Most of us, at least in this culture, have a voice in our heads that criticizes just about everything we do.
“Why are you writing this blog post? Nobody’s going to read it!”
“Jeeze, your shirt is rumpled today. Maybe you should iron for a change! But I know you won’t.”
“You sure were awkward with that customer just now.”
“You could have gotten more work done today.”
…and so on, and so on.
On first blush, it would seem that there is nothing good about this critical inner voice, this source of constant fault-finding thoughts. To be sure, if I could have an inner-critic-ectomy, and just cut that voice out of my mind, I would have done so a long time ago!
The idea of getting rid of the inner critic poses a good thought experiment, though. What would happen if we had no critical faculty whatsoever? Nothing good, it turns out. Without the capacity for self-criticism, we probably would never improve ourselves, at least not intentionally. Actually, it goes a lot further than that. If we did not separate “Good” from “Bad,” or “Better” from “Worse,” we probably would not be able to
– cross a street without getting mowed down by a car or truck
– eat foods, rather than whatever substance happens to be nearby
– dress ourselves
– use a toilet for excretion rather than simply letting fly in our pants
– do anything whatsoever that requires a mind!
Clearly, the answer could not be that we must do away with our critical faculty, the very central instrument of a human mind. Nature, evolution, God(s) and/or “The Force” gave us a mind in order to solve problems, especially those basic to our survival.
If the Inner Critic is just another side of our problem-solving mind, why does it have to be so vicious and unhelpful sometimes? Perhaps if significant others in our past, especially in our childhood, were harshly critical, that history might have something to do with why our minds criticize us in the present. Still, as with so many other psychological problems, overly self-critical thinking does not seem to require a background of childhood ridicule or hyper-critical parenting, though those certainly seem to help get the Inner-Critic ball rolling in some people’s lives.
Our Inner Critic voice seems to be basic to who we are as linguistic, problem-solving animals. Having “eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad,” we think in terms of good-and-bad. We begin doing by the time we are 2 years old or so, and from then on, we are vulnerable to the mind attacking us from within.
Many is the project, the dream, the creative impulse or brilliant idea that has been shot down by the Inner Critic, never to rise again, or only to be shot down again shortly thereafter, perhaps from another angle. For some of us, the Inner Critic results in near-paralysis. We may fulfill our basic functions in life, but venture to do little else. We may especially avoid situations in which our performance might be judged by others, or even might be judged by none other than ourselves.
What can be done about this Inner Critic? Do those whose Critic is harsh and unpleasant have no option but to try to tune it out, to try to “force oneself” to do creative things, as we cringe and wince from the inevitable attacks from within? Could there be a better way?
Some answers to this question can come from people who do manage to respond to the Critic skillfully, neither complaining of undue distress nor showing avoidance of valued activities that might trigger a “Critic Attack.”
Individuals who deal skillfully with the critic generally adhere to the practices listed below. Over time, using these simple practices can bring about a whole new kind of relationship between you and that troublesome Critic. Practice can even turn the Critic into an asset: that of the Discerning Mind, the original purpose of the Critic.
1. Be Aware: Notice critical thoughts AS thoughts — not truths, but just opinions of one particular mind… yours!
2. Accept: Refrain from attempting to stifle or drown-out the critical voice. Such attempts usually backfire and can also involve self-destructive activities (such as misuse of alcohol or drugs).
3. Be Mindful: bring your attention back to your body, again and again, in order to help keep the thoughts in perspective and keep aware of the world around you in the present, rather than an obnoxious thought that happened a few seconds ago.
4. Self-Soothe: intentionally respond to the Inner Critic in a light, compassionate way. Perhaps a quick, self-directed thought like, “aw, are you feeling grumpy? Tell me all about it.”
5. Commit your Energy: see if there is some way in which the Critic’s perspective might be useful. You can write an affirmation that takes the Critic’s perspective into account, without buying into the self-condemning tone, like “That’s not a bad idea, to pay more attention to how I drive/cook/paint/write/etc and see what can be improved!”