Owl misbehaved so badly a year and a half ago I had to fire her. I refused to acknowledge her or any of the other cast members for almost a year after that. Up to that point she’d been what you would expect of a tough-driving critic, but this time….oh, this time she stepped totally over the line. What’s more, by this point she should have known better.
[NOTE: if you happen to be a newcomer, this piece is the 5th in a story-based series outlining a process framework for the development of self-leadership (even though it might not seem much like it right now). While I hope that each individual story has some interest as a stand-alone, if you’re curious to see how it all works as a concept or just want to read more stories, circle back to the homepage. “Setting the Stage 1 & 2” and all of the “Scene” stories are part of this series.]
But before going down that road, there is more to know about Owl. She’s kind of a stock character, a familiar presence in all of us save maybe the Dalai Lama. But while the critic may be more generally regarded as a stand-alone character, as I did the sorting of all the characteristic behaviors of mine that have given me trouble and then grouped them into full blown roles/personalities, I could see that the critic belonged to a bigger collection of feelings/needs/expressions beyond the sole purpose of critiquing me. Well, make that critiquing us. She was a freewheeling critic of all, out there slinging judgment far and wide.
Beyond the critical component of her character, she also trafficked in jealousy — the distinctive pain of witnessing all that others had which dangerously diminished her sense of self. It would be fine if all those people would go take their money or accomplishments to Mozambique and live their glorious lives out of her sight. Who cares as long as everyone else in her immediate line of sight had it no better than she. Or was worse off; that would most certainly be fine, too.*
On the other hand, she was also the prideful one and the one most interested in image — the one who self-promoted and was therefore opportunistic, a true strategist out to get the most for herself and doing what was necessary to optimize her chances for doing so.
All of this added up to Owl’s presumed sponsorship of my sense of self. Self-importantly assuming responsibility for my presentation, she rode me hard with the idea being that beating me into betterment would ensure my value and garner me some safety.
In sum, this collection of self-concerned traits amounts to something like the ego. In my experience, the ego is its own entity, relating to life in its own idiosyncratic way. I don’t know about yours, but according to Owl, it’s a jungle out there. Given this, Owl was constantly sizing up the competition, even in environments promising peace and growth and freedom from this sort of suffering.
The tranquil environment most sure to bring out the jungle instinct in Owl was Kripalu, a yoga and education retreat center in the Berkshires — a soulful sanctuary for the advancement of wellbeing and spiritual rejuvenation. I would go there every other year or so to take a workshop on some growth & development topic like emotional intelligence or the neuroscience of self-leadership from whatever author I was currently in love with.
Always, from the moment I walked through the doors of that great castle on the hill, Owl started looking around with those sharp eyes. Who was here? What did they look like? Kripalu attracted a certain type, a progression through the ages of young hipsters and granola types with their dreadlocks and gypsy clothes, then moving along to the funky middle-agers with their colorful bi-focals and expensive coordinates before finally maturing into the transcendent ones.
The pressing question was, who would emerge as the stars of the yoga classes with their one-armed balances and full inversions? Who was going to earn the status as the most soulful, the most enlightened, the most together? And, no small preoccupation of mine, who was the most spiritually stylish? I couldn’t wait to hit the gift shop to have a look at the jewelry selection.
It didn’t take long before I spotted them. The gray goddesses. They were everything I aspired to be in my gray-haired future: graceful, thin, distinct in style and with an air of transcendence earned only through the soulful, mastery of life, which for them was achieved by middle-age, blessed as they were with their uber-cool prematurely gray hair. Both of them effortlessly beautiful, the tall one had shoulder-length silver hair with a natural curl no perm has ever granted me. The short one had long, dramatic white hair and almost Native American features.
They were always together, floating through the great halls in clothes so perfectly and un-self-consciously understated you knew they came from somewhere good, some far off location, some eco-friendly soul boutique committed to sustainable, subtle artfulness. They were so elegant. And I was always on the lookout for them. It wasn’t hard; they were everywhere like God and air, commanding the regard awarded to souls possessing an essence unreachable by the rest of us while they, themselves, were untouched by any of it.
And then it happened. Owl spotted it in yoga class. The fall from grace.
With a bird’s eye view from several rows back, Owl was watching their every move. And then, right there in the middle of sun salutations, the flaw was revealed, the short one taken down by Warrior II. A pose requiring full and balanced composure while assuming an archer-like stance, the forward arm points arrow-straight over a deeply bent knee while the other, in perfect extension of the front, reaches long over a strong back leg, an integrated mastery of body and spirit.
She didn’t have it. The short one looked like a scarecrow, a mistake of awkward, jagged angles. Knees splayed too wide, arms askew, fingers and elbows and every hinged joint a corruption of continuity. I couldn’t believe it. Jesus, I was so much more graceful than that!
Back home I told Gary the whole thing — about falling in love with the gray goddesses, how they floated around, how the waters parted as they passed through. But then came the flaw in the holy fabric, I said, the short one a travesty of grace in yoga class with her limbs jutted out like broken triangles.
“Like this,” I said, assuming Scarecrow. “This was her Warrior II.”
“Don’t do that,” Gary said instantly. “It’s not a good look.” I could see from his face he never wanted to witness that unkindness on me again.
So that’s Owl. Sharp-eyed. Self-referential. Image-aware. Jungle-tuned. Judgmental. Comparative. Competitive. Agenda-oriented and survival-based, Owl is constantly sizing things up.
I was not a fan of Owl, but after two years of Internal Family Systems work identifying my inner cast members with Jonette, my therapist, by the winter of 2018 Owl and I had come to an understanding. I understood that the drive behind her frequently objectionable maneuvers was to protect me. There was honor in that and I gained her trust by respecting the intention. Based on this understanding, we were able to reach an agreement to work together on our joint interest in me, striking a pretty fair balance which we were largely able to hold up: first I would listen to her concerns and then we would find a mutually beneficial way to go about conducting the business of my survival.
This was all working pretty well earlier that winter of 2018 when I decided to start a book group. I’d been in book groups before and had lately been feeling a persistent sense of the lack of one. After unsuccessfully searching around to see if I might find something ready-made to infiltrate, it became clear if a book group was to be in my life, it was going to be up to me to make it. Fine. I knew cool people who would be great book group composition material.
After a period of impassioned recruitment, around 10 of them agreed. We met for the first time at my house to get to know each other and hash out the group rules. I noticed I was oddly nervous. Really oddly nervous, which confused me. What was I so nervous about? Sure, it’s a bit of a risk, but it’s not like I couldn’t handle social interactions or hadn’t facilitated groups before.
As they all piled in the house at the same time, we maneuvered through the initial chaos of introductions among people who don’t know each other. We dealt with coats and fussed around with potluck contributions, and finally got settled in the living room with our glasses of wine and little plates of finger food. After going around the room with an icebreaker declaration of our favorite place to read and our favorite kinds of books, we got down to business and launched into the agenda.
Midway in I wandered off topic, which was no problem; it was just unclear why I went where I did. But I did, launching into a story about our neighborhood. We live on one of those streets with some big old houses, a few of which have been turned into multi-units. In other words, a bit gone-to-seed but not entirely without glimpses of some original good bones. While there were some nice things about the neighborhood, boy, those multi-units, I said…they bring a mix of people who are constantly floating through. In fact, a year after we arrived, a neighbor informed us that a convicted rapist had just moved into the multi-unit right next to us!
And then there was downtown. We were just a mere 5 blocks away, which is handy but not without its drawbacks, one of them being all the riff-raff and the…um…the…uh…the…
All of a sudden I get gripped in a panic. Not long after launching into the story, I had become semi-uncomfortably aware of how I was casting people who live in multi-units as human beings of unreliable quality, a feeling I blocked in allegiance to my story. But now I was moving on to impugn another group of people, the ones who cluster around the hub of downtown service centers because they have no independent means of transportation. With my whole story hinging on how these people occasionally wander 5 blocks afar and into our neighborhood, I was now worried about whether lumping homeless people in with meth-head riff-raff was politically correct. Am I supposed to say homeless people nowadays? They are homeless, but is that insensitive? I don’t know! It was getting so hard to keep up with all the corrections!
Having now backed myself in a corner, the enthusiastic impulse to tell this story was quickly getting replaced with a nervous hysteria. But what else could I do but forge ahead to get it over with? Pressured by the long pause getting longer, I toss in the homeless people but try to counter the potential offense by back peddling.
“Oh, geez,” I laugh nervously. “Is that even politically correct to say? Are we allowed to say homeless people now?” Nobody says anything so I plow on.
“Anyway, one summer day we’d left our front door open. Somebody wandered in and went upstairs to find a bathroom!” I’m a little hysterical trying to bring out the humor. “But they couldn’t find it because the bathroom is so strangely positioned! Our upstairs is weird and you have to go through two rooms before you find it at the very far corner of the house!”
I get that far in the story before once again getting stuck, truly stuck. I couldn’t remember what came next. I couldn’t get a picture of the guy who came in. I couldn’t actually even remember it happening. It was like it wasn’t my story.
“Wait a minute,” I say. “I’m getting mixed up.” I shout out to Gary who is sitting in the next room at the computer. “Gary, how did that go? Did we just find that guy wandering around upstairs?”
“It wasn’t here,” Gary said in a tone of voice indicating he’d been following the whole train wreck. “That was at Megan’ and Eric’s.”
Suddenly, I didn’t even know why I was telling everyone this. What was I trying to get them to see? What did I want them to know?
“Oh, god. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this story!” People just look at me, not knowing what to do with all of this, but I can’t think of anything to say to move us on through.
“Somebody get me out of this,” I laugh, hoping that just calling it out would work in that way admitting a blunder can sometimes defuse the tension.
“You’re on your own,” Gary called out from the computer.
No one else said anything. We all just hung there dying for a few moments, then Lynn sprang to action, moving us back to the agenda while I began rhythmically sipping wine, forcing my eyes to look around the room as if I was following the conversation, and working very hard to not to feel a blessed thing.
Later that night, just as I knew would happen, Owl woke me up, gravely concerned. She started in by mocking me.
“Homeless people…is that even politically correct to say?” she mimicked. “Are we even allowed to say that anymore?”
She then picked through the whole mess, rehashing the story point-by-point. She pulled each detail out like she was taking evidence out of the plastic bag and presenting it to the court. And then she came to her conclusion.
“You have to die,” Owl ruled. “There’s no coming back from this.”
The thing is, she was serious.
My heart froze. Then I was furious. This was so absurd. Owl has never had any sense of scale. This might have gotten somewhere with me before, but not anymore.
“That’s it, you’re done,” I said. “You have gone too far.”
Reporting on Owl’s behavior later to Jonette, I felt so bad. We were in the process of wrapping our work up. We both knew it was time for me to be on my way, but I’d been slow about it because I loved talking with her. I knew this stunt by Owl would be a hit.
After listening to the whole thing, Jonette’s face just fell.
“Oh, Owl,” she said, looking so sad and disappointed.
More than a decade ago during one of my especially intense periods of self-betterment, I had a conversation about ego with Kaila, one of my original friends from way back. I was telling her I’d had it with ego’s shallowness. I was done.
Kaila was almost defensive. After going back and forth over the function ego plays in our lives, Kaila finally made a pitch for a little balance.
“Can’t you just give the ego something?”
“No, I said. “I give it nothing.”
And that right there is ego for you, sneaking in the side door. An absolutist and perfectionist to the death.**
Up next: Scene 4 — Rabbit
Illustration credit — Gary Robinson
Commentary and Notes
What about you? How does ego and the inner critic present in your world? And to make it fun, what animal would capture him or her?
*While Owl is single-eyed in what she sees, I can’t bear to let her speak for me and have the last word on the topic of jealousy, so I am compelled to declare that I — me, the director of this show — realize how incomprehensibly fortunate I am in all the unearned opportunities that have simply been a part of my life, all the resources available to me, the experiences that have come my way, my general access to the world and the places I’ve been able to travel, and, most of all, the people in my life I have been blessed with. Again, Owl just has no sense of scale or perspective.
**Lastly, I feel so protective of you, whoever you are out there reading this, hoping you are not sinking into depression as you read about what may seem like a bottomless well of my hopelessly dismal inner qualities, now topped off with poor self-esteem. I can almost hear you out there: Good lord, how pitiful can she get? We’ve only met two of her cast members! We’ve got 3 more to get through!
But I just want to reassure you again that it will all balance out. While my cast most definitely has their trouble on the one side, it’s just the shadow side and is in direct proportion to my light. It gets good and I’m really happy with how it all works out. Our shadows are just part of being human. As I’ve learned and come to believe in all the reading and research I’ve done, we all have our shadows and have to be in relationship with them if we are to be happy and the whole of who we are. Sign me up.