When you think about it, it’s amazing that any of us ever survive childhood. There’s so much we have to learn! Exploring the world and acquiring skills are not the problem. Learning to read, write and ride a bike is the fun stuff. What is much more complex – whether we realize it or not – is the process itself of becoming socialized. Learning what earns us approval, and what doesn’t. What brings punishment and pain, and what works to defend against that. What attracts friends, and protects against foes. How to get what we want, and how to deal with disappointment.
Regardless of how supportive and encouraging the environment we’re born into may be, or how many difficulties have to be surmounted, most of us generally develop the ability to make our way in the world. In the process, the inherent wonderful qualities available to human beings tend to become adapted to living in the world we know. Along with maturity, we develop a conscience – and this too is subject to adaptation, according to circumstances. Objective conscience becomes overlaid by the inner judge, the inner critic; what Freud called the superego.
Whether someone else is expressing their inner critic in their criticism – or indeed approval – of you or something you have done or said, or whether they are expressing an honest opinion, doesn’t really matter. If your inner critic is active, you will hear it as a negative comparison, or rejection. When criticism – whether from outside or inside – hooks right into the inner critic, the result can be hesitation, uncertainty, confusion, and painful self-doubt. Most painfully of all, we may even take it for granted! The impact can be devastating – limiting, repressive, and depressing. The worst kind of creative block.
The inner critic has an impact on our thinking, our feelings, our emotions, our attitudes – and even our instincts. It may seem to know what is best for us, but it relies on memories, conscious and subconscious, of the rules and regulations that governed our upbringing, right from the beginning. As children, of course, we did what seemed necessary to us at the time; we fit in with society’s rules and regulations. We did this by internalizing what was said – or implied – by our role models: parents and grandparents, older siblings, teachers, heroes and heroines, or society at large. Sadly, this meant cutting ourselves off from the awareness of our true qualities, our full vibrancy and aliveness. This is why criticism from ‘outside’ is so tricky – as discussed in my previous post.
The ancient Greeks, as so often, had an aphorism for it: ‘Know thyself’ is inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. And to know your self, it’s important to be able to differentiate between a healthy critical ability and the inner critic.
Identifying the inner critic is not always easy. It’s typically comparative: you are not as good as others, you could have done better. Put into words, it often uses phrases like ‘you should’ or ‘you shouldn’t’, ‘you have to’, ‘you mustn’t’ or ‘you can’t do/say that’. It tends to be alive and thriving in the work environment, in terms of qualifications, status, power, and salary – we take it with us everywhere, of course! People battle to survive in competitive environments, from home to school to college to the workplace. It shows up around appearance and possessions, too. What brands do you wear, drive, carry around with you? How big is your house?
Take a holiday!
Dealing with the inner critic calls for effective measures, and different tactics work best for different people, and in response to different attacks. Enquiry helps to discriminate and find out what the content of an inner attack is, so that you can find an effective way to defend against it. It’s good to experiment. I find one of the most effective ways to send the inner critic packing is to use humour. Now that it’s the summer, a good suggestion might be to tell it to take a holiday. Permanently.