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How Could You Do That? the Inner Critic Speaks, and This Time We’re Listening

Rachel Alexander Nov. 28, 2018

{8 minutes to read} That’s not a nice way to be spoken to. Some might say it’s abusive; none would call it encouraging or kind. And what is remarkable is that this is very often the way we speak to ourselves. A part of us speaks to us in a way that can be admonishing, nasty, deriding and certainly, well, critical. In the therapeutic community, this self-part is often called the inner critic.

There is probably no one alive and endowed with a conscience (or who was raised in one civilized society or another) who doesn’t have an inner critic.

A Critic’s Purpose

Our critic keeps us in line. It informs us about what’s polite and expected, even what’s right and wrong. Our critic might warn us of what is dangerous, what’s likely to get us fired or ostracized or abandoned. Our critic polices our inside selves so we can safely co-exist in society.

Some people proudly proclaim: “I’m hardest on myself!” The unspoken message is that this is a way of keeping themselves excellent, maintaining high standards, even protecting themselves from the ridicule of others by beating them to the punch (by literally beating themselves up first)! Being hardest on ourselves means we house a frosty taskmaster that keeps our less-disciplined, nicer self on course.

I wonder — and invite you to wonder with me — if we could lead ourselves with kindness, tenderness? Can we be more like kindergarten teachers rather than drill sergeants? Anyway, collective wondering is cool…

Reframing the inner critic — who is he, really?

Before Focusing, the way that I understood the inner critic was as an inner enemy that I needed inner earplugs and martial arts training to contend with. My critic had some of the qualities of a sadistic slave owner or nazi — menacing, brutal, monstrous — ready to pile on in the way movie gangsters pour down upon their unfortunate prey, savagely beating and kicking even after their victim is broken.

The old way of dealing with the critic was to acknowledge its existence, yes, but then stand in opposition, try in vain to ignore it, or succumb to its brute force. These approaches never worked for any length of time, if at all, and never resulted in a shift.

The Focusing way offers something new. It is based on this pivotal underlying tenet: everything inside us — no matter how dangerous or counterproductive it seems — is working to save, help and protect us. All parts of us want what is best for us. Nothing inside of us has the goal of dismantling our well-being. Regardless of how much pain they cause and how dysfunctional they are, all of our parts have our best interests at heart.

Why is he so mean?

The critic tends to be primitive and unrefined because he developed in the early days of life when the stakes were life or death. He comes from a trauma/survival place, and from a time in development before manners and nuanced communications were born. His voice is often one of a parent or authority from childhood. He is yelling “Fire!” or “Get down!” or “Man overboard!” or “Thar she blows!” (if he is Melvillian). He is the rough and mean Captain who, shouting terse directives, throws you into a lifeboat, hurting your arm but saving your life.

In adult life, when the stakes no longer realistically carry the life or death intensity, the severe tone of the critic appears brutal and mal-attuned.

To understand the critic, we must distinguish its manner from its motives. The critic is often protecting a core need — to be loved, cared for, secure, unashamed. It may ridicule us for taking a risk, exposing a talent, because it’s trying to shield us from rejection or shame. It’s fearful of something bad happening to us. When we widen our appreciation of how the critic is aiming to be in service to us, it makes possible the next step: turning towards it. This can only be done from the grounded space of self-in-presence.

So, how do we turn towards it? Almost as if it’s a separate entity. The way we might turn to an old friend who arrives unannounced ranting at our door; highly agitated, loud in protest.

We might receive this guest with a calm, compassionate welcome. A “have a seat over here” and “let me get you a cup of tea.” We might sit down with him somewhere, at a comfortable-but-available distance, and settle down with him. Maybe observing, “You are so upset. Would you like to tell me what has you so excited?”

We might then listen to our friend, with interested, compassionate curiosity; not to evaluate or debate the truth of whatever he is asserting, but rather to learn about his experience of upset — from his point of view.

It is important that we are not asking into the substance of what the critic says. The content is immaterial (i.e. whether or not you are an “idiot” is not up for debate). We are interacting with the underneath of the criticism. In fact, Focusing is more about being in relation to a part or a “something” that wants our attention. And when attention is given with an interested curiosity, with gentleness and an absence of judgment, real changes occur. Integration develops.

So rather than inquiring as to what evidence he has to prove our idiocy, we inquire why he is so disturbed about it. What is he afraid will happen to us if what he states is true? And then we would ask further into what is so concerning about that, and so on, until the underlying fear is uncovered (usually he perceives a basic need as threatened). We might ask our friend, “How might you like me to be with you, just now?” (e.g. sit quietly with him, reflect what we hear, give him some space, reassure.)

Often just listening with this Focusing attitude is the attention the critic has been after. He is finally being acknowledged and can tell us what he is so worried about for us. When he receives the sort of attention he needs, our critic tends to settle and soften. Just as we all do.

The key is to be with it rather than merge into it.

Over time, an inner relationship is established. The critic no longer needs to bang you in the kneecaps or yell into the megaphone. Assured he has your attention, he relaxes his grip on you.

In time, you might even be able to swing your arm affectionately around your critic – this dear, salty, old seafaring friend, who is on your side, after all.

Our next blog article will be a guided attunement for working with your inner critic.