April/May 2023

My Crowd of Critics

By Jessamyn Rains

I had a one-year-old and a two-year-old, fluff balls with busy hands and inexhaustible energy, and I had just quit my part-time job to stay home with them. I was entering the third trimester of pregnancy with baby number three, looking as “big as a cow,” as one woman helpfully put it.

Like many new moms who do a poor job of spacing their pregnancies, I was in love with my kids but struggled to adjust. On the days I had everything under control–laundry, housework, dishes, cooking–babies fed and changed and occupied with something other than destroying property or endangering their lives–I was sharp and irritable, fretful that my fragile house of cards would be utterly destroyed by one movement of a baby foot or an ill-timed diaper blowout. (Not that diaper blowouts are ever conveniently-timed). On the days when I didn’t have everything under control, I was an mentally and emotionally inert, looking at everything, wondering what on earth I should start with, since everything seemed to cry out for my attention at once.

I was also crying a lot during this time. Every day, in fact.

“What’s wrong with me?” I asked my midwife at a routine appointment sometime in my seventh month of pregnancy.

She surmised that my emotional struggles were a result of isolation. While it was true that I felt like a lonely weirdo who no longer knew how to make friends, the truth was, I began to realize, I had a deeper problem than isolation. Or perhaps, my problem was compounded by isolation. Specifically, I’d been keeping company with a nebulous group of critics in my head. They were sort of like the cloud of witnesses mentioned in the book of Hebrews, only instead of cheering me on, they constantly harped on my faults and shortcomings and set me up for certain failure.

“They say you’re a horrible, monstrous woman if you sleep train your child; but they also say you’re a lazy, irresponsible one if you don’t,” I would mention to my husband at dinner.

“Who is they?”my husband would ask.

“You know, ‘THEY.’”

“They” was made up of a crowd of people in my head, roughly based on the people I saw in grocery store aisles, other moms at playgrounds, various online parenting forums, and people from my past who probably hadn’t thought about me in ten years.

‘They’ were all standing together, encircling my thoughts. When I did well in one area, another voice was quick to point out the areas I had neglected while trying so hard to fix the first one. For instance, if one voice in my head shamed me for letting my house look a little too much like the set of Sanford and Son, I would spend all day trying to correct this, during which I would brush my children off: ”Not now! I am trying to achieve minimum acceptability in the eyes of the human race!” And that night, I would be crushed with guilt and sorrow for my neglect of them.

Day and night I was riddled with reproaches about what a failure I was and how my family would be better off without me; I struggled regularly with thoughts of ending my own life.

These thoughts, in turn, would lead to more condemnation: “What a selfish person you are to be thinking these thoughts,” and “these thoughts confirm that you are poorly-adjusted to life in this world.”

And then I had an important breakthrough in the Walmart parking lot.

I was sitting there alone after completing an errand, stealing a few minutes of quiet. I posed a question to God in my journal, in a barely-legible scrawl: “Why do I cry every day?” And in response, I felt that I needed to read Isaiah 40. I picked up my Bible off the passenger seat and opened it to the chapter, and my eyes fell onto these words:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

He will gather the lambs in his arms;

He will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those that are with young”(Isaiah 40:11).

I read those beautiful words over and over again. And one by one, my crowd of critics dropped their stones and went away, and the halo of evil commentators around my head dispersed and dissipated, like the wisps of smoke they were.

I remember being about four or five years old, walking in circles around the living room, telling myself, “I’m following the Lord.” It occurred to me, as I did this, that I couldn’t see the Lord and that I didn’t know exactly where He was going. Maybe He is walking by the couch. Maybe He is walking past the TV. Maybe He is looking at his reflection in the window now, or looking through the window at the dark street outside.

Unfortunately, I can be just as blind in my attempts to follow the Lord as an adult. Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27), but I have many times been deceived by voices that were, in retrospect, clearly not His. When the fruit of following a particular voice is anxiety, fretfulness, anguish, exhaustion, and despair, one needs to question whether this voice is really from the Lord.

Jesus spoke of people who create heavy burdens–difficult to bear–and place them on others’ backs without lifting a finger to help them (Matt 23:4).

Paul spoke of people who subtly divert the community of believers from following the true Gospel of grace to following a false gospel of works. While God has given us meaningful work to complete in this life, our works do not save us, nor do they comprise our value, nor do they justify our existence.

Often, as in my case, the “voice” we are following is an interior projection of the conflicting values and demands of our culture–or the various cultures to which we are exposed and in which we are involved–mixed up with the things that trouble and plague us in our daily lives. Many of us are “anxious about many things” (Luke 10:41) and “harassed and scattered, like sheep without a Shepherd” (Matt 9:36).

Christ who had compassion on the crowds of weary people still has compassion on us today, and He will guide us to still waters if we learn to tune out the other voices and follow Him.

For me, this involved (and still involves) a few important tweaks in my life:

First, though this sounds like a no-brainer, I have found that I need to continually remind myself not to compare myself to other people. Everyone has different gifts and strengths and different limitations. What may look like failure in one person’s life could be victory to someone else.

Second, I have to remind myself that I am not working to impress others, but to please God.

Jesus said, “How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). When I am seeking honor from others (or, as I put it earlier, minimum acceptability in the eyes of the human race), I am setting myself up for frustration, anxiety, and interior turbulence. When I seek to please God alone, I find rest. He does not pile me up with burdens too heavy to bear; His yoke is easy, and His burden is light (Matt. 11:30).

Third, I need to spend more time reading the Bible than consuming other forms of media, especially controversial or inflammatory content. The angry, harsh voices in our culture are so loud that they can take up all my mental space, their words buzzing around in my mind for hours–or days–afterwards. When this happens, I remind myself to turn off the screens–shut down the conflicting opinions of the world–and simply go back to the Bible.

Finally, I have undergone–and continue to undergo–a healing process in my life. This has been taking place through study of the Word and through prayer, and through many little moments of breakthrough, like the one I experienced in the Walmart parking lot. I am beginning to know the love of God in more than just an intellectual, theoretical sense.

Today, my crowd of critics has mostly disbanded (though it does get together again for the occasional reunion). I am learning to accept my limitations and not to compare myself to some ideal. When I begin to feel overly anxious and irritable, it’s a sign to me that I need to slow down and listen for the voice of the Shepherd, and to find, beneath the pressures and demands, His gentle leading.

About the Author

Jessamyn Rains is a writer and editor for Kosmeo Magazine. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and four small children.