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‘I can see more grey hair, a few frown lines and a body that has most definitely seen perkier days’. These are the thoughts that come to me first and most frequently when I look in the mirror. It’s a struggle to see, really see, the person behind all of the negative criticism. And the criticism doesn’t end there. No way, not by a mile.
Criticism creeps in when I least expect it. Today, I was spending the last day of the winter holidays with my two kids, when suddenly ‘you’re a really crap mum, you can’t even spend the last day doing something nice with them, you have to take them shopping’. The day had started badly, after a broken night’s sleep and the starting of a sore throat, with temperatures in the minus a walk in nature seemed, well, frankly incomprehensible. From that point the day nose-dived in a rather kamikaze like way and culminated in the TV being used as a baby-sitter, as I handed out chocolate. Hence-forth an almost continuous stream of internal abuse bombarded me. My inner critic had full control.
Our critics can be rather intrusive, cruel and more than a little destructive. Unchecked and at their most severe they can be the reason for a range of mental health disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, alcoholism and agoraphobia to name but a few.
What is an inner critic?
So what do I mean exactly by inner critic? Well firstly we all have an inner critic and they are characterised by very negative inner dialogue. A critic will often begin a sentence with ‘should, shouldn’t and ought to’ and bring with it a crashing sense of failure or even just a vague feeling of not quite meeting the mark in some way. I have had clients whose inner dialogue is just a constant stream of criticism and judgement, without them really being aware of it. It is essentially a personified aspect of our psyche.
The inner critic is termed a sub-personality in the psychotherapeutic world. I often describe sub-personalities as being similar to the different ‘hats’ we wear when we are involved in various tasks, for example when we are going to work we wear a different hat to the one we wear at a family gathering. However, the inner critic often falls into a much more subconscious category.
An inner critic is sometimes quite hard to spot, probably because we’ve been living with it for such a long time. In fact our critic will have been created in our early years, before the age of seven. We internalise the voice of the adults around us as a way to protect ourselves, so we can avoid danger and conform to society’s expectations. So the critic can have a positive function too. However, as an adult the critic can often become far too powerful but, unfortunately, we can’t simply stamp it out. Nothing in the psyche is ever that easy. We have to become aware of the moments it appears and the reason for its judgments. We have to befriend it.
Recognising your inner critic
This exercise has two parts to it.
1) Grab a pen and paper, then go and sit in front of a mirror. Look at yourself and start to notice any negative criticism that arises. Write anything down that comes up. If nothing negative happens when you look in the mirror, firstly congratulate yourself, secondly think of the last time you did criticise yourself. Now go and sit quietly somewhere and read through your list of criticisms, keeping in mind that behind every negative is a wound needing to be healed. Try not to let your list of criticisms become another reason to criticise yourself, try to keep yourself in a compassionate embrace.
2) Give yourself plenty of time. Sit comfortably, close your eyes and place your feet flat on the floor. Take a few deep breaths. Repeat your criticisms to yourself. Become aware of the feelings in your body when you say these criticisms to yourself. Become aware of any emotions arising as a result of these negative statements. Now allow an image to emerge out of your subconscious to depict this aspect of you. It doesn’t have to be a human figure, it can be an animal or even just a symbol. Now with your pen and paper I invite you to draw this image. After you have drawn it, think about whether it has a name, what clothes it’s wearing. Really bring your character alive. This enables you to identify it more easily, when it rears its ugly head.
Now you have an image of it. You can start to ask it questions such as ‘why do you always criticise me when I do the hoovering’? and then listen to your subconscious for a reply. It can be very revealing. Very often the criticism is masquerading as some sort of need. To take this exercise a step further, you could even try to give yourself the need you are unconsciously after. For example if your critics answer was ‘because I’m worried I won’t get approval from my friends’, try to give yourself the approval you are seeking from others.
Another way of understanding how your inner critic works is to start practicing mindfulness. This can really help to identify the times it appears, the thoughts and feelings that occur and using the same analysis as the exercise above, to understand the reason behind the judgements. I won’t go into detail here about how to practice mindfulness, but read my blog post ‘Meditating with a noisy mind’ which maps the process clearly.
As with everything, the more you learn to recognise your critic, the quicker you will be able to laugh it off. Sometimes it’s even necessary to get really angry with it and shout a few choice words in its direction. There will be some days, like me today, where you may just have to give up and go with it. I have had almost ten years experience of observing the spiky, Punch-like creature that resides in the more exhausted parts of my subconscious. So when he does appear in technicolour, wagging his bony finger, a small part of me can pooh-pooh him, even if I simultaneously reach for the Green and Blacks. And in less exhausted moments I am able to battle for the reigns of my psyche and usually the kinder side of me wins. But, today, I had to just sit there and take it on the chin, chocolate in hand. Perhaps less befriending of it, but more a resigned tolerance of its inane chatter.
I have worked with people who have addressed the following issues: