I had to retrain my inner critic. I had a critic who was so skillful, so sly, that she could find something wrong with just about everything I thought or did. And she could present the criticism in such a way that it was clear that it was both 1) true and 2) necessary for me to know how bad I was.
Woohoo! If I had a person in my life who treated me that way, I doubt that I would have stayed around for coffee. But I lived with this person in my head for a long, long time.
One of the side effects of having a strong inner critic is that often the real-life person (me, in my case) is extremely critical of everyone and everything else. Well, it only makes sense….if that’s what you experience all the time, every day, then perhaps you figure that’s what your response to the rest of the world should be….ought to be…..MUST be.
Oh my gosh, there they are, all three of them in a single sentence….SHOULD, OUGHT, and MUST. Hmm, my old favorite thought distortion….that there are shoulds, oughts, and musts in the world. I remember the first time I ever knew that there were other ways to think about things. An art therapist who was on some committee with me, many years ago, made some laughing comment about “shoulding all over oneself” but that was long before I was introduced to cognitive psychology and I had never heard of such a thing. But before long, I was able to see that I not only “should” all over myself, but I was continuously “shoulding” all over other people as well.
In some stories, that would have been enough but no, I’m a pretty slow learner, and it took a lot more years, completion of my psychology training (which helped me to be ever more critical), and intensive body psychotherapy before I could start to really recognize the many manifestations of my inner critic. First I had to detach myself from the messages I had been hearing from myself. And that’s where, finally, the title of this post comes in.
When I can look at myself without immediate judging (“that’s okay, that’s not okay, I like this, I hate that, I’m doing well, I’m not doing so great”) then I have a chance to see what is really happening in my inner space. When I can catch a passing thought and see it as a thought, then I can notice….Oh, that was a critical thought. Hmmm, isn’t that interesting? When I can have a friendly interest in my own processes, without having to change them, harden against criticism or melt into praise, then I am offering myself compassionate curiosity.
So what happened when I began to observe my own inner critic? At first I was horrified to hear how much harsh self talk was going on. Then I realized that some part of me was being highly critical of the critic! (Yes, check out THAT logic…). When I realized that the critic was originally a defense, yes, originally something that developed to help me to negotiate a difficult childhood, then I could bring a bit of compassion to that part of myself.
In my bioenergetic therapy training program, we talked about ways to work with the critic: our own critics, and the critics that accompanied our clients into the therapy office. One plan was to figure out ways to off the critic….toss him off a cliff, for example, or trick her into leaving. I decided to take a softer approach. I decided to try to befriend my critic, and re-train her. I wanted to be in charge, so I thought I would approach this situation as if she was an employee who had taken on too much responsibility over the years.
I began a dialog of sorts in my journal, and basically re-wrote the job description. I thanked my critic for the years of protection, and spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the ways that my strong internal demand for certain behaviour saved me from an angry parent, from dismissal from my graduate program, from neglecting my children despite my fatigue. Then I just informed her that things were now different. I was an adult with good habits and didn’t need anyone constantly harping about me. What I did need, though, was support.
Support is one of those ambiguous terms. People may mean very different things by that term. So I did with my critic what I suggest clients do with family members: I carefully described what I wanted for support. I wanted, for example, my inner voice to learn to say things like “Good job on that!” and “You are working hard enough” and “It is okay to take a break.” Actually, I modeled those kinds of comments on the statements that my therapist offered to me over the years.
Did it work? Well, it was a program of change, and, like most changes, time, practice, and consistency have been involved, but yes, it did work. I have to be vigilant, as I expect most people who have lived with an ornery inner critic for about 45 years would have to be. But I can recognize my negative self talk, I can notice it without labeling and just say, oh, yes, there it is again. I wonder if there is something going on that has that critic reverting to old behaviour? And with that gentle sort of curiosity, I can look deeper without fear of what I might find.