Befriend your critical voice

Smurfette being taunted by an angel and a devil.

When my older brother and I were young children in the 70s, we had a very specific Saturday morning routine. We would wake up around 6, roll out of bed and head straight downstairs in our pajamas, turn on the TV, and start watching Saturday morning cartoons. I remember we had a specific order to watch them, even knowing when it was time to change the channel to catch another show. I think we had a general agreement on which shows we would watch. During commercials, we would rush back and forth from the living room to the kitchen, making cereal or toast for breakfast. On Saturday mornings, Mom could sleep in, because she always knew where we would be. It would take a major disruption to get us away from the TV before lunch time.

Cartoons back then were not as sophisticated as today. Mostly, I remember Looney Tunes and the Smurfs. All of these cartoons had many shared tropes (many of which were racist, it needs to be said) and one major trope was the angel and devil on the shoulder. Generally, they would appear when the protagonist had an ethical dilemma. The angel, representing the voice of good, would speak into the character’s ear, and then the devil, representing the voice of temptation, would speak into the other ear. Often, they would end up arguing with one another until the character shook their head and they both disappeared with a “poof” and a cloud.

I’ve been picturing these shoulder voices a lot as I have been reading Burnout by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski (they are twin sisters). They write about the stressors of the messages all around us that tell us we are not good enough. Many of these messages become internalized and even speak to us through our own inner voices.

You can do better than that.

You should be able to fit into those jeans but you got lazy.

Nobody wants you here.

Amelia writes about her favourite novel, Jane Eyre, and her fascination with the “mad woman in the attic”, Bertha Mason Rochester. The tortured Mr. Rochester married her in a family deal in Jamaica, discovered she was delusional and heard voices, then moved her to Thorncliffe Hall in England and locked her in the attic with a nurse. Amelia writes, “Rochester, the hero, has—spoiler—his insane wife locked in his attic. And when you think about it, who doesn’t? A demon in our past or our present that taunts us and tries to stop us from doing the things we most want to do. The metaphor is both so ubiquitous and so resonant, whole books have been written about the madwoman as a literary symbol of women’s entrapment in dichotomous roles of ‘demon’ and ‘angel’.” In the 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, this is exactly what Jean Rhys deals with. By setting Bertha and Jane up in this dialogue we see the lines between demon and angel are not so clear.*

A book cover. The top half is a blue sky with author's name, Jean Rhys, and the book title, Wide Sargasso Sea. Below that is a review from the New York Times Book Review, "A considerable tour de force by any standard." Next are the words, "A Novel". On the horizon on the left is a large plantation house with a roof engulfed in flames. On the bottom half of the cover is a brown woman with brown curly hair wearing a white, off-shoulder dress, laying on her side. She is surrounded by flowers in varying shades of pink.
Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys’s novel about the madwoman of Jane Eyre

Nagoski and Nagoski ask the reader to describe their “madwoman”, the voice that taunts, criticizes, and stops us from following our hopes. What form does she take? Is she young or old, large or small, loud or quiet? In all the various and diverse descriptions, the madwoman women describe is uncomfortable, even vicious, and, also, fragile and protective. And, they serve a purpose. Again, from the book,

This uncomfortable, fragile part of ourselves serves a very important function. She grew inside us, to manage the chasm between who we are and who Human Giver Syndrome expects us to be. She is the part of us that has the impossible, tormenting task of bridging the unbridgeable chasm between us and this “expected-us.” It’s a form of torture, like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down each time. She’s forever oscillating from rage to helpless despair.

I confess to being conflicted about calling this voice my “madwoman”. I get the resonance for Nagoski. It helps me to understand this voice as coming from a place of woundedness, I don’t think it works for everyone though. I’d encourage you to call this voice whatever resonates with you. As my childhood cartoons illustrate, we are taught to shun the devil, but even the angel has to listen to him once in a while. Maybe it is your monster. As Monsters, Inc. taught us, monsters work hard to appear scary, but once you get to know them there is also a lot to love.

Here’s my monster.

She is a big, loud, white woman, older than me. She is strong and intimidating A.F. I want to be her and I am also terrified of her. She is always pushing me to be better. When I hear her voice, she is usually cautioning me against getting too self-satisfied, unless I get complacent and stop growing and being my best self. She will tell me when my writing is not academic enough, the places and people and communities that will reject me if I don’t smarten up, that what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger, so keep enduring the hardship. I’ve learned to rebel against her a bit, especially when she is pushing me towards perfectionism. I often succeed, but when I don’t, she comes in hot and strong and my other successes don’t really matter.

She is like the hockey dad or the stage mother, pushing my limits all the time. She wants me to be so great that no one can touch me. She wants me to be so strong that when I am attacked I can just brush it off and move on. She wants me to conquer. And when I don’t, she wants me to focus on where I failed so I never do that again. In her view, cheering me on will only make me weaker. And she will invest everything she has to make me the best.

Setting her apart and getting to know her in a compassionate way leads me to respond to her in a different way. Rather than try to ignore her, or tell her shut up or reject her in some other way, I wonder if I could say something like,

I know you care about me and want to see me succeed. Thank you for the times you have pushed me to stretch my limits. I can thrive and be safe even if I don’t make it to the top. Grace is sufficient. Let’s learn to say, ‘This is good enough. It is good. It is enough.’

I invite you to spend some time in this exercise. In Burnout there is a good section with guiding questions to create a full description of your devil/madwoman/monster. If you’d like to share your experience with me, I’d love to hear it. You can email me at or share your thoughts in the comments.

*Full disclosure, I have not read Wide Sargasso Sea. I only learned about it for this post. It is now on my list. If you want to teach me more about this novel, which sounds fascinating, please educate me in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Befriend your critical voice”

  1. Opposite! I read Wide Sargasso Sea for school, without having read Jane Eyre.

    What I really want to read though is Burnout. Thanks for one more reason.

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