saying and what we can do to help ourselves. The answer for many is therefore not disconnecting from it, but re-connecting with who we really are, seeing all emotion as information and accepting our fear and uncertainty.
My personal and professional experiences have guided me to the point I am now, working as a Person-Centred psychotherapist in the UK, where I have written about and specialise in working with those struggling with a dominant inner critic and/or eating distress. Yet, the work I do offers space for any type of distress to be explored and understood at the client’s pace. My goal is to offer outdoor therapy to those who feel that deeper connection with nature would be beneficial to their exploration. I look forward to walking side-by-side with clients into deeper personal understanding, one step at a time.
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