I have begun work with some new clients and predictably, one of the first things they encounter on the journey of personal and leadership transformation is their Inner Critic. Learning how to transform our relationship with our Inner Critic is essential to the success of any of our personal development efforts.
Our Inner Critic is usually experienced as an inner voice that tells us how we should behave – or that criticises us when we step outside of our comfort zone! It judges us (and others) and we usually experience this judgment as a particular kind of self-attack. It can tell us that we are wrong, worthless, inadequate, stupid, guilty and so on… These attacks may undermine our self-confidence, motivation and energy, as well as produce feelings of shame, deficiency, self-doubt, low self-esteem and more…
We all have an Inner Critic – so what is this part of ourselves and where does it come from? The various rules that our Inner Critic inflicts upon us have been picked up from other people – especially our earliest caregivers during our childhood. 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. If we look carefully at the relationship we have with our Inner Critic, we’ll see that it is one where we are treated by it as a little child is treated by a harsh parent. 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 paralysed 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.
How to identify your Inner Critic
1. Make two lists – the main things that you criticise yourself for most; and the main things that you criticise others for most. What do you notice?
2. Take any two days this coming week, to focus on all the ways your Inner Critic attacks you. Notice how each attack affects your energy, affects the physical experience of your body; affects your emotional experience; and affects your behaviour.
Step 1: Write a sentence or two that briefly describes the incident
Step 2: State each judgment as a “you” statement – for example, “You are stupid” (rather than “I am stupid”)
Step 3: Write down what you experience in your body – any sensations, any effect on your energy and vitality, any shift in your alertness?
Step 4: Write down your emotional state after the attack. What kinds of feelings are provoked? How is your sense of yourself altered?
Step 5: What do you do as a result? How is your behaviour modified?
3. 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… Note for yourself the three or four main messages that your Inner Critic gives you. If it helps, think of times when you acted spontaneously, and also of times when you wanted to do something different or unusual for you…
First Aid – how to disengage from an Inner Critic attack
1. Learn from your Inner Critic’s attacks – when an attack occurs, it is a sure sign that you are unconsciously being influenced by an internal rule system that you picked up in the past, either from your family or the culture you were raised in. Question whether you are living your life the way you want to live it now, or if you have slipped back in to someone else’s rules for you that no longer help you.
2. Analyse it! It helps to take our Inner Critic’s attacks one by one, over time, and apply some basic intelligence to what is happening. For instance, here are some steps that will open up your possibilities for defending against savage or persistent attacks:
a. Examine your core belief that you ARE your Inner Critic. When you allow an Inner Critic attack to stop you or deflate you in some way, who are you takjng yourself to be? Usually we take ourselves to be a small child – so ask yourself, is this really all you are? Is there more to you?
b. Take the Inner Critic’s words and challenge them: for example, if your inner Critic tells you that you are stupid and worthless, or that you will be laughed at if you do something different to usual, ask yourself – “Is this true?” And then – “Is this absolutely true?”
c. What could you do if this were not true?
d. Ask yourself what happens if you believe the attack… what will be the effect on you and your actions? What is likely to result?
e. What emotions and imaginings arise if you think of doing something it doesn’t agree with anyway?
f. What behaviours go along with listening to your Inner Critic? Are you content with this version of you?
g. Explore who would you be without your Inner Critic? And what would you be saying to yourself? How do you feel about this?