Befriending The Inner Critic
Have you listened to your inner dialogue recently? Take a moment now to reflect on the conversations you have with yourself – and other people – in your head. We all do it. In case you think there’s something wrong with you, there isn’t. It’s completely normal.
Pay attention to the quality of those conversations. One of the most powerful characters in the landscape of our internal dramas is our Inner Critic. I’ve capitalised the spelling here as in many cases this character plays a starring role.
We all suffer from the inner critic to one degree or another. For some this character doesn’t cause too much trouble. For others the commentary from this voice can be a painful burden. One that is ready and poised to ruin any moment of any day.
“You look awful in those jeans”. “Do something with your hair”. “You’ll never get that job/boyfriend/girlfriend.” “You’re not as popular/successful/beautiful as so and so…” “They’re sure not to like you and you’ll feel stupid.” And on and on and on. The critic has an endless supply of commentary for anyone within earshot – i.e. YOU!
Where did this critic come from? Why would we choose to have such a character in our internal drama.
Without going into great depth about it, he or she is generally made up of significant characters in your past experience. Father, mother siblings, ‘friends’, colleagues, etc. There may be one in particular, or it may be a composite of a few.
I’ve often heard parents berate or chide their children. Often it is well meant. “Come on, you can do better than that!” “No, you don’t do it like that. Let me do it for you”. “You can’t go out looking like that”. If the delivery isn’t consciously thought out then the message received by the child is “I’m not good enough”.
Sometimes it is positively misguided. Consider the parent who gets frustrated and calls the child ‘dozy’, ‘stupid’ or ‘thick’. The parent may not see it as a big deal but children take these comments literally. They lodge.
Consider the mother for whom everything the daughter does is somehow annoying. She may not say it outright but children, and adults too, generally pick up the underlying message that the other is less than pleased. That message has an impact.
Occasionally, criticism is deliberately malicious. There are those who mean harm for whatever reason. They may be consciously or unconsciously passing on the hurt that they were dealt in their own journey through life. Hurtful actions impact us. It's human.
Whatever shape the criticism takes, there’s a strong possibility that it will eventually, over many years of growing up, become the voice of our inner critic.
As a counsellor, I see time and again just how much damage such a character can create in our lives – in our relationships, our work, our family. It has the power to profoundly disrupt our sense of inner and outer peace with the world.
So what do we do about Mr or Mrs Critic?
Well the first thing is to become as conscious as possible about this character. Take time to begin to notice the quality of conversations with this him or her. How do you respond and what does it make you feel?
Eventually it becomes possible to gain a bit of distance from this conversation. Almost as if some part of you can watch it play out without joining in. You may still feel the feelings that the conversation generates, but some part of you – however small – doesn’t have to be affected by it.
From this place of (some) detachment it can become possible to begin to identify who this character is. Whose were those voices that spoke to you in this way in your outer life? It also becomes possible to play a more active role in the conversation. Choose to confront the critic and challenge him or her on their behaviour. After all it’s not OK that they speak to you like that is it?
The more we are able to shine the light of consciousness and awareness onto the areas of our inner world that trouble us, the more understanding we can have. Seeing something clearly creates the possibility of changing it, shifting it.
This takes practice. The great thing about practice is that you don’t have to get it right all at once. You can mess up, make mistakes, not manage it today, or even tomorrow, but you can keep doing it again and again. There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Just allow yourself to notice this internal dialogue each time that you can. Allow yourself to have some detachment from it simply by naming that it is happening, simply by noticing and naming the various qualities of it and the familiar feelings it generates in you.
Once there is enough detachment, the next step is a kind of T’ai Chi manoeuvre.
This is where it gets really powerful. This is where you begin to befriend the inner critic, make him or her your ally by taking their energy and using it for your advantage. After all it’s quite possible that the original voice of the critic belongs to someone who cared about you, either greatly or in some small way, but didn’t have the skill or awareness to frame their comments in a really useful way.
So, if you could take just 1% of what your inner critic is saying to you as true, what would you do with that?
Take for example, the critic that says, “You’ll never get that fabulous job”. If 1% of that statement is true, where is the truth in it? Do you need to improve your qualifications, your experience, your communication skills, get yourself some smart new work clothes?
Be honest with yourself and take a homeopathic dose of the criticism. BUT take it CONSTRUCTIVELY!
Re-frame it for yourself in a way that allows you make sense of it and use it to grow rather than to shrink. Imagine that a really good and trusted friend is giving you some challenging advice, but doing it in a loving way so that you can grow into the person you want to become.
It’s never too late or too early to start re-working our lives to be the way we want them. A great deal of that starts with the relationship we have with ourselves, and that in turn plays out in the conversations that we have with ourselves in our very own internal drama.
Practice becoming aware of it and you can then stage-direct the drama, set the scenes, choose the costumes and write the script.
Why wouldn’t you?
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Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
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