Me, Myself and I - Working with our Inner Critic
Something very current for me at the moment that has emerged from personal reflection, counselling work, and research, concerns those annoying little voices we all seem to hear in our heads. Any time we have a notion of trying to achieve something, even just the simplest routine task, seems to be accompanied by the voice of a doubting Thomas - that inner critic that usually tries to stop you from creating or accomplishing.
If you ask yourself honestly I’m sure you’ve all been hindered by a voice of self-doubt. “Can I really do this? Do I really want to do this? Will people really want this? Isn’t there is too much competition? If I devote energy to someone will my effort be reciprocated? Why waste my time on something that’s going to fail?”
Most self-help books focus around steps to help you silence your inner critic, describing our critical voice as akin to a demon that we need to exorcise, to be rid of. My opinion is that this viewpoint is wholly unrealistic and that in balance, the voices we hear can actually be beneficial.
But firstly, I invite you to take the time to maybe put pen to paper and write down five things you like about yourself and five things you hate or would like to improve. I guarantee that most will find the list of likes a lot harder to devise than the list of hate’s. I’m sure, reluctantly, we could easily go beyond five things we don’t like about who we think we are.
Building on that list I’d invite you to consider further, who you think you are? Not easy eh? Probably one of the hardest questions we ever face. Research shows that most people respond instinctively with their name. “I am George”, “I am Sarah” as your name gives you a sense that you are someone, a person, a tag of identity. It's hard to express what a person is.
Statistics show people next respond with their profession - I’m a mother, I’m a teacher, defining themselves by their primary role. That doesn’t really say who you are either - it’s just an aspect of your ‘self’. The truth is when you consider your qualities, social roles, attitudes, habits, foibles, the list becomes endless. The more answers you give, the more it adds complexity upon bewildering complexity. Then perhaps the penny will drop. Yes, you are one person, but you are made up of so many aspects at the same time.
So your sense of identify isn’t just a theoretical concept, no self-help book is going to even come close to your reality. The intensity of your experiences that collectively serve to define who you are will not be easily addressed in 10 simple steps or ‘how to silence your inner critic,’ because the reality is every facet of who you are is here to stay. You are one and yet many.
Some of the people I encounter are so resistant to seeing themselves as anything other than one coherent unit, one being, that any therapeutic intervention designed to facilitate heightened awareness of the client’s aspects of self is met with extreme resistance. As I experience it, my belief is that many refuse to consider their sub personalities because they see it as a breaking down of the very essence of their false self. That can be a painful thing to experience.
More often, once we become aware of the diversity of elements in our personality, we accept them in principle, but continue to reject them in practice. As we live our lives, we continue thinking about ourselves and about others as if we were made “all in one piece,” as if we were already whole. We seldom think of ourselves and of others, as made up of different parts. We sort of know it in theory but in practice forget about it. So if we are talking to somebody who’s being disinterested, we say, “He’s ignorant,” and may get angry at him. If an hour later he becomes happy and cheery, we say, “Well, he changed his tune, he’s almost like a different person.”
Stop and think about it - empathise with others through your own experience, we are all capable of feeling and displaying what might seem conflicting emotions. It’s very simple; we play different roles in different circumstances in reaction to different stimuli. The tricky part is who chooses the roles we play, because quite often, consciously, it’s not you.
My research has taken me through a plethora of psychotherapeutic theories, all of them trying to assign plausibility, reasoning and rationale for why we are the way we are. Nothing has really struck a chord in the way that John Rowan’s work on subpersonalites has. Before you reach for the close browser button in anticipation of a meandering yarn of psychosynthesis and transpersonal psychology, I promise to keep it simple.
Present in all of us is a diversity, rooted from experiences, surprise surprise, accumulated in childhood. When a sub personality tries to express itself, or when our anger takes over, when a voice of perfectionism becomes the loudest, we play out that corresponding role to the detriment of the others. We cut off from configurations of self, which are still very much present, but drowned out. This detachment creates inner conflict. So if we want to get in touch with finding peace within ourselves we need to get in touch with all our sub personalities and not just one. As we enhance our relationship with them all, we grow - making them our allies not our enemies, bringing them all together, or integration. Increasingly, people who grow are people who are learning to direct their aspects of self.
Start to ask yourself, “where did that decision come from?” Did it feel organic, from the heart, was it gut instinct or was it an automatic decision made in my head by my cognitive self? Are you an unwitting actor who has grown so used to playing a part, that your life has become an impersonation of that role? In the same way, each of us is One and Many, we have Unity and Diversity in our inner life. It is a psychological reality that exploring our inner diversity and working systematically to harmonise the multiplicity of elements within our personality, leads to a stronger sense of identity and unity, and to greater effectiveness in the outer world.
So how to achieve this:
The starting point is recognition - becoming conscious of how you behave and how your sub personalities emerge and interact. Consider which are more dominant, which are more passive? Why do you feel they are like this, be mindful, if you can identify in yourself that you are easily irritated, explore why and where this came from. Were you exposed to someone who exhibited the same behaviour and you’ve introjected this unconsciously? When you identify this and can recognise why, you’re ready to move forwards.
Accept your sub personalities, such as your angry side, your guilt self, shame, fear, and all the emotions we consider to be negative to our well-being. One must be able to accept the difficult sub personalities in order to find peace with them. Don’t reject that you are incapable of being these personalities, we all are. If you’re asking yourself, “I’m not an angry person, I’m never really angry” then why not? All that means is your denying an aspect of self, or it is suppressed away, because another aspect has become more dominant. If you reject a sub personality, you cut off the energy to it directly, so it seeks it elsewhere, indirectly. If you don’t display anger you might seek to create conflict in a more subtle manipulative way without even realising you’re doing it. Try to be every aspect of yourself in an organic way, don’t be contrived and think ‘I must be this I must be that’. If you're sad be sad, If you're angry let others know you are. Our value systems teach us to bury certain emotions away because morals/social constructs all dictate that its harmful to be angry, useless to be sad.
I invite you to consider your ‘self-image’ and then smash it to pieces because our idea of who we are tries to make us behave in ways that conform to that. In general, the subpersonalities that are consistent with our self-image are easily accepted. Those that do not fit it are usually rejected.
Whenever we go deep enough toward the core of a subpersonality, we find that the core – which is some basic urge, or need – is good. No matter how many layers of distortion may surround it, the basic need, the basic motivation, is a good one – and if it became twisted, it was because of not being able to express itself directly. The real core – not what the subpersonality wants, but what it needs – is good. A basic purpose of the coordination is to discover this central urge or need in ourselves, to make it conscious, and to find acceptable ways in which it can be satisfied and fulfilled. Provided we have sufficient understanding and skill, it can be satisfied – if not fully, at least enough to maintain the process of growth.
If a personality makes a demand and you can’t satisfy it, it doesn’t go away, it connects to every other instance of when you suppress this need until effectively they combine to become crippling, over-powering, impacting severely on your well-being. A classic example of this occurs in most relationships. Inevitably, people make sacrifices of their needs balanced against that of their partners. Some are acceptable but if the balance is not mutual it leads to resentment. Suppressed too much it becomes more deep-rooted until eventually threatens the very relationship itself. So co-ordinate your needs to find balance and harmony.
So you’ve arrived at a place of near integration, you’re becoming aware of your multi-faceted personality, not denying aspects of self or enacting others with a bias. What’s left is the scope for integration of you as a whole and the harmonisation of your sub personalities can be considered.
To achieve integration of self, I would recommend the following simple exercise:
- At the end of the day, preferably just before going to sleep, find a quiet place free from outer distractions.
- Close your eyes, give attention to relaxing your body, quieting your feelings, and as much as possible stilling the activity of your thoughts.
- Your mind should be quiet and receptive, but remain alert.
- Now review your day in your mind, playing it back like a movie, but backwards, beginning with where you are right now, then the time of late evening, then early evening, then the dinner hour, and the late afternoon and so on until morning when you awakened.
Throughout the experience it is important to maintain as much as possible the attitude of an objective, detached, non-critical observer, calmly and clearly registering the events of the day, neither becoming elated at a success, nor depressed and unhappy about a failure. The aim is not to re-live the experience, but to non-critically register in consciousness the patterns and meaning of the day.
- Finally, write down your general impressions of what happened and anything particular that you have learned.
Already I can imagine some will be thinking, “yeah right, I wish I could find the time to do this, when I’m exhausted from a stressful day I just want to lounge in front of the TV with a glass of wine, to unwind and relax. The reality is you have a choice - your cynical- critical sub personality is dismissing this as an option and the reality is that it will leave you feeling more energised than anaesthetising your mind and body with TV or alcohol.
Try it, you may be surprised. The purpose of the exercise is to increase your awareness. As you gain new awareness, yep you guessed it, it’s easier to find acceptance, co-ordination and finally integration as a result of this interplay.
As a result of integration of self, the life of the individual and their interaction with other human beings, becomes increasingly characterised by a sense of responsibility, caring, harmonious cooperation and altruistic love. It leads to the harmonious integration of self with others. Conflict, competition, repression of your weaker elements of self no longer occurs to the degree with which it used to exist. Most of your energy flows equally to all of you; it’s not filtered off to any dominant sub personality.
Well done, you’ve just discovered who you really are and in the words of the great Michael Caine “Not a lot of people know that”.
For further reading:
Discover your subpersonalities – Our Inner World and the People In It – John Rowan