As I’ve been reading a number of ‘best-selling’ approaches to personal development in the past few weeks, it’s struck me that they miss something fundamental. They make no reference to the importance of learning to silence our Inner Critic...
Whenever we step out of our comfort zones and try to change something about ourselves (like our weight, fitness, job, self-image, relationships…), chances are that we will quickly encounter our Inner Critic. We might fail to get started on a new venture, or to finish a programme, or get stuck mid-way through something and give up – even if we are achieving results! This is not because we are lazy, crazy or stupid – but because we have been hi-jacked by our Inner Critic.
It tells us that our bodies are not beautiful enough, that we are not clever enough, that we should work harder, be more responsible, not let people down... With all the harsh messages and feelings of guilt and unease the Inner Critic gives us, it’s hard to relax and enjoy life – so learning how to transform our relationship with our Inner Critic is essential to the success of any of our personal development efforts.
What is this Inner Critic, exactly? Where did it come from, what is its function and what can we do about it?
Freud called the Inner Critic the ‘Super-Ego’. It is the last of the personality structures to form, by around the age of six years. It is a composite voice of our early caregivers – and (even though it seems to attack us now) its original function was a loving one: its purpose was to keep us safe!
For example, if four-year old Liz was a loving, friendly, out-going girl, her parents might have taught her, out of concern for her safety, not to talk to strangers. Yet as a 30-something professional woman, Liz feels paralyzed at networking meetings or unable to communicate at a conference. Or if little Andy’s creative mind drove his parents mad with his constant questioning, he might have learned that it is easier to keep quiet; yet as a forty-something manager, he struggles to assert himself or to see problems from different perspectives and so misses out on promotion at work. The ‘rules’ that keep a young child safe often do not serve us as adults.
Our inner critic beats us up if we do not follow the script our earliest caregivers set down for us. Its work is to preserve the status quo – to keep us as we needed to be aged six! So whenever we try to expand our range of possibilities, the old scripts kick in and sabotage our best efforts.
Usually there are three or four core messages our Inner Critic beats us up with, if we are trying to be different. Yours might tell you ‘don’t be stupid,’ ‘don’t show off’ or ‘don’t waste time’, for example… The first stage of learning to tackle your Inner Critic is actually about learning what it says to beat you up, and keep you small. Later, we can come to reflect on how hurtful our self-attacks are – that we would never judge another person so harshly and treat another as cruelly as we treat ourselves – and by feeling how painful our Inner Critic’s attacks on us are, we can separate from it by getting to the point where we won’t treat ourselves like this any more.
If you want to learn more about tackling your inner critic, this book is a great resource to have!