“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver
I’ve wanted to write for a long time now.
I’ve talked about writing for a long time now.
Lot’s of people tell me I should write; they’ve been telling me this for a long time now.
There’s only one problem.
I don’t write.
It’s not that I haven’t got a lot to say; it’s not that I haven’t got the words. It’s not that I haven’t got strong ideas. It’s just that it all bottles up inside me: the thoughts, the ideas, the wanting—but I am (almost) helpless to act.
The culprit? My inner critic.
We all have inner critics—the voice in our own heads that constantly evaluates and assess us.
Judging us with preconceived disapproval. You’re not good enough. You’re not capable. Who are you to write?
Forged in our childhood, our inner critic internalises the environment we grew up in. It echoes the voices of our primary caregivers and our family/societal values, beliefs, and dynamics. It also incorporates self-created strategies and defense mechanisms to create a sense of safety and belonging in that environment.
The more loving and supportive the home environment, the less pervasive the inner critic is. Conversely, the more dysfunctional and unloving the home environment, the harsher and more debilitating the inner critic becomes.
My childhood was filled with trauma, emotional neglect, and aching loneliness. I only recently realized that I grew up feeling unloved; I grew up feeling that no one loved me.
My inner critic is demonstrative and totalitarian.
The psychologist Jay Earley, PhD outlines seven types of inner critic. See if you can relate to any of the descriptions.
1. The Perfectionist
This critic has incredibly high standards and expectations. It drives you on to achieve perfection and pulls you back from attempting something where success is not guaranteed.
2. The Inner Controller
This critic’s ambition is to stop all spontaneity in its tracks to ensure the status quo. It aims to keep you safe by only doing things with a well-thought-out plan and will berate you if new things don’t go well to ensure new things don’t get attempted in the future.
3. The Taskmaster
This critic is all about following discipline and striving for success as a means to self-worth.
4. The Underminer
This critic ensures your safety by undermining you when you have new ideas. It directly attacks your self-esteem and will remind you of your worthlessness until you back down.
5. The Destroyer
Going even further than the underminer, this critic uses shame to make its point; you’re not just worthless, you’re unlovable, shameful, and you shouldn’t even be here.
6. The Guilt-Tripper
This critic reminds you of past mistakes to induce a feeling of guilt, leaving you unable to act freely.
7. The Moulder
This critic will mould you into a role to allow for a sense of belonging. This is often at the expense of your authentic self.
Whilst I can relate to aspects of all of the above, my inner critic most often wears the hat of the Destroyer. It thinks the safest and rightful place for me to be is alone in my bedroom—in bed under the covers in a state of dissociation (a place I spent much of my time as a child). It reminds me that I really shouldn’t exist. I am a burden, a nuisance, a problem, and at best a scapegoat. At least as a scapegoat I have a useful role—making others feel better by having someone to project their blame onto.
I have lived listening to this voice and being at its mercy for nearly 50 years. It never reminds me of my achievements—only my mistakes. But, with the scars of a loveless childhood behind me and the prospect of a long time dead before me, I cannot keep cowering under my bed covers.
So I began a journey of questioning. I quickly learnt that I cannot fight or banish or ignore the inner critic; that simply doesn’t work. Somehow it makes it bigger, stronger, and angrier. It also achieves what the inner critic wants— inner turmoil that keeps me putting limits on my life.
So for some time now, I have been employing a different strategy. After researching and reading about the inner critic, I found out that although its effects can be hugely debilitating, its primary role is to keep us safe and protected.
It is trying to help us, and whatever circumstances we’ve found ourselves in, to a certain extent, it did help us. Its role was to look after us. But now, in adulthood, its strategies, its reminders, its soul-destroying beliefs and limitations don’t actually hold true anymore. They don’t look after us so much as keep us from living.
While I was growing up, there was this environment of shame, fear, and authority; the inner critic keeps me in this same environment—no matter where I go or what I do, it voices the same rhetoric.
But where am I in this? Am I a lost little girl whose best option is to cower in bed and zone out, or am I an adult who can take charge and make decisions and live an unlimited life?
I decided to learn to look after myself instead. I decided to relieve the inner critic of its all-encompassing role and transform it into a loving, kind inner guide.
Sounds simple enough, but, honestly, it hasn’t been so simple. It’s funny how lots of things in life are “role” based. There’s a societal and familial blueprint for almost everything. Midwife, mother, spouse, woman, and so on. You can easily get caught up in repeated patterns and unhealthy dynamics where the inner critic keeps plugging away.
Stopping these dynamics and walking away from unhealthy situations in the name of looking after myself resulted in some pretty hefty outside criticism coming my way from many people, which reopened old, lonely, shame-based wounds. My inner critic just sat back and threw her hands in the air and said, “See? What have I been telling you?”
An enormous amount of grief came up—grief I’ve never processed—and instead of doing anything possible not to feel it, I began to realise I could feel my feelings.
I’m sure as a young child, my feelings were too much to feel. But as an adult, I could feel my feelings. I could sit and get into my body and feel the waves upon waves of grief.
At first, I cried a lot. I still do, but you know what? I began to feel other things too, like joy and hope and happiness and love. And I began to do other things too, things that previously had just stayed bottled up inside.
I began to talk to myself in a loving way—I began to talk to my inner critic in a loving way. “I know you think its best that we stay under the covers all day, and I know you want to keep me safe, but let’s just sit down here and try to write this out for a while.”
The trick, I found, is to stay present and in reality. If I zone out in fantasy, the inner critic comes back with a vengeance and now I understand why. If I’m not present to my own life, if I’m not at the helm, it has to come in to take care of me.
Staying present is a practice that requires us to be aware of what is happening now because only in this moment do we have any agency to live our life how we want to. Staying present is a practice in authenticity, requiring me to call the shots and experience the consequences instead of being a puppet to an old, disempowering autopilot program.
Dr. Gabor Maté once said, “people have two needs: attachment and authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity.”
In my childhood attachment, belonging was achieved through total negation of my authenticity. Ironically, belonging was achieved by playing the role of not belonging, and I have been replicating that over and over thanks to my inner critic.
But now, with my own inner guidance, and with love, presence, patience, surrender and a willingness to feel and heal, I am stepping out of the inner critics shadow.
I am making my own belonging and I am reconnecting with my authenticity and my voice.
Just look how well I’m doing!