I was much older when I first recognized the voice of the inner critic. I’d known it for so long that I believed it to be my own.
My later studies in psychology and working with wonderful women made me realize that most of us carried this voice in our heads. Denying it or challenging it was often a waste of time. Listening to it without intervening led to downward spirals of shame and inadequacy. What did work was understanding where it came from, because that gave us the power to move beyond its fears.
The Early Beginnings
And here’s why. Beginning very early in our childhood, we all experience some form of criticism, like when parents give us that aghast expression and shout “Never do that again” or shake their heads with “Why on earth would you do that!!”. Its natural and its important, because it stops us from many of the things that are harmful for us. Research even suggests that children who grow up with no criticism are less resilient and unable to cope with feedback and dispproval.
The problem arises when criticism happens without repair – when parents forget to tell us that they love us regardless. When they’re unable to tune in to our feelings and let us know that it’s okay. When they overlook the importance of reinstating their belief in us and of reminding us of our goodness. We’re left with the feeling that our weaknesses define us and develop a skewed perception of our abilities and qualities.
What makes it worse is that many times parents criticize endlessly because they cast their own fears and the unhealed parts of their own selves onto us. And as little sponges, we absorb these fears and try our best to stay away from them by developing our own voice of criticism that begins to occupy most of our self-talk. That’s why it sounds so true and lasts long after we leave home.
Our Later Years
As we grow older, we begin to shame and reject parts of ourselves we don’t like in order to be accepted by friends, teachers, and society. And without the inner safety of believing in our qualities and abilities, we try and safeguard our sense of self through whatever external expectations we grow up with. “Make sure your work is perfect”, “Better not make a fool of yourself” and “Fix that lousy body” become internal demands that disconnect us from who we are.
What started out as an interpersonal relationship of dominance and subordination between parent and child eventually becomes our own relationship with ourselves. And just like it closed us down so we stay away from “harm”, we shut down and stay away from experiences. We doubt our lovability and competence and keep ourselves safe by playing by external rules. And worst of all, we go on to replicate the same relationship in our marriages and families.
The Way Out
Here’s what we need to do to end the war within ourselves. First, we need to recognize the voice of the inner critic and befriend it. Remember, it’s the voice that kept us safe when we were too little to recognize danger. It still reminds us of our weaknesses, and we mustn’t ignore it. But it can get stuck in old and well-wired neural patterns, and fear something that’s no longer true. Or it can become terribly loud and mean, and cloud our thinking simply because we believe it to be true. Our best bet is to listen to it and hold its concerns in perspective.
We then need to pay attention to our strengths – the ones that the inner critic never allowed us to befriend. What are the values that guide us, the strengths that lie deep within us, and the passions that bring us alive? What makes us who we are, different, bright and beautiful? This is not always easy, especially when we’ve never paid attention to our strengths, nor listened to the softer, gentler voice of the inner mentor that reminds us that we have what it takes to face our challenges.
Essentially, we’ve to grow up and become the parent who scolds us when faced with danger, but then sits us down on their warm lap and reminds us of all the qualities and abilities that can guide us forward. This takes consistent effort, because we may have forgotten how our parents embraced us, or because we never got it in the first place. But its key to moving past our fears and showing up as our true and authentic selves.
We’re all works in progress, often driving with the brakes on. To let go and unleash our full potential, we’ve got to take the whole of us along on the journey, brakes, accelerator, fears, gifts and all. We’re weaker when we’re not all in – fragile both in perfection and in flaws. Appreciating our wholeness is the only way we can co-exist in harmony within ourselves, and bring our full selves to life.