Andrea woke up feeling great and full of energy. She grabbed a bagel and a coffee on her way to the bus station and ate it on the bus to work. She arrived on time and proceeded to the conference room for an early meeting with her team. During the meeting, Andrea noticed her boss giving her what she perceived as a disapproving look, and became deflated as a result. All her energy was suddenly gone, and an inner voice began telling her an all-too-familiar message: “What did you do this time?” “The fact that your boss is looking at you like that means she’s heavily disappointed in your mediocre way of working!” “If you keep cutting corners, you’re going to lose your job!”
Meet Andrea’s inner critic: the voice that comments on her experience, criticizing her and describing how (awful) things supposedly are, regardless of the actual circumstances.
The inner critic is composed of ideas, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and voices that try to manage our experience by telling us when we’re doing something right or wrong. We acquire this internalized structure as young children, and it continues to develop throughout our lives. It was initially shaped through our interaction with our environment. As young children, we are completely dependent on our caregivers. Even if they are for the most part responsive and attuned, they don’t always respond to us in ways that support our needs. Depending on their own conditioning, they try to shape us in ways that conform to their perception of reality.
This can happen in many ways, such as punishment when we don’t behave the way they want us to, or reinforcement when we behave the way they do want us to. This shaping also happens subtly, from simple looks of disapproval or the opposite. Since we are totally dependent on their care, we begin to repress our aliveness and dynamism in order to adapt to how they expect us to behave—avoiding behaviors or expressions that will trigger punishment or disapproval, and doing what will bring their approval. Eventually, we end up internalizing our caregiver’s punishment-and-reward system, and it begins to limit both our worldview and our range of action. In a way, the inner critic is an inner police force that holds in check anything that deviates from our habitual, known patterns of experience and action.
Our caregivers aren’t the only ones influencing the development of the inner critic. Our schools, the environment around us, society, and basically any external input will contribute to creating this inner structure.
It’s important to point out that depending on our upbringing, our inner critic can be very harsh and painful or subtle and harder to notice. However, pretty much everyone has an inner critic that limits his or her expression in the world. In order to grow and develop, we must learn to work with this inner structure.
Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone
One way of defining “inner work” is understanding and dissolving the internal structures that obstruct our perception of reality. This way of seeing is a direct threat to our conditioned sense of self and sense of reality, so the inner critic, understandably, is going to do everything and anything in its power to discourage us to continue pursuing our work.
Therefore, one of the first structures we must understand and work with is the inner critic. As long as we have an inner voice criticizing us or scaring us about going deeper into ourselves, it will be difficult to progress.
Identifying the Inner Critic’s Triggers
There is no formula for working with the inner critic. Each person’s process is unique, and different techniques may work differently for different people.
Any time you feel guilt, the inner critic is playing its part. There’s a difference between feeling guilt and feeling remorse. The latter is a genuine feeling of pain about the consequences of one’s actions. Guilt, on the other hand, is a self-defeating pattern of making yourself “bad” as a consequence of doing something perceived as wrong. Many times when we feel guilty there is also genuine remorse, and there may be an objective aspect of your behavior to recognize in the situation, but the extra layer of “I am bad for such-and-such” is just plain inner critic impeding us from growing.
Other times, the inner critic lurks when we’re about to embark on a new venture and we feel afraid. It can show up as a critical voice, saying, “You can’t do this” or “Who are you trying to fool?” It can also say, “This is dangerous, don’t even try it!” No matter what it says, the point is it attempts to keep us from engaging in the new endeavor. Identifying the triggers of your inner critic is key to the growth process.
The inner critic is composed of ideas, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and voices that try to manage our experience by telling us when we’re doing something right or wrong. We acquire this internalized structure as young children, and it continues to develop throughout our lives.
Developing an Awareness Practice
The next step in working with the inner critic consists of learning how to identify its different voices. It can show up with a subtle, seductive voice, as an outright nasty attack, or something in between. By developing presence of mind through mindfulness meditation or other awareness practices, we can begin to notice when it’s lurking. The more identified we are with it, the harder it will be to notice when it is in action. By having a solid foundational awareness practice, in time you’ll be able to discern the inner critic in action.
One of the great benefits of mindfulness is that it allows us to observe our inner phenomena without identifying with them, so by being mindful of our thinking, feeling, and body sensations, we begin to see the different ways the inner critic shows up. Working with the inner critic is a lifelong endeavor, and as we progress on the path, we work with subtler and subtler ways in which the inner critic tries to sabotage our development.
Disidentifying from the Inner Critic
When we recognize that we have been attacked by the inner critic, we can experiment by switching our internal voice to the second person: “You are such-and-such!” This can be powerful in revealing the impact the voice is having. I have seen people in therapy begin to notice how harsh and brutal the energy is when they try this. Learning to see the inner critic as an external attack coming toward us, as opposed to being completely identified with it, is essential to neutralizing its power.
Using the Power of Anger to Regain Our Strength
The energy that fuels the inner critic is our own inherent aliveness and strength that’s being hijacked and used against us. At times, the criticism we give ourselves can be harsh and aggressive, and may require a strong defense.
Once we identify an attack and regard it as coming from the outside, we can experiment defending with a strong stand against the attack. Anything from a karate chop in the air to a simple “Get off my back!” with the right tone can be effective; it’s important to experiment and find what works for you. The purpose here is to reclaim our strength, so the energy, tone, and way we do this can be very different from person to person.
Effectively Using Compassion
Sometimes a forceful defense may not be effective, and a more gentle approach may be what’s needed. Simply getting in touch with the pain the attack produces in us and feeling compassion for our suffering can be a powerful way to disarm the critic. When the full force of self-compassion is present, any shred of attack will likely melt away.
Having an Ally Is a Must
Inner work isn’t easy, and navigating our inner landscape can be very confusing, so having an ally in the form of a therapist, teacher, or coach is imperative when going into the deeper aspects of working with the inner critic. Although each of the strategies mentioned above is helpful in giving you space from the critic, for deeper work you must also develop an embodied, contextual understanding of its origins, its impact, its phenomenology as a structure, and its energy. This requires a commitment to going into places inside of us that are old, hidden, and scary. It is difficult to do this alone, so the help of a compassionate therapist or other professional will make your work easier.
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