Since my collaboration with DMW about internalized criticism, I’ve been remembering one of the more painful forms of internal criticism, and how I need to include myself in my compassionate view of the world.
One of the worst things about an invisible disability, like the one I have, is the feeling that I need to justify myself to others when I use accommodations or other things that aren’t expected for able-bodied people. The absolute worst was at the gym. Until the latest decline in my condition, I used the gym frequently: I needed to work out, but for me, working out was at a level of intensity much less than normal for my apparent-to-others condition. I felt like I should hang a sign around my neck explaining my disability so that other people wouldn’t judge me. I was projecting my own self-critique onto others and worrying about it a lot.
As a result, I was pretty serious about telling people close to me not to judge others in similar ways. When my spouse watched someone use the elevator to go down one floor rather than taking the stairs, and said something afterwards about how the person looked perfectly capable of walking down the stairs, I was quick to point out that my spouse has a knee condition that sometimes makes walking down stairs painful and isn’t visible to the naked (or clothed) eye. Discussions like that have really gotten through to my spouse – he doesn’t make those kinds of judgments any more. At first he just got tired of hearing me come up with possible alternative explanations (I’m quite inventive at it, apparently.) but it did actually change his awareness after a while.
Along with “It’s More Complicated Than That,” one of my personal catchphrases is “You Just Don’t Know.” You don’t know whether that person has PTSD, or diabetes, or knee trouble, or anything else. You don’t know what choices they’re making, or how many spoons they have left, or whether that silver necklace was a present and isn’t worth that much anyway, so that’s why they’re wearing a piece of jewelry while begging for food money. You don’t know whether I decided to use the handicapped parking tag because I can’t face one more long walk today and might end up in the ER if I tried, but I still need to buy food. You just don’t know.
During the recent period when my disability worsened, these sorts of concerns became an issue for me not just at the gym but in more and more of everyday life. As a result, my internal chorus of critics got much, much louder. (It didn’t help that I wasn’t getting good support from the medical community – are you still paranoid if the doctor says, “I just don’t see what’s causing this,” and implies it’s all in your head?) Finally, I was expressing some of this internal criticism to my spouse, and talking about how I was afraid that other people would think badly of me for “faking,” and how it all made me doubt myself and wonder if it really was all in my head or all my fault somehow. He said, “You can come up with all these reasons that the homeless guy has an iPod and I shouldn’t judge him for that. Can’t you apply some of that compassion to yourself?”
I was stunned. I had never thought of it that way. Yes, I spoke up to others about the fact that invisible disabilities exist, but at the same time, I had internalized the worst of the criticisms. I had internalized the mindset that encourages people to go up to drivers using handicapped spots and challenge them to justify their use of the handicapped tag. I told others not to judge but was quick to judge myself and to worry about how other people were judging me.
These days, I’ve quieted my internal chorus of critics quite a bit, and learned not to care very much about whether or not other people are judging me silently. I’ve learned to take my own lessons to heart: compassion isn’t just for me to give to others.