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How to Relegate Your Inner Critic

Step 2: Get to know the personality and habits of your critic.

Key points

  •   Research shows that the tone and content of our self-talk has a big impact on our mental health.
  • When our critic is the loudest of our inner voices, deeper needs and yearnings are ignored resulting in internal conflict and inhibited growth.
  • By getting to know our critic’s personality and needs we can compassionately regulate and manage its contribution in our lives.

Click here to read the previous entry in this series.

Research shows that the tone and content of our self-talk have a big impact on our mental health. When we talk to ourselves in a harsh, punitive, and critical way we trigger an internal stress response that is designed to recognise and respond to danger. If we constantly talk to ourselves in this way then our bodies and brains start to believe that there are problems and predators everywhere. This creates a survival biopsychology of hyper-vigilance and reactivity which is detrimental to our growth and development.

The Critical Voice

When we were children our critical voice emerged as an echo of the concerns and demands of our parents, teachers, and others whom we depended on in our early years. For some of us, the critic lives on as a benign presence, prodding, reprimanding, and motivating us in gentle, healthy ways. However, for others, the critic has grown to dominate the way we feel, think, and behave. When this happens we can find ourselves trapped in perfectionist loops of behaviour—a spiral of striving and self-admonition that never ends because the goals set by our critic can never be reached.

A punitive and dominant critic believes that the world is ruthless, competitive, unforgiving, and hostile and it wants us to put all our resources and energy into survival, which usually means working very hard, accumulating material wealth, defending our view of the world and protecting our status and position.

This type of critic does not want us to be satisfied, to rest or to reflect because it believes these states will take us off guard and leave us open to attack (or failure, humiliation, and rejection). Neither does this critic want us to listen to the other voices within us that have different perspectives, needs, and yearnings because it fears they will detract us from the daily business of survival. Our critic, operating in this way, blocks creativity, originality, and individuation – in other words, our development beyond the expectations of culture and family and the basic need to survive.

However, no matter how hard our critic tries to impose its survival solutions and control our motivations we will eventually begin to feel the repressed presence of our other voices in the conflict, dissatisfaction, and anxiety that runs below the surface of our lives and which, particularly in mid-life, begins to erupt in feelings of boredom, extreme nostalgia, and emptiness. Or in our impulsive actions and the need to dramatically change our routines and appearance.

If we are to realise our full potential through liberating the forgotten, denied, or hidden parts of ourselves, we first need to understand and compassionately manage our inner critic.

Getting to Know Your Critic

In the film Birdman, Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, is a faded actor once famous for playing the superhero Birdman. In an attempt to honour other voices within him, he tries to reclaim his self-esteem and regain purpose and recognition as a serious writer, director, and actor. However, his critic, personified as a demonic Birdman, torments and mocks him. Birdman wants Riggan to give up his 'stupid' creative yearnings and return to blockbuster cinema. Throughout the film we see Riggan desperately, and with tragic consequences, battle with the critical Birdman and also with his paternal, creative and sensual voices.

Battling, arguing, and defending are stress-based responses that exacerbate inner conflicts. Meeting anger with anger or fear with fear rarely leads to resolution. Instead, we need to bring compassionate attention to the different needs and perspectives within us and understand each voice as a valid part of our self. As part of this process, we learn that as we grow and age some voices that helped us in our youth may need to be softened in order for others to contribute. As our life purpose evolves so too does our need to listen to our selves differently.

We can start to do this by learning more about our critic and how it controls and blocks us. We can also be forgiving, accepting that although our critic has given us a hard time and caused us a degree of misery it does want to help. However, like a well-meaning but unskilled friend, its capability is limited to survival solutions.

As we learn to manage our critic we will sometimes still want it to take a leading role in our lives. For example, we might feel in need of its urgent, driving energy when our courage or stamina is failing. Yet mostly our critic is better kept as a quiet, background presence, allowing our maturer voices to guide and motivate.

7 Ways to Get to Know Your Critic

  1. Notice and listen to the voice of your inner critic. When is it most active? How does it make you feel?
  2. Notice moments of anger at yourself that seem out of proportion to what happened. Interrupt these moments with phases like ‘here it goes again’ or ‘excessive self-criticism’ or ‘unkind.'
  3. Reflect on how self-critical attitudes developed in you. Who does your inner critic remind you of?
  4. When your inner critic is harsh, bring in your compassionate self. Spend time getting to know your compassionate character, so that it can help you when you need it.
  5. Talk to your inner critic, and help it to see alternative perspectives, as if it were an old friend in need of help.
  6. Think about people who you think are ‘good’ or kind. Note their qualities and characteristics. Now notice moments when you show those same qualities and characteristics.
  7. Create an internal ‘caring committee’ inside yourself. Who belongs to it? (It could be characters from films or your actual life, living or dead.) Conjure up this committee in your mind's eye when you need extra compassion and support. They are 100% on your side.

References

Wickremasinghe, N. (2021). Being with Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy Press

Long, O; Maratos,F; Gilbert, P; Evans,G. (2009): Having a Word With Yourself: Neural Correlates of Self-Criticism and Self -Reassurance. NeuroImage. 49 (2).

Newberg,A; Waldman, M. (2012). Words Can Change Your Brain. 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict and Increase Intimacy. Hudson Street Press.

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