If you’ve ever been a pre-teen girl, or spent any time with one, you know just how nasty human beings can be. Not all of them of course, but the mean ones…my goodness…they’re almost as cruel as the voices in my head. Most people have never been treated as poorly by another human being as they have by the voices in their own head. When I think of some of the narratives I have constructed and the petty and vile songs I have sung to myself between my own ears, I imagine what it would be like to speak like that to someone else. Would never happen. Ever. Nor, may I add, would I tolerate that kind of speak from another.
And I know I’m not alone. I know because my job is to go exploring the inner experiences of human beings. And what happens in that inner experience is nothing short of heartbreaking. For all the cruelty that we bestow upon one another, there is no one quite as cunning, cutting and ruthless as our own inner critic.
Instructions to ignore the inner critic or site positive affirmations, while well meaning and somewhat helpful, are utterly insufficient. She sits there, awake and vigilant with a voice so clear and confident it’s as if every questioning word and snide remark are the inarguable booming words of the Universe.
We don’t listen to our inner critic as a part of us; we listen to it as the accurate authority about who we are. As though we really are a flake or our latest piece of art really is garbage. When we hear the whisper from within that there’s no way that person could love us or what we have to offer pales in comparison to our colleague or that our deep flaws are obvious and deserving of ridicule, we think that’s really true.
So what are we to do with this voice? What’s this voice for? How do we get it to shut the hell up when the words being put forth feel painfully accurate in a given moment, as if there is danger in ignoring the symphony of objurgation?
Cultivate Respect: Say wha? Respect? For the inner critic? You read right. This is a survival mechanism folks. She is here to make sure you don’t go getting yourself into trouble. She wants to check and check again. No risks, no blunders, no possibilities of being killed or extricated from the group. Her role is important and while she may be ripping apart your self-esteem and paralyzing you, her love and commitment to you, while misguided, is vast. So she has an important role to play. Respect what she offers.
Cultivate Discernment: The trouble of course, with what your inner critic has to offer, is that it’s inaccurate most of the time. Once we really understand the critic’s role, and that it’s trying to keep us safe and protected like an overbearing, well meaning but brutal mother, we can get a little distance from the content. ‘Ohhhhh’ we can say, ‘you’re saying this to try to keep me from taking stupid risks and getting eaten by a bear or killed by the clan…cool, that’s not applicable here, but thanks for offering your view.’ If we can relate to this voice not as the truth, not as who we are, but as a part of who we are that has a narrow and specific role, we can bring a bit more objectivity to what’s going on. As we do this, we can engage the voice a little and begin to ask what the wisdom is in what’s being said and choose how to work with it, rather than being taken over by it.
Cultivate friendship: In friendship we have both connection and autonomy. If our boundaries are continually crossed, we’re likely to close off to that friendship, or stand up more fully for ourselves. So must we do with the inner critic. If a friend came over and began to defecate all over our new piece of art, chances are they’d be booted out pretty quickly. Yet we don’t expect that our friends will only ever say nice things. A really good friend will be able to challenge us or offer constructive feedback that’s truly coming from a loving place. In friendship with our inner critic we listen to the perspective we may not have yet considered, we respect what they have to offer, we are discerning when listening and if they start to just outright put us down, we draw a big ass line in the sand and place them on the other side of it.
Cultivate Acceptance: Your inner critic isn’t going anywhere. There’s no way to ignore it, trick it or think yourself away from it. Becoming frustrated with your inner critic will quickly become a cycle of self-criticism for not being able to beat it. In acceptance we know that this is a part of us, a useful and wise part of us. In acceptance we can feel the length of a lifetime and that with this character always around we mustn’t reject or recoil, but get closer. In acceptance we relax and allow ourselves to become intimate with the critic, up close and curious, no longer afraid of what she has to tell us because we know she will help us grow and that when she gets unruly and out of hand, we’ll put her to bed like a friend who’s had too much drink and will then operate from a deeper trust and confidence in our own self.