I don’t know about yours, but my Inner Critic is a pain in the ass! She is not nice. But, she is smart. She knows exactly how and where to get me.
I fancy myself as someone who is strong willed, opinionated and stubborn in what I know to be true. I do not see myself as one who backs down or can be taken down very easily. But, when it comes to my Inner Critic, she can knock me crumbling to my knees in one swift, sharp strike. Boom! Done.
And there I will lie, wallowing in the crushing effects of her words—believing it all.
You know the voice I am talking about, the one that will incite you to fear and doubt and second guess yourself—to the point where you even begin to question what’s real. Yeah, that one.
I have often looked to others for help. Thinking maybe their validation would help silence her, but she would always chime in, “Yeah, but they don’t really know you like I do. You’re a phony.” UGH!
One day, after listening to what felt like an endless rant of the countless ways in which I am flawed, I broke. I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked up to the mirror, looked my bully right in the eye and yelled, “Enough!”
The silence rang through my ears. My response caught her off guard. My Inner Critic sat down muted by shock.
This is the combative approach to handling the IC.
This approach has helped me quiet her on many occasions when I need her out of my way, pronto. Like right before I am about to do a public presentation. She is usually her loudest then. She screams and nags and frets about all the ways in which I am going to humiliate myself. She begs me not to do it; trying to spare us any risk of shame or embarrassment. It is in those times I have to turn to her and scold her into a corner because I can’t deal with her nagging. As author Steven Pressfield puts it, “As for the Inner Critic? His ass is not permitted in the building!” And it usually works—for a while—but being the neurotic that she is; it only takes a few minutes till she is back at it again.
Although the combative approach is very effective and necessary in the heat of the moment, it is not sustainable and does not address the long term overall relationship.
The second approach to handling the IC is an approach of understanding and compassion. This one can take a while to accomplish, but is sure to give you the best long term results. In this approach we learn about her, we try and understand who she is, what she wants and why she exists, so we can build a relationship with her.
Separating ourselves from the Inner Critic and being able to name her is the first step in befriending her. She is not me. I am not her. She is a voice and that voice is separate from me. When we do that, we create space between us. This space allows us the opportunity to examine her, so we may understand her better. We stop fighting her and we get curious about why she exists.
She is a combined creation of all the teachings of parents, teachers, TV and peers of our youth. You might even be able to recognize some of the voices and words she uses as theirs. She is the prison warden to the right and wrong, good and bad way of thinking. She thinks it is her job to keep us functioning from “inside the box”, not because she is evil, but because she is trying to keep us “likable” and safe from harm or humiliation.
The Inner Critic is like a scared mother. She thinks she is doing the right thing by helping us and she is effective at it. She thinks that by berating us, she is sparing us from doing anything “stupid” or harmful to ourselves. But she does not see the whole picture. She never does.
I used to confuse her as the supportive, rational thinking part of my mind. I thought her voice was my internal reality checker.
That’s her hook.
She is the one that tells us when we are becoming too big, too good, or too much for others to handle. She puts us in our place to save us any shame or embarrassment. And we listen to her to avoid them, but ironically, shame and embarrassment are her soldiers. They are what she uses to keep us in our place. We fear them, and so she uses them to hold us down.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown, states that shame’s greatest power is in our silence. That in order to keep us down, shame keeps us from sharing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves with others.
“The stories of our struggles are difficult for everyone to own, and if we’ve worked hard to make sure everything looks “just right” on the outside, the stakes are high when it comes to truth telling. This is why shame loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet.
In addition to the fear of disappointing people or pushing them away with our stories, we’re also afraid that if we tell our stories, the weight of a single experience will collapse on us. There is a real fear that we can be buried or defined by an experience that, in reality, is only a sliver of who we really are.”
Since shame is the IC’s number one soldier the best offensive move we can make is by letting our closest, most trusted friends in on what is going on. By doing that, we diminish the hold that shame has on us, because the threat of feeling shamed is no longer there—the cat’s already out of the bag.
It is my belief that we are not innately bad, or evil, or flawed, but that there are disowned parts of us that are undernourished, underdeveloped and misunderstood. If we are acting out or behaving badly it is a result of some part of us that is not getting what it needs. The best way to approach that is to look that part of us in the eye and ask it, “What is your need?”
Now that I have that understanding, instead of deflating from the abuse of my Inner Critic I can ask her, “What is it you need? What are you afraid of?” This feels really weird at first, and it takes time to hear an answer, but if you sit with her long enough one will come. If it is too hard to do alone, hire a coach, or grab one of the trusted friends we enlisted above and ask them to help you explore what you think her real goal is given the specific situation. Usually it gets boiled down to something that looks a lot like fear. Then, instead of going after the IC, you can address the fear that’s driving her.
The more skilled we become at having this conversation with our IC the easier it is to calm her. “Ok, I hear your concerns. I have it under control now. We are going to be fine. Trust me. Thank you.”
Ah, the “T” word! That’s really what this is all about, isn’t it? Trust.
Do you trust yourself? Do you trust those around you? How much trust do you feel on a daily basis? It’s an interesting area to explore.
Close your eyes. Feel into your body. Now feel what’s it’s like to have trust. Where does it exist in your body? How quickly can you get there? Explore its feeling.
Having a hard time finding it? I often do too. That means we don’t use it very often and it’s time to start building the capacity for it.
Every day for the next two weeks, sit down in a quiet space for 10 minutes and try to bring trust into your sitting practice. Explore what it feels like. If you are having a hard time feeling what trust is like, go through the list of people in your life and find someone, somewhere along the line that you have felt trust with and use that as a launching off point. What did it feel like to trust that person? Don’t use anyone who later broke that trust, so you don’t get confused with what true trust feels like. Use someone who reminds you of a safety and trust.
If you can’t come up with a person, consider your spirituality. Trust feels an awful lot like faith. Faith is trust in something you don’t have tangible evidence of. Try getting to trust from there.
I don’t know if I will ever be rid of my IC, I think it’s very unlikely. But the more I acknowledge her and give her some attention, the quieter she becomes. The more deeply connected I can get to feeling what it is to trust, the more she has trust in me. I allow her to have some input in a situation and then I politely ask her to sit down and she usually does. The only time I find myself battling with her is when I cannot come to trust myself. Then it is time for me to come back to my practice of finding trust. Now that we have come to understand each other a little better we are able to exist harmoniously and maybe even have something that looks a little bit like friendship.