After being privy to my client’s internal workings for the past 20 years, I can safely say that most of us have a severe inner critic operating in the background much of the time.
In fact, I once had a client tell me gleefully, “When I walked into your office a year ago I never thought I’d be saying this, but guess what I just discovered? I don’t believe I deserve to live!”
Although most of us try to ignore and hide this harassing, shaming and even brutal inner dialogue, the truth is that only by facing our internal critic can we find true freedom—hence my client’s paradoxical delight.
What we tend to do with our inner critic instead are five things that actually dig us deeper into suffering.
1. We pretend that it’s not happening.
2. We imagine that no one else has a critical inner dialogue going on—and then go on to compare ourselves unfavorably with all the “normal” people (who are, in fact, also pretending that they are not beating themselves up inside).
3. In private moments we ruminate on the internal criticism hoping that it will make us become better people. For example, if the voice says that I am lazy, perhaps that will motivate me to get more done tomorrow.
4. We look for relief through distractions (food, exercise, sex, shopping, staying very busy, etc.). We take medications, and sometimes we become embroiled in life-threatening addictions.
5. When the discomfort gets high and persistent, we turn to affirmations, self-help or spirituality in the hopes of finally getting to the root of it.
All of these approaches fail for one simple reason—they view the inner critic as a problem. We treat it like a disease, a cancer, something to be gotten rid of.
I had one particularly intense experience like this in an emergency room a few years ago.
I had been called in to assess and likely hospitalize a woman who was trying to harm herself. She was wild with what seemed to be internal pain and self-conflict. Flailing and dangerous, she screamed at the police trying to hold her, “Give me a f*cking knife! I’m going to cut it out of me!” Without restraint, it appeared that that is exactly what she would have done.
It’s no wonder that we try to keep this beast within at bay.
As my client bravely discovered, when we actually listen to what’s going on in our heads we may discover that it’s even more menacing than we feared.
Most advice goes something like this:
“Stop listening to the voices in your head!”
“You are your own worst critic.”
“Here’s how to silence your inner critic”
And—at best—we are exhorted to recognize that our self recrimination may have some positive purpose—that is, perhaps we would be lazy, destitute or just bad without it (see number three above).
But the truth is that our inner critic is a paper tiger. It is not the thoughts that cause our suffering, it is our belief in and resistance to them that causes suffering.
Words in the mind cannot actually harm us.
So here is a radically new way to relate to such thoughts. Consider this—maybe your inner critic is right! And even worse, maybe booting it unceremoniously out the door is actually what keeps it coming back.
We are killing the messenger—and guess who doesn’t get the message?
Here is a list of negative self-talk that, from my professional experience, is unbelievably common:
You are lazy.
No one cares about you.
You have nothing to offer.
You are a phony.
You deserve to be poor.
You’ll never make it.
You are too fat (skinny, old, bald, etc).
You are irresponsible.
It’s your own fault.
(And by far the most ubiquitous): There is something wrong with you.
Any of these sound familiar?
We often believe that if we listened to this voice, really took it in, we would fall into utter despair about ourselves and our lives. But can we be sure that that’s what would happen?
Take the first one. The internal critic says, “You are lazy.” Well, what does “lazy” mean? The definition is: “Unwilling to work or use energy; characterized by a lack of activity or effort.”
What if, rather than ignoring or resisting the thought—defensively finding all the ways that we are not lazy—we actually checked it out?
Where am I lazy? All over the place? In the morning when I’m tired? When I leave the dishes in the sink? When I wait for my partner to take out the trash? When I procrastinate in my work? The list goes on and on. The difference is that I am just finding simple, straightforward examples without judgment. I mean, of course I’m lazy sometimes. Who isn’t?
So what about the next one: “No one cares about you.”
First, I recommend just finding examples of where a particular person or people don’t care about you. As far as I can tell, no one in the coffee shop I am sitting in right now cares about me. They don’t even know me.
Then let’s think of all the people who do know me but don’t happen to be thinking about me right now. They, presumably, in this moment, don’t care about me. They are just, well, busy.
Now we are ready to take it to the next level, “No one cares about you, and furthermore no one ever has or ever will.”
I can definitely find where that’s true. People care about themselves, getting what they want, avoiding pain.
When someone appears to care about me, can I really know that it’s actually me that they are caring about? Aren’t they just seeing their positive projections and beliefs that they ascribe to me—beliefs that may change as soon as I cease to be what they want?
For example, I had a friend with whom I started to have less contact. She had seemed to love and value me, and when I let her know that I was going to be less available she was at first extremely kind, letting me know how much she cared and how much it would hurt if I left. After I actually reduced contact however, she became annoyed, belligerent, then shaming. So, there is some evidence that what she cared about was not me, my freedom or my well-being.
She cared about what she got from me: my love and validation.
Byron Katie says, “Egos don’t love, they want something.”
This is not about judgment. I have been manipulative and punitive toward former lovers and friends who decreased contact with me as well. I am not saying it’s right or good, and I am also not saying that it is bad or wrong. I am simply noticing that we humans tend to do that, including myself.
“No one cares about you.” It could be true. I mean, most of us have our hands full just dealing with our own minds and situations. And if someone really does genuinely care about me—if I were in the presence of Christ himself—how would I even know?
All I would have is my experience of feeling good and “cared for.” I can’t know what his inner experience is. Eventually, if my critical voice continues to tell me that no one cares about me, I will start to project onto him that he doesn’t love or care about me either—I am the one exception to God’s love—and the mind will start to look for evidence.
One important thing to know is, if you decide to try befriending your inner critic, don’t be de-railed by it’s hyperbole. It will say things like: “No one cares about you” and “You have nothing to offer.”
In this case, just start with one, simple instance where that seems true in your own opinion.
Can I find one instance of where I have nothing to offer?
Well, I suck at car maintenance for example. And now that I think of it, I can actually make a very, very long list of things I can’t offer.
Then move to the whole statement.
Can I ever really give anything to someone else? Can anyone? Einstein can teach physics, but something in the student has to hear it, take it in, contemplate it and understand it. Moreover, wouldn’t the world be just fine if I weren’t here?
And wouldn’t it be a huge relief not to even have to try to offer something valuable to others? “I have nothing to offer you, thank goodness! Here I am, just me.” It’s very much like how we entered the world as babies—sweet, innocent, totally available.
So here’s the clincher, not only does the inner critic tell you the truth about yourself, it also offers a direct way out of suffering.
“You are a phony.” Totally true. I highlight my hair, wear heels, don’t reveal when things are difficult for me, smile when I’m not happy. I say I’m “great” when I haven’t even checked in to see how I’m feeling. I sometimes pretend to understand things I haven’t been paying attention to, hoping that it will become clear as the conversation progresses.
The list is long.
Then I may see that being phony is stressful for me. I long to be more authentic.
Being told that “I am a phony” is a prescription for my own freedom—not because I am bad or because honesty is better, but simply because being authentic and spontaneous feels so good inside. It could become more like a kiss, “Hey, you are being inauthentic. Wouldn’t it feel wonderful if you were free to just be you?”
After a while it gets fun. “You are irresponsible.” Hell yeah! Let me count the ways…
The inner critic is pointing to all the ways we are human, whole and totally off the hook.
Things start to change. Now, if I feel caring toward someone I can act on it because it feels good to me, rather than to get something from them. I can enjoy my phoniness, or I can reveal more if I prefer. Whatever feels yummier to me in this moment.
How free would I be if I didn’t have to try to get your caring (Nobody cares about you), offer something valuable (You have nothing to offer), or have more money (You don’t deserve it), etc? It doesn’t mean that I won’t have those things in my life, but not needing them or having my identity hanging on them is an enormous relief.
Once meeting your inner critic starts to get enjoyable, here’s the next step—take a look at the opposites of those statements as well. They are probably just as true. “You are lazy” becomes, “You are industrious.” I bet you can find lots of examples of that too. Did you brush your teeth this morning? Get to work on time? Call someone back? Mow the lawn? Solve a Saduko puzzle?
How about: “People care about you, you have so much to offer, you are sincere”?
Now that the truth of these so-called negative judgments don’t sting anymore, and we are genuinely free to be hard-working in some areas and lazy in others—which is what we’re doing anyway—we can now fully embrace the so-called positives. The difference is that these positives are no longer a desperate, defensive bid to prove our worth against the tirade of internal criticism. We can simply notice that they are just as true.
Find the myriad examples of your wonderfulness. Be specific.
This is a powerful way to join with, rather than resisting, the internal critic. And it works with other people too. If your partner says, “You are so selfish,” you can start looking for all the ways you are selfish! Do you ever grab the bigger cookie off the plate? Show up on time for work, but not always for your partner? Isn’t your whole life “for you,”—even loving your partner or your children, which could be defined as “selfish”?
And aren’t I being selfish when I am oh-so-giving? I am doing it for me, and quite often to get something from you—to be liked, loved, appreciated, to feel like a good person or maybe just because it feels so good. All for me.
It could also be helpful to check whether there are any ways that I might be happier (totally selfish) by genuinely giving more, just for my own sake. Maybe my partner is on to something here?
Once I can see how I am indeed selfish, and it feels joyful, then it’s time to look at the opposite: “I am giving”. Count the ways!
So here are the five reasons that your inner critic is your best friend. Check to see if they are things that you value most in a friend:
1. It tells you uncomfortable truths that you actually need to hear (e.g. sometimes you are inauthentic).
2. It points directly to your freedom (do you really enjoy being inauthentic? Could this be part of why you are unhappy?).
3. It normalizes and validates your so-called “shortcomings” (name 10 adults you know who have never been inauthentic. Can’t name even one?—welcome to the human race).
4. It is always available and prepares you for external criticism. Once you can genuinely meet your inner critic, there is no outside force that can bully you. (e.g. when someone tells you that you are a phony you might find that you just have to agree with them!).
5. It shows you how beautiful you are—by suggesting the opposites too. You get to see how those so-called positives are just as true. And, paradoxically, this is totally ego-destroying. (Make a list of all the ways that you are 100 percent the real-deal).
I invite you to make a date with your new best friend—the inner critic—the one who actually tells you the truth.
It may come fast, like a diatribe against you at times, but slow it down and look a little deeper. Take each thought one at a time. It could be the one voice in your life that is totally dedicated to your full vibrancy, your freedom and your heart’s desire.
“You are a complete waste of space”—can you find just one example where that’s true?
Your happiness may just depend on it.
(Note: This article comes almost entirely out of my personal experience of The Work of Byron Katie. She deserves full credit for her in-depth teaching of how to embrace stressful thoughts rather than resisting them, and thereby find real freedom. You can find many more resources at www.thework.com.)
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Assistant Ed: Laura Ashworth/Ed: Sara Crolick