The experience of the ‘Inner Critic’ is something we’re all familiar with. We might refer to it by a number of different names, but the experience itself is the same; a frequent and persistent judging about what we do and who we are in our lives.
This voice seems to come from within and usually, it feels like it’s in our heads, rarely missing a chance to snipe or remind us ‘what we’re doing is wrong’.
The two main ways we often relate to this voice are to either identify with it or to rebel against it. When we identify with it, we internalise the judgements as ‘true’ reflections of our character, or shortcomings. We begin to think that we are failures or unworthy in some way. We begin to think that we are the problem.
When we rebel against the inner critic, we get into a never-ending struggle with it. On one side we may think this is better than internalising with it, because we are not outright accepting it, but in truth we are merely defining ourselves in opposition to it. Our identity as it were is still determined by the critic itself. What’s more, the reason we so passionately rally against it is because deep down we still fear that what it’s saying is true and that if we let it in, we will give in to shame and self-hate. Instead of internalising the shame, what happens is we forge it the shame into blame. We hurl it’s message right back at it, forgetting the whole time the obvious truth in front of our eyes – It’s just us here. Whatever messages we’re receiving we’re also giving. To fight against the inner critic is simply to fight with ourselves.
Instead of falling into either of these two extremes, however, there are alternative ways to relate to the inner critic. The way I’d like to propose we start with is by simply developing tolerance to it long enough to hear what’s beneath its words. The inner critic is simply part of the evolutionary make-up designed to keep us alive and procreating. It’s operating principles tell it that happiness comes from this pursuit and although we know this is not the whole story, much like a neurotic parent, still caught up in the so-called ‘American dream’ of getting a good stable job, marrying and having kids, we’re better off translating what the parent has to say for ourselves as a message of love and well-wishing, than either succumbing to its demands or getting into a screaming match.
It can be difficult to filter the genuine wisdom the inner critic has to impart to us from the neurotic anxieties it has internalised from the people in our lives and the very cultures themselves. But once we begin to sit with it long enough and hear its words as imperfect communication of its (and therefore our) needs we open up a whole new set of possibilities for the relationship. Suddenly this inner-critic has the potential to become an inner-guide, and inner-confidant and inner-ally. For there will be times that the wisdom it has to impart will be essential not just for our survival but for our ability to thrive within our lives themselves. If we are only able to either collapse under the weight of its insistence or impulsively cast away its words like the proverbial baby with the bathwater we will never realise how powerful, resilient and free if we could start by sitting down and truly listening without giving into the judgement ourselves.
But if we are able to learn to develop the patience, tolerance and compassion we seek from others and give it to this most unpleasant experience of ourselves, we have the potential to learn one of life’s most valuable lessons: You’re the only person who’s going to be with you for the rest of your life, best make friends now.
Follow Daniel Bradford