TAMING THAT INNER CRITIC
The Inner Critic is the term psychologists and spiritual teachers give to the voice inside our head that sends us damaging negative messages about who we are. The voice could tell us we are unattractive, or too fat, not smart enough, or too lazy, not lovable, and not worthy of anyone’s affection, or it can even question our very existence. One of the first steps is taming this voice is recognizing that it exists, and that it is not necessarily the voice of truth but just one small part of our psyche, the part that is responsible for us feeling small, guilty, ashamed, hopeless, and inadequate in some way or the other. (1) When I ask my students if they like this critical voice in their heads, the answer usually is that "no, I don't like it but I need it to motivate me and to promt me to take action". Or that "if it wasn't for this voice, I'd just laze around the rest of my life." We mistakenly think that the mean voice is what motivates us to achieve things in life, driving us to up our game, but the data points in the opposite direction.
"...neuroscientists suggest that self-criticism actually shifts the brain into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment that causes us to disengage from our goals. Leaving us feeling threatened and demoralized, this self-criticism seems to put the brakes on our plans to take action, leaving us stuck in a cycle of rumination, procrastination, and self-loathing." (Michelle McQuaid, Psychology Today)
So if this unrelenting, mean Inner Critic does not serve a useful purpose, then why is it allowed to stick around? It is usually posited by psychologists that around the age of six or seven, when we were separated from our primary caregivers for the first time, we started to internalize the language we heard from them and speak to ourselves in the same manner. "Look before you cross", “Don’t talk to strangers,” “Don’t eat that,” or “Don’t go there alone.” Initially, then, the nagging voice was just a reminder to play it safe, steering us away from potentially harmful and even life-threatening situations, while also establishing a moral compass for our actions. So far, so good.
As we grew into adolescence, however, this inbuilt mechanism frequently became overly powerful and punitive. Like a dictator who had been bestowed with unlimited powers and got carried away by his success in being the bully. The voice started to become louder and rather unfriendly. Every hurtful experience became evidence that we did something wrong and created fear of walking that path again. You got a bad grade in Biology and your critic commented, “Don’t try to be good in science; you will fail and it will hurt.” You didn’t get invited to a party, and the inner critic reasoned with you, “Nobody really likes you, so you’d better not put yourself out there for further humiliation.” The memory of this pain starts to get trapped in the innermost recesses of the body-mind complex with the warning sign: “That Hurt – Do Not Repeat!” When faced with a potential for a similar hurtful situation, the alarm bells go off in the brain: “Don’t go there – Danger Ahead.”
Very soon the Inner Critic started expanding its domain to everything that we held meaningful in our lives. Because a certain activity was meaningful and important to us, it became even more important to build up the defenses. The Inner Critic seemingly rewards us for NOT trying, for NOT taking on any challenge or any risk; on the other hand, it is merciless with perceived failure. Over time the Inner Critic shrinks our world to a tiny island safely ensconced behind barricades where no one can threaten its security. We might then feel safe, but at the cost of sacrificing the best things in life - our potential for growth, creativity and joy. We made sure we didn't make a fool of ourselves but we also forgot to have fun. And we certainly lost the ability to learn from our own vulnerability. Furthermore the inner critic keeps us in a constant state of stress activation, and a general sense of malaise. The "attacker" is inside us and we (the other parts of us) have nowhere to escape - we live in constant fear of its negativity.
What Can I Do?
There is a way out! It involves mindfulness (increasing self awareness) and a gentler tone of voice.
· Catch the Inner Critic in the Act: Every time you spot it, say “hello” to it. Recognizing its subtle, but distinctive voice already begins to lessen its authority. “Oh there you are again…” Try rolling your eyes with that acknowledgment! When seen, the inner critic has the tendency to scurry away into the dark alleys from which it emerged. Start noticing when the Inner Critic noticeably asserts its strength. Be particularly watchful when you look in the mirror. It usually cringes or says things like “Ouch!” Watch out when you are about to speak in public. Your Inner Critic may warn you of how much your audience will hate your talk. When you have to do something you’ve always wanted to do but never actually accomplished, it will oftentimes throw distractions in your way to keep you from your goal. When you find yourself procrastinating on a project, it may be a sign that your Inner Critic is covertly undermining your work. It’s urging you to “not try,” to dissuade you from taking on something new, saying,“It’s not a good day today.”
· Accept: We can start by accepting that the birth of the Inner Critic is a natural human phenomenon, a part of being a fully functional person. We accept the idea of a common humanity, where everyone goes through a similar experience of suffering, and we are not alone in this. “This is not just me, this happens to everyone.”
· Spiritual Practice: A mindfulness practice sensitizes the mind to its more subtle movements, which will allow you to start spotting this Inner Critic before he starts sabotaging your well laid plans. A simple practice of breath awareness settles the mind enough that you can see the the critic when we rears his head - “I see you, Mr. Critic” - try saying that while wagging your finger accusingly at it.
· Transform the Energy: Don’t fight the powerful energy of the critic, but rather acknowledge and befriend it. “I see how you are trying to protect me, but I really want this to work. You may now leave – I got this.” When you give the inner critic some recognition that you understand his goals of trying t protect you, he may recede peacefully into the background. At times, you may even take on a bolder tone and say something like, “Who asked for your opinion? Leave me alone! I'm going to prove to you that you are not always right and I can really do this”
· Activate Your Inner Coach: Speak to your younger/unsure self with the voice of a compassionate, cheering and loving coach. “You can do this.” If your younger sibling or a mentee who looked up to you was bullied by someone, what kind of advice would you give him or her? Use words of encouragement, and try not to convey your disappointment about how things are.
· Develop Unconditional Positive Regard: This can be something as simple as looking in the mirror, putting both fists in the air, and saying loudly, “I’m Just Fantastic!” This takes frequent practice and it may seem contrived or unconvincing in the beginning but if we applaud ourselves we go against the warnings posted by the inner critic, thereby reducing its vice-like grip.
· Loving Kindness Meditation: Many people find a Loving Kindness Meditation an effective meditation to treat yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat a friend, which slowly shifts your subconscious thought patterns. It is a powerful technique to increase one’s sense of self- acceptance, self-compassion and sending positive messages to oneself.
These tips could have a profound impact on your whole approach to life. Give it a try and see what happens!
(1) Jay Earley and Bonnie Weiss. Freedom from your Inner Critic: A Self Therapy Approach. Published by Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.