The Inner Critic: Part 2 of 3
The Dynamics of The Inner Critic
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
The inner critic is the part of our personality that seeks to promote and preserve the best in us by monitoring what we do and how well we perform. Unfortunately, like many well-intentioned efforts, the inner critic sometimes becomes more of a distracting or destructive force than a helpful one. When too critical, it can become agent for discouragement and depression rather than for encouraging our good potentials. Other times, our inner critic becomes too cynical and obsessed about the flaws and imperfections in ourself, others, and society. These are the occasions when we need to understand that we cannot keep waiting for perfection. We must proceed in our life accepting some limitations in ourself while making the best of our strengths, talents, gifts, knowledge, and opportunities. Despite our apparent weaknesses, we can still engage in many worthwhile activities. For this we need to be grateful for the strengths we have and how well we express them—not focus on regretting what we lack. To repair the damage of the harsh inner critic, we need large amounts of self-respect and self-compassion. This will help restore the harmony within ourself and end the war between our inner critic and the rest of us. –(203)–
What the inner critic does
The inner critic in many people is that voice that nags us, informing us that we should have done something better than we did. This is how one part of us rejects another part of ourself, or in other words, our household of consciousness has become divided against itself. A part of us that will not fully support, or may even condemn what other parts of us believe, plan, are doing, or have already done.
Thus, our inner critic may remind us about:
how poorly we spoke or behaved
how clumsy and ignorant we acted
the opportunities we missed
the people we upset
and how all of this just proves how incompetent, useless, and unworthy we are.
The inner critic can destabilize our thinking and confidence
In stressful times we have a definite need for a strong foundation for ourself in terms of:
a well-defined basic identity
a clear grasp of our primary purposes beyond merely existing
the ability to stay focused on what is most important to us
and a definite sense of our ethical values that guide us in how to think, speak, and act when we confront major situations and crises.
This is not a formula for becoming a judgmental person. This is how mature people organize their thoughts and priorities so they can:
develop an integrated personality where all major departments of our character work in harmony with one another
avoid becoming lost in distractions, theories, dogma, or vague generalities and platitudes—especially when we need clear decisions and practical action
become effective and productive in daily activities.
The specific damage the inner critic can create
While the inner critic can serve a good purpose, it is often excessive in its criticism or discouragement—especially in those who are conscientious. Our inner critic works best when it serves to help us restrain bad choices and behavior. Unfortunately, it can evolve into becoming a voice of near constant disapproval and condemnation. When this occurs, it will also inhibit the best in us and create serious problems.
An inner critic that becomes too strong and overactive can cause us to be too cautious, hesitant, and self-doubting. These habits can restrict our ability to be creative, productive, and fulfilled. At a deeper level, they will weaken the basic stability of our character.
Not all inner critics are this harsh, but some are. Others just seem to highlight every lapse or mistake we make but never offer any encouragement or praise. This gives the indirect message that we aren’t very good at anything and probably deserve little approval.
The varieties of inner critics
While the bossy and complaining inner critic is the most common type, it has some cousins that focus their complaints in a variety of styles and concerns. This can include:
our inner pessimist—the voice of discouragement
our inner wimp—the voice of helplessness and victimhood
our inner fears—the voice of anxiety
The paradoxical aspect of these inner critics is that they often are loudest in competent, good people—those who:
have high standards and expectations
are conscientious, responsible, honest, and reliable
very intelligent, well-educated, and should know better than to allow themselves to rage on with little restraint.
The opposite occurs in happy sociopaths
In contrast with the victims of harsh inner critics, there are others who are almost immune to anxiety, discouragement, and remorse. These genuinely happy people are the sociopaths. Sociopaths are those who have a weak or absent conscience and little empathy. The reason they stay relatively happy and immune to regrets about mistakes is that they don’t care about the blunders they make or the people they hurt. This suggests that mature people should not be tempted to use them as models for building serenity and confidence.
The origins of our inner critic
The inner critic seems to be born out of an inept but excessive concern to be a good person—effective, talented, productive, and efficient. What seems to go wrong is that there is a failure to perfect the fine art of coping with personal flaws and mistakes in a way that neither wounds nor magnifies our distress.
Those who have this problem need to understand just where our conscience goes off the rails into condemnation, scolding, and pushing our guilt button. The conscience in a mature person, who is not a sociopath, works with the intent to:
keep us on the right path
be the right kind of person
direct us to say and do what is appropriate and correct.
We might wonder where did our conscience becomes so twisted or excessive so that it becomes an agent for:
inhibiting our self-expression
diminishing our confidence and self-esteem
adding to our anxiety and discouragement.
We might inquire if we picked up some bad habits from the example of some fussy, demanding person—perhaps a parent who was quick to criticize and slow to praise and encourage. Or perhaps we were strongly influenced by a strict and righteous group such as a religious institution that functioned with authoritarian rules. Sometimes we are indoctrinated with the notion that we are a bad, wild person who must be strictly regulated lest we become outwardly the bad person others believe we already are.
Reforming our inner critic
If the roots of our inner critic come from one of these sources, we need to shift and find a mature substitute that will be a more compassionate agent for our conscience—one that will translate harsh condemnation into common sense and kindly delivered advice. This will require that we:
create in our imagination such an agent
install it in our subconscious by our dedication to this gentle authority (this will require repeated efforts)
and declare all new commentary come through this sensible and kind mediator.
This transition to a compassionate conscience begins as we insist that we have the right to do our own thinking and evaluations from now on. No one person or group—not even our inner critic—will totally control what we believe, accept, or do.
Beware imitating the harsh style of our inner critic
Please note that we can’t just yell at our inner critic to shut up and go away. This is because it is a part of ourself. We have to accept the fact it is a wayward part of our personality. We cannot beat it into submission any more than we can improve our typing or piano playing by physically beating our fingers when we make a mistake. Tempting as this impulse might be, being angry with ourself will not fix or heal anything—in fact, this will make it worse.
Reforming the angry inner critic
To make permanent changes about our overactive inner critic, we need three things:
better understanding about what is going on inside of our subconscious
better techniques for creating change in our beliefs and attitudes
and most importantly, lots of self-compassion to provide the tone and energy for deep healing.
Understanding what is going on in the inner dynamics of our subconscious can be complex and difficult. However, our common sense can follow the obvious clues to discover what might be happening.
For instance, if we have to listen to a harsh inner critic nagging and condemning us far too often, then we need to assume that there might be a greater problem behind the negativity of our inner critic. The obvious suspect would be that we have a major issue about our excessive anger. This suggests that:
our inner critic is fueled by our own hostile and, perhaps, misanthropic beliefs
this fuel of anger is probably stored mainly in the large load of unmet needs and unresolved conflicts we carry
we are continually on edge and too easily triggered by the slightest offense or hint of insult.
If this analysis seems sound, then the bulk of the cure for this harsh inner critic will depend on reducing our storehouses of anger that fuels our hostile and condemning habits. This is most directly accomplished by:
working to resolve many old conflicts
learning to summon the love from our Higher Self to enter our personality as the major antidote to anger
hours of providing sincere forgiveness and compassion for ourself for poor choices of behavior.
Note: many confuse the practice of self-compassion with the more convenient act of self-pity. There is a huge difference between the two, although both can “feel good” when we apply them. The eventual result, however, is quite different. Compassion heals. Self-pity is the equivalent of bragging about the injury and celebrating the pain we suffer!
This work can begin immediately as daily drills in being overtly and sincerely:
complimentary to others for whatever you can honestly praise
giving congratulations and encouragement to ourself for our good behavior and achievements
taking several minutes each day to be grateful for the good things in our life now, e.g., health, abilities, friends, possessions
making the effort to put joy into life—ours and others.
Reforming the inner cynic
Other people may have an inner critic that functions as the inner pessimist or cynic. This type of critic tends to scoff at good possibilities and potentials. The core problem behind the frequent pessimist is the habit of finding fault and being scornful about everything and anyone they dislike. This tendency, despite the difficulty it causes in relationships, is often continued because it provides false comfort to boost their low self-esteem.
If this explanation seems mysterious, then consider this. People who inwardly suspect they are weak find this conclusion to be embarrassing. Thus, they deny it, and instead, obsess on finding fault in others and everything else to distract everyone, including themselves, from their own flaws.
The major sign that reveals such tendencies is this. Those who are persistently pessimistic seem unable to give any effective compliments. In contrast, they will provide very faint praise or plentiful putdowns to others. The best example of this is the character Evelyn in the popular TV show, Two and a Half Men. She frequently disparages others and walks away feeling one-up at their expense. Sadly, this can become a way of life for some people.
The cure for those with this type of inner cynic requires:
a conscious and sincere realization that this level of sarcasm is very destructive to everyone involved and needs to be restrained
a deep understanding that everyone—including ourself—is imperfect in many ways. It is just part of being human, and there is no need to be ashamed or be ridiculed for this. It is normal!
a very large and continuous dose of humility.
Additional knowledge and skills cynics need for reducing their cynicism are:
the insight to recognize the capacity to gently accept and tolerate the shortcomings of others is the price we pay to have our deficiencies tolerated
learn to respect, not just tolerate, other people by accepting the fact of their special gifts, merit, and strengths
acknowledge that many of those we dislike bear burdens and handicaps that may complicate their life and limit their cheerfulness and social skills
recognize this makes their contribution and life more commendable because they make it despite their many difficulties.
Reforming the inner wimp
Finally, we need to discuss the case of the inner wimp who is often insecure, afraid, and hesitant. The problem behind the problem of the inner wimp is their deep insecurity and their lack of faith in their strengths and opportunities. They may reveal the truth about themselves by:
a strong tendency to blame eternal conditions and events for their distress
often exaggerate the suffering that attends these situations
claim near helplessness to overcome their distress
frequently identify with the status of being a victim
use frequent complaining as a way to manage their frustration and attract sympathy.
Yes, some experiences are truly horrible—even soul-crushing. However, what complicates and sustains their distress is that some people just give up trying to overcome their suffering by:
continuing to blame external conditions for the bulk of their stress and by surrendering to their frustration
resist doing many things that could help—especially those things that only they can do, such as exerting restraint on their self-pity
Those who believe they are helpless to change their miserable status can begin to heal these tendencies. But first, they need to begin with the full understanding that a few injuries and handicaps do not paralyze everything about us. This is because we still have:
our will, determination, and the power of our creative thinking
control of our emotions, aspirations, and hope—if we choose to use this control
and through the skillful use of these resources, we can provide a constructive atmosphere of beliefs and expectations to begin rebuilding our confidence and success.
These are a few ideas about the dynamics of our inner critic and its cousins, the inner cynic and the inner wimp. These are a large part of what we need to know about how we can begin to revise our beliefs and reform how we view our life experiences.
Adding the resources of our Higher Self to reforming our inner critic
Now a word to the very, very spiritual who are wondering why there has been no mention yet about calling on our spiritual possibilities to help with these issues. There is no doubt that we can be helped by prayer, meditation, and effective mindfulness. As useful as these processes can be, none of them will work well until we prepare ourself to receive the resources of our Higher Self.
We cannot ignore the necessity of clearing space in ourself to accept and apply the qualities of peace, gratitude, encouragement, and kindness. Our frustration and agitation will prevent peace from becoming more than a brief mood of tranquility. Our storehouse of resentments and disappointments will block the ability to receive and apply compassion and cheerfulness in our outlook and daily activities.
By reducing our mood of hopelessness and sense of permanent victim status, we will be preparing to allow new and constructive ideas and attitudes to replace them.
When we are limited in our ability to appreciate and accept our personalworth and strengths, our capacity for internal healing is also limited. When our distrust and lack of faith is unrestricted, it will become a barrier to the goodness and support of our Higher Self. As a consequence, we risk rejecting the healing benefits of the Higher Life, and our cynicism, hostility, and helplessness are likely to continue the rest of our life.
The basic truths for all of us are:
there is no room for peace in the person frequently outraged, critical and condemning
there is no room for joy in the person who is unable to rise above their many disappointments
we will be unable to trust and accept the value of people who differ from us if we continue our tribal prejudices.
Therefore, let us not be so blinded, disgusted, or outraged about the flaws in ourself, other people, or society that we are unable to respect and be delighted about every sign of goodness, kindness, helpfulness, tolerance that we witness in others as well as ourselves.