The Threat Of Our Inner Critic (Part I)

The presence of an inner critic in our personality is a universal phenomenon. All adults who seeks to achieve competence in living will have a part of themselves that keeps score on how well they are doing. For many, record of their mistakes and the accumulations of shortcomings begin to burn a hole in their conscience. This can happen when we make a habit of reminding ourself of our flaws, limitations, and mistakes.
Robert R. Leichtman, M.D. is a physician, author and has developed the techniques of Active Meditation.
workings of the inner critic
Robert R. Leichtman, M.D. is a physician, author and has developed the techniques of Active Meditation.

Many respond to these inner warnings with appropriate and healthy changes in belief and more effective behavior. But others will become more zealous and engage in harsh or even cruel and punishing condemnation that damages their self-esteem and confidence. In this manner, the inner critic can assume too much influence. The greatest excess occurs when it becomes a virtual gatekeeper for the advice and support from our higher human and spiritual resources.

This degree of sabotage to our wellbeing will require skillful intervention to correct. This will be our personal responsibility, no matter how much we expect family members, the boss, or even society to make most of the changes. This discourse provides the first few steps for this repair and healing process.

When Our Inner Voice Becomes An Enemy

I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies will be members of his own household. — Script: Matthew 10:35-36

This scripture refers to resolving a conflict when, as an adult, we must choose between the wishes and preferences of our family versus honoring the guidance and purpose of our higher wisdom. It is appropriate for today’s message because it also informs us that our worst enemies may be in our own mental household. It is the voice of our doubts, fears, and discouragement that so often becomes the real enemy of our confidence and ability to take effective action.

The idea of harboring an inner saboteur may seem an absurd notion—something reserved for the delusional. However, it can occur in many productive, successful people who, to all appearances, seem normal, healthy, and happy. In the privacy of their silent thoughts they may harshly criticize and condemn themselves for assorted flaws, mistakes, and the lack of adequate knowledge and abilities. This can be so destructive and vicious that is impairs the ability to sustain our confidence, peace of mind and capacity for clear thinking, ability to apply our creative ideas, and joy in living.

As a consequence, the inner critic and its cousins can become a significant force that affects all levels of our personality to distract us from our best ideas, perspectives, and opportunities, sabotages our health and well-being in general, and interferes with our access to divine possibilities.

Read more: In another article series, Robert Leichtman explains how to cope with chaos and create a mindful relationship with society and politics. Part 2 is about the construction of a healthy sense of identity  for coping with whatever problems or opportunities we have.

The Work Of The Inner Critic And Its Cousins

Modern psychology is giving significant new attention to this voice (authority) of our inner critic. This is because the inner critic often acts as an outlet for more than criticism. It is often a voice for our feelings of guilt, discouragement, fear, regret, and helplessness. Hence the concept of “the cousins” of our inner critic might deserve a more accurate labels of:

  • the inner pessimist
  • the inner grump or cynic, perpetually offended and outraged
  • the inner wimp who is often helpless and frightened
  • the inner sinner, always prone to guilt.

The inner critic and its cousins can dump their discontent all over our good experiences, achievements, and other successes. It often acts independently for the rest of ourself, acting as if its primary function is to find fault with whatever we think, plan, say, or do.

Keep in mind, this voice of criticism, gloom, or fear may not shout its objections at you. In fact, more often it whispers so it is barely recognizable, except as a dark mood and outlook that slowly undermines our optimism, confidence, tranquility, and assertiveness.

Collectively, the voices of inner critic and its cousins are actually a chorus of voices that sabotage our wellbeing and progress. They act as a committee that inhibits much of what we want to be and do.

Before reading on, you might want to contemplate on the repair and healing process of these inner voices or practice a transformative meditation for when the inner critic arises:

How The Inner Critic Defends Itself

In a flash, the inner critic can turn us into an introverted, self-doubting, and inhibited person who wonders why so much of life is passing by us without the slightest interest in us. When, in self-defense, we muster our common sense and the evidence of our strengths and worth, we may be disappointed. The force of our inner critics will try to convince us that their judgment is correct, and that the truth is we are a flawed personality—not very competent, have a long history of making mistakes, bear an even longer record of missed opportunities, and burned out many relationships because of our neglect and incompetence.

Naturally, all of these voices are eager to justifying their judgments:

  • The critical voice will claim it just wants to help us avoid mistakes that will embarrass us.
  • The pessimistic voice wants us to avoid being impulsive and be more thoughtful about the risks and inherent danger in our proposed plans.
  • The angry voice will remind us that being too nice and helpful leads to unnecessary work and responsibilities.
  • The selfish voice reminds us that we have suffered too much already, and we really need to take is easy and be kind to ourself.
  • The guilty voice in us reminds us that we are not really very good at anything and that our best option is to withdraw and not be involved in any further demonstration of our incompetence.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to ignore the content of these voices, because there is often a grain of truth in what they say.

Read more: Explore the different types of negative self-talk, how to identify them and overcome their triggers.

First Steps To Managing Our Inner Critic

Often, the sabotage of these voices is obvious and overt. Other times we may not be aware of how they subtly undermine our mood, zest for life, creativity, and general self-expression. Fortunately, we can learn to manage these forces, but first, we need to recognize them for the harm they create rather than by the excuses they offer for their presence.

But before we launch into constructive techniques for subduing our inner critic, we must beware a common and automatic reaction many have for attacking what they oppose. Some people habitually deal with irritating situations with a burst of outrage. Literally or figuratively, they try to use some version of a stick to beat the perceived enemy. This choice for managing our inner critic or grump or wimp will only irritate and strengthen it—not defeat it. After all, the inner critic is a part of ourself and we can be injured by overzealous measures to discipline the parts we dislike.

1. Recognizing The Presence Of The Inner Critic

The first step for managing our inner critic and its cousins is to recognize the presence of these sabotaging voices. Be mindful that they may not be an actual voice we hear. More commonly they manifest as the general mood that undermines our enthusiasm, assertiveness, and clarity of thought.

Recognizing the subtlety of this inhibiting mood and mindset can be difficult. Discerning the depth of the inner critic’s harm may require that we become detached from the daily “noise” of usual activities. This will facilitate achieving a more thoughtful state where we can monitor

  • our stream of consciousness and the relation between outer events and our habitual reactions or assumptions, and 
  • the underlying beliefs and rules we use to arrive at key interpretations and conclusions.

Read more: Recognizing is the first step of the R.A.I.N. method for radical compassion. Tara Brach explains how to use R.A.I.N. how to practice RAIN to flourish self-compassion.

Many people have this procedure on autopilot. They allow old beliefs (and prejudices and stereotypes) to control this process. But it is not smart to assume all our old beliefs and standards for evaluating ourself serve us so well that we do not need revisions.

And so, the first step to take about our inner critic and its cousins is to be aware of their presence in our stream of consciousness—especially in their more pervasive influence on our basic mood and outlook on life. Many who are sincere about this self- examination are amazed to discover that their fundamental outlook has reset itself to be more cynical, moody, or discouraged than it used to be.

Read more: Clinical psychologist Tara Cousineau explains how to approach the inner critic with respect and learn to understand its motivation.

2. Gathering Our Strenghts To Transform Our Inner Critic

The second step to managing our inner critic is to gather our strengths rather than planning an attack on the critic. In fact, this next step might be the only one needed to conquer the inner critic. Collecting our strengths is accomplished by becoming mindful of our actual talents, achievements, and problems we have overcome. These become the undeniable accomplishments that justify basic self-approval and self-confidence about our life and what we do. This overview includes the fact that there are also areas where improvement is needed, but these do not represent our fundamental worth.

Some people have difficulty finding much that is worthwhile in their life experience. This often occurs in individuals who have become obsessed by their many disappointing moments and wounds they bear. Yet, if they practice some detachment to remove their dark perspective, they invariably find many parts of their life that can be treasured. This can include aspects of their health, relationships, career, friends, possessions, knowledge, and skills. These are the elements that validate our worth and enable us to feel proud and successful.

Beware that as soon as we begin to count the many wonderful aspects of our life our inner critic may act up and remind us of our faults. For example, the critic might make much of the fact of our occasional sore back and tendency to worry, as if this nullifies our claim of basic health for our body. This is when our department of common sense must insist that we cannot allow a backache or a few worries speak for our entire health. The fact that our vital organs are working well and we are easily able to manage our domestic and career duties is the proper evidence for determining our healthy status.

Our inner critic may revert to its usual tricks to discourage and inhibit us. Its most favorite way to sabotage us is to make too much of one or two weaknesses and then generalize about them to conclude that we truly are weak and inadequate.

Looking for the reasons why life is worthwhile will provide the evidence of our enduring worth. These are the genuine results, achievements, abilities that will survive the deadly attack of the nastiness of our inner critic, the condemnation of those who hate us or are jealous of us, and any of those groups who reject us on sight merely because of our gender, race, class or politics—in other words, the real bigots.

By considering our core strengths in this manner we will be connecting with our power to transcend anyone’s opinion, prejudice, or delusion—including the inner critic. This is how we return to our most basic and obvious strong points and worth. From here we can sort out the diverse opinions and advice we have received in our past and decide which parts are valid, exaggerated, or ridiculous.

3. To Err Is Human. Get Over It!

The third major step we need to take to manage our inner critic, inner grump, or inner wimp is this. Many people make the mistake of automatically energizing their inner critic by over-identifying with their flaws, mistakes, and failures. Then they magnify this mistake by presuming this marks us as exceptionally incompetent, stupid, and clumsy.

The cure for this excess is to calmly realize two points. First, to err is human. We all must pass through a learning curve. No one ties their shoelaces effectively the first time. No one spells Czechoslovakia correctly most of the time. No one masters a computer or piano the first week. We all have to go through a learning curve to achieve practical competence.

Remember this fact when we find ourself lamenting some mistake or defeat.

How Often Must We Act With Perfection?

It should surprise no one that we can be effective and productive at many things and enjoy them without being an expert. Leave the pursuit of extraordinary excellence to those few who need this level of expertise, e. g., diamond cutters and brain surgeons—unless you really want to be a neurotic perfectionist.

It is also realistic to acknowledge that multiple minor flaws and failures are universal. Everyone has these types of experiences. No one escapes these situations and frustrations. We are not some miserable outlier amidst a crowd of people who are all geniuses and saints. Get over the notion that we are so outstandingly bad that people stop and stare at us as they pass us on the sidewalk or in stores. The fact is, we are not that bad! It is all part of being human and aspiring to be better.

Beware Overdosing On Guilt

A word now for the very, very religious people. All of these suggestions also prepare us to be more receptive and responsive to our divine opportunities, gifts, and strengths. It is a mistake to assume faith and surrender will be enough to activate all of our divine possibilities. Much more is needed.

The great mistake many sincere individuals make about pursuing a strong connection with the divine is to rely excessively on aspects of humility to achieve this attunement. Thus, they labor under the false assumption that self-rejection, guilt, and being empty are what make us more responsive to the divine. This is why they are often complacent about feeling inferior, worthless, and helpless. This is total nonsense. A newborn child is already at the maximum of emptiness and having no resistance to the divine.

What connects us to our higher self and the divine is competence in knowledge, skills, and awareness. It is this plus our devotion, curiosity, acceptance, and eagerness that enables us to explore, know more, do more, and grow in awareness, love, and joy. It is this commitment to these noble qualities and purposes that enable us to both experience the divine and express it in wonderful deeds. All of these factors make us responsive to the life of spirit and its healing and transforming power.

There are more details to provide about this, but this will be given in the next discourse.

Think on these things.

Meditation. Free.