Here’s Why Silencing The Inner Critic Doesn’t Work
“You should work harder. How can you even think about having coffee with Cathy when you’ve hardly done anything today!” Sound familiar? Or how about “There’s no way I can write eight blog posts a month. What am I thinking?” Or “Did I really just say that? If I had only been thinking more clearly, I would have made a better impression.” Yes, that’s the voice of our inner critic, the voice that tells us nonstop what’s wrong with us, what we will never have, and how we don’t measure up. For many of us this voice rages at us when we make the slightest mistake, watching every step we take. We long to silence this running commentary that plagues us like that nosy next-door neighbor always eager to tells us what they think. But silencing that voice never seems to work, so let’s look at this from a different angle.
What Is The Inner Critic Really?
Steven Kessler talks about the inner critic as “Who We Should Be.” I should be smarter, more attractive, work harder, be more loving, exercise more, eat less. The list is infinite because we can always find something we are not, something we can do better and someone else who is more of something than we are. Do this, don’t do that. The critic both crushes our impulse to do some things and demands we do more of other things. At another time and place we likely learned that our real self was not acceptable.
Another characteristic of “Who We Should Be” involves the roles we believe we must play. Maybe we are supposed to be the caretaker, the peacemaker, the perfectionist, the one who always says “yes.” There are all kinds of unconscious roles and it’s the inner critic’s job to make sure we make those roles our first priority no matter what or we risk rejection.
What’s Good About Keeping Ourselves In A Box?
So what’s good about this persistent part of us telling us who we should and shouldn’t be? Chances are it’s an unconscious survival strategy from another time and place. Take a moment and think back to your childhood. What was good back then about doing what your caregivers wanted and “behaving” yourself? Children instinctually mold their behavior to maximize love and minimize rejection and pain. For a child this motivation feels directly related to survival. The unconscious instinct is “without love I will die.” We couldn’t risk being voted off the family island.
The inner critic is a leftover of the old belief that we have to stay inside our family box or we will be all alone and die.
The Stakes Are Higher When There’s Abuse
For an abused or neglected child, the stakes are even higher. Particularly when abuse and neglect begin very early in life, the child does not have the cognitive capacity or perspective yet to make sense of what’s happening. Consequently, Dr. Lawrence Heller, co-author of Healing Developmental Trauma, says that for a child “I feel bad” equals “I am bad.” When children grow up living with abuse and neglect, they can only decide it’s their fault. Consider how this fuels the inner critic. The child unconsciously comes to believe that if only they were good enough, quiet enough, pretty enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, “Mom would pay attention to me and Dad would stop hitting me.” Otherwise, there would be no hope. The problem is that it’s never enough. We can never be quiet enough, good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, hardworking enough.
So we bring these patterns into adulthood.
When a caregiver abuses substances or is mentally ill and acts unpredictably, it’s like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. The child must control their behavior and play a certain role in order to gather whatever scraps of love and attention they can and to minimize further abuse. Often, this role also involves caring for younger siblings.
What Activates That Inner Critic?
I hear you wondering “But we’re adults now. Can’t we just get over it?” We could except that because these patterns unconsciously feel connected to basic survival, it’s not that simple. A part of us is still living in what Dr. Aline LaPierre, co-author of Healing Developmental Trauma, calls another time zone, the time zone of the past. That part of us doesn’t know we survived that old environment.
Since then our world has expanded from just the family we grew up with to now include partners, bosses, friends, colleagues etc all of whom we may unconsciously turn to determine “Who We Should Be.”
Anyone that we perceive has power over us may activate that inner critic voice.
What Do We Do?
Okay, so what do we do? There are three key pieces to building a new relationship with this critical part of ourselves. First, we must begin to recognize when our thoughts come from another time zone rather than the here and now. If you find yourself endlessly replaying what you wished you had done or beating yourself up over what you didn’t do, that’s the critic.
Second, we acknowledge what we had to do to get where we are now. Those roles we played and impulses we stuffed protected us back then. When we recognize that this critical part of us kept us safe, we feel relief and integration begins. What we call the inner critic is just a part of us trying to keep us safe rather than some shouting extra-terrestrial inhabiting our brains.
Third, we must differentiate the past from the present. We no longer live in that time zone, in that old family environment. This means we no longer need to take on those roles and modify our behavior to feel comfortable and secure.
When you notice your critical part arise, literally look around where you are, moving your head, and ask yourself if you feel safe and if you need something right now. Then, do something to respond to this need and consider what might help you feel just a little bit safer. When you start to tune into your internal needs and state of being, you are giving yourself loving attention you might not have received as a child.
These key pieces together help us develop a stronger relationship with ourselves and also feel empathy for the children we were. This shift can open jump start your journey to success. With tuning in and empathy you move from “Who We Should Be” to Who I Want To Be, a place filled with authenticity and freedom. How liberating!
Want help getting curious about that inner critic part of yourself? Let’s talk.