The Inner Critic
by Diane Linsley
You know that voice inside of you that says you are not worthy?
That you are flawed in some way? Maybe you are not smart
enough, beautiful enough, successful enough, popular enough....
Whatever it is, you are not enough.
That's the Inner Critic. It's not you, but a voice - a subpersonality -
that is posing as you. Hal and Sidra Stone, the creators of the Voice Dialogue process, say that dealing with the Inner Critic is the most important work we will ever do.
The Inner Critic not only hurts us, but it can also mess up our relationships with others. It can prevent us from seeking out healthy relationships because we don't think we are worthy of love. Or it can cause us to criticize others the same way we criticize ourselves, damaging the relationships we already have.
The Origin of the Inner Critic
The voice of the Inner Critic was developed in childhood. It's a recording of the criticism we received from our parents. Unfortunately, it doesn't go away when we leave home. It stays with us, torturing us over and over, until we find ways to deal with it.
People who suffer from Complex PTSD from childhood abuse have an unusually toxic Inner Critic. Working with this type of Inner Critic requires great care and different techniques than working with the average Inner Critic.
The toxic Inner Critic can be literally deadly. The first time I tried to talk to the voice of my Inner Critic, it told me that it just wanted me dead. Period.
That accounts for why I felt suicidal all my life - up until I started doing Holosync in 2007. It also explains why I allowed other people to abuse me. And it accounts for the psychological side of my autoimmune disease. I didn't have much will to live. In the book, When the Body Says No, Gabor Mate explains how childhood abuse causes immune dysfunction. In Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker describes methods for dealing with the toxic Inner Critic. These methods help to restore a person's natural fight response that was crushed out of them by parents who overpowered them in childhood and didn't allow them to develop boundaries. Pete's methods are a type of assertiveness training that starts with talking back to the Inner Critic.
I did this for several years before I was able to progress to the next stage of inner critic work, which includes dialoguing with the Inner Critic. You can't have a rational dialogue with a voice that just wants you dead. You can only fight against a toxic Inner Critic. And it's a fight for your life.
After lots of work, the Inner Critic eventually transforms into a more healthy voice that can be negotiated with. A voice can never be eliminated completely. It can only be transformed from an immature to a mature voice.
Voice Dialogue with the Inner Critic
The way to deal with the Inner Critic is to bring it out of the shadows of the unconscious mind and shine the light of awareness on it. Once we see it for what it is, we have a choice of whether or not to believe what it says. Voice Dialogue is my favorite process for doing this.
Voice Dialogue is best done with an experienced facilitator. The facilitator asks to speak to the voice of the Inner Critic, and the client speaks from the voice. The facilitator then asks several key questions, allowing the Inner Critic to express itself.
The purpose of this work is to help the client separate from the voice of the Inner Critic - to see that it's just a voice inside of them, not who they really are. It's a great relief to find out that you don't really despise yourself.
Another reason to speak with the Inner Critic is to find out its motives. It usually has "good" reasons for criticizing you. These reasons sound suspiciously like the reasons why your parents criticized you when you were little. The Inner Critic thinks that if it doesn't criticize you, you will grow up to be a failure. It criticizes you in order to motivate you to succeed. How well does that work?
According to Richard Schwartz, one of the best questions to ask the Inner Critic is, "How old do you think I am?" The Inner Critic usually believes that we are still children - no matter how old we actually are. It believes that it is protecting a young child in a dangerous world. Informing the Inner Critic of how old we really are can come as quite a surprise to it! This shifts our relationship to the Inner Critic, and we can start having an adult conversation with it.
The Job of the Inner Critic
Like all other voices, the Inner Critic is trying to do its job. When you understand what motivates the Inner Critic and how it thinks, you can help shift its perspective. This conversation begins with telling the voice where you are in your life and why you want to speak with it.
When speaking with a voice, it's important to treat it with respect, even if you are having problems with it. But don't let it bully you! It's like talking with someone outside of you. You need to be assertive.
Subpersonalities are like real people inside of us. They each have their own unique perspective, and they are trying to serve us by doing the job for which they were created. It's important to acknowledge this and thank them for their efforts. When facilitating a voice, I always ask, "What is your job?"
The Inner Critic will sometimes say that its job is to protect you from being criticized by others by criticizing you first. Supposedly, if you criticize yourself first, then by the time someone else notices your imperfections, you will already have heard it from yourself, so it won't hurt as much. The Inner Critic also believes that you need to be criticized in order to feel motivated.
Unfortunately, neither of these tactics really works. So, what does?
Self-Criticism or Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, says that self-compassion is far more effective at protecting and motivating us than self-criticism. Research shows that self-compassionate people are healthier, happier, more creative, and more satisfied with their lives. Exactly what is self-compassion? Kristin Neff says that self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness and care that you would give to a good friend or another person whom you love. The more we practice self-compassion and heal the parts of us that were hurt or traumatized in the past, the less the Inner Critic feels the need to criticize us. In fact, I believe that it is more effective to heal the Inner Child than to spend a lot of time working directly with the Inner Critic.
As long as the Inner Child is suffering, the Inner Critic will continue to try to protect it in a way that often makes things worse. The Inner Critic protected us in childhood by making us conform to the demands of the adults in our lives and punishing us when we failed to conform. But that doesn't serve us as adults. It gets in the way of our individuation process.
Self-compassion is the key to healing the Inner Child. There are plenty of self-compassion practices that we can do. But the first step is to become aware of when we need to use these tools. We can start by noticing when we are being self-critical. Then we can switch from the voice of the Inner Critic to the voice of Self-Compassion. It's like changing the recording in our head. Just change the channel!
Talk to Yourself
Does it seem a little weird to talk to yourself? Success coach Brendon Burchard says that successful people talk to themselves - with positive self-talk. Studies show that it works best if you do it out loud. Brendon says that if you saw him backstage before he goes in front of an audience, you would observe him talking to himself, reassuring himself that he can do it. He is basically coaching himself.
I was happy to hear that because I've been talking to myself all my life. I used to feel embarrassed if someone overheard me talking to myself, so I only did it when no one was looking. But I've been doing it openly and with greater enthusiasm ever since I learned how beneficial it is.
Write to Yourself
You can also write to yourself. Start by making a list of things that you like about yourself. State them in the second person, as if you were your own best friend saying them. For example, I would write, "Diane, you are such a thoughtful person. You are sensitive and kind. You are smart and well-organized."
Second person is the voice I use most often when speaking to myself throughout the day, especially when I need to comfort myself. Sometimes I say "we" instead of "you." For example, if I'm worried about something, I will say, "We're going to be okay. We can do this. We can figure this out." I'm not sure exactly who this "we" is, but it gives me a sense of solidarity and friendship with myself.
You can also speak about yourself in the third person: "Diane is such a thoughtful person. She is sensitive and kind. She is smart and well-organized." Finally, try speaking in the first person: "I am such a thoughtful person. I am sensitive and kind. I am smart and well-organized."
Try each of these different ways of talking to yourself, and see which one feels most comfortable.
Pete Walker suggests memorizing your list of postive attributes and repeating them to yourself whenever you have an inner critic attack.
Going Deeper with the Inner Critic
Sometimes it actually does help to listen to the voice of the Inner Critic - once you are strong enough for this part of the work.
Zen master Genpo Roshi, who uses a form of Voice Dialogue that he calls Big Mind, says that once a voice has its say, it calms down. All voices want to be heard because they have something to tell us and a job to do.
I sometimes ask to speak to the voice of the Inner Critic to see what's going on inside of me that I'm not aware of. I imagine that I'm going into the dark basement of my unconscious mind with a flashlight to see what's down there so I can shine the light of awareness on it.
Sometimes I do it verbally, and sometimes as a writing exercise. Putting it on paper seems to make it more objective by engaging the rational part of the brain. After writing for a few minutes from the voice of the Inner Critic, I can look at what I wrote and see just how unfair it is. Then it loses its hold on me, and I can let it go.
Once the Inner Critic is done speaking, I move on to the voice of Self-Compassion, which comforts me. From this voice, I remind myself of my good qualities, and I express my love for myself. This whole process often includes a good deal of crying and working through all the emotions that come up.
As we continue to work with our voices, they become more mature, and we eventually develop a healthy relationship with them. Genpo Roshi says that all voices in their mature forms are voices of wisdom. They can become enlightened voices - inner guides who help us in our lives. Even the Inner Critic can become a voice of wisdom.
Dealing with Criticism from Others
Over time, I have gotten faster at recognizing the Inner Critic in all its forms, and I feel less intimidated by it. Sometimes it appears in dreams, as I wrote about in Coping with Chronic Illness.
Sometimes it appears as other people. I've noticed that I only feel hurt by the critical comments of others when they resonate with the negative beliefs that I hold about myself. The outer critics we encounter in the world are just reflections of our own Inner Critic.
For example, my last boyfriend often criticized me, but most of his rude comments rolled off of me like water off the back of a duck. I had done so much work to heal myself from the abuse of my previous relationships that the critical things he said rarely triggered me. Eventually, I got bored of his attempts to humiliate me, and I ended the relationship.
After he was gone, some of the things he said kept coming back to haunt me until I realized that he had found a few tender spots that I still needed to heal. He was just there to show me the unhealed parts of myself so I could heal them.
Contrary to what the Inner Critic claims, criticizing ourselves first doesn't protect us. The opposite is true. The less you criticize yourself, the less affected you will be by other people's criticism - unless, of course, you remain in relationships with critical people, which can negatively affect your self-esteem.
When you change your relationship with the Inner Critic, the outer world will naturally shift to reflect your more positive inner world. Before doing my work, the Inner Critic was the magnet that attracted people into my life. After developing self-compassion, those people vanished, and now I attract people who are more compassionate. What a relief!
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