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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Dealing with the inner critic

Most of us can recognise harshness in someone else’s voice, particularly when they are talking to someone else and we are witnessing the attack. But it’s more difficult to recognise this voice when it is speaking to us as an inner voice. Often, it can only be recognised by the symptoms it causes (including a sudden drop in mood; procrastination; analysis paralysis; shyness; feelings of guilt and shame, etc). It's equivalent to the Freudian superego, or a part of our cognitive function that regulates our behaviour and is thought to be at the root of feelings that there is something wrong (with us). Where does the inner critic come from? The inner critic is an aggressive energy that is used for survival reasons. It comes from millennia of survival and adaptation history. It is integrated into our psyche through collective and individual experiences including through family, school and society. It also helps to regulate us as individuals living in groups within cultural systems (since our survival is enhanced by living in groups). What are the consequences of an overactive inner critic? Living a life of survival rather than thriving is a cardinal consequence. It can limit us through minimising risk-taking that would enhance our lives; reducing opportunities to reach out and connect with others; and when we are connected, hampering meaningful communication and intimacy by holding us back from being vulnerable (an essential element of intimacy and meaningful relationships as discussed in a past Wise Wednesday on the High Achiever's Secret Dream). Clinically, an overactive inner critic contributes to depression and anxiety. How do we deal with the inner critic? Two main approaches exist: In traditional therapy, the inner critic is faced by connecting to our inner-strength and literally ousting the inner-critic by feeling into our own power and engaging the part of our psyche that will fight back as if standing up for our right to live. (See Archangel St. Michael slaying the demon - see photo).

In Buddhism, the inner critic is treated slightly differently. We connect with our compassion and love and then redirect it at the inner critic. The inner critic is given compassionate attention to to find out what it needs and what its message is. Once seen clearly, it falls away. Just like the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. His only response to the demonic voices was to remain calm and open and touch the Earth. His simple existence in the world was enough to prove his worthiness. Which of the two works, probably, depends on a variety of factors and they are not mutually exclusive. I would suggest trying both and calibrating your approach accordingly.

  1. For example, if you are feeling powerless or need to snap out of a negative mood quickly, it may be appropriate to connect with the strength of your natural anger and direct it at the inner critic to put a stake in the ground of your psyche that casts the inner critic out of consciousness. See here for four steps using this approach.

  2. If the inner critic is persistent, it may be appropriate when you have time and energy to go through a longer-term process to transform the inner critic role more permanently, by repeatedly having a compassionate dialogue with it. This can heal not just the individual but generational patterns, and literally make the world a better place for future generations. This process requires time, skill and support. See here for an example.

I hope this helps. Feel free to join and discuss in the Wise Wednesdays Facebook group.

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