Have you noticed an ongoing commentary in the back of your mind that points out every mistake, omission, and fault you’ve made or might make? Most of us have it, commonly labeled the Inner Critic. You may have already noticed that arguing with your Inner Critic only leads to louder criticism, possibly about how self-critical you are. This article covers some of the reasons for that voice to exist, and some ways of moderating its harshness so that its positive effects can come through.
Rules to keep us safe
As we grow up, we internalize rules for our own behavior to keep us safe and save us from embarrassment. From “wear matching socks” to “stop at red lights” to “avoid him when he’s drunk,” our rules help us navigate a complex interpersonal world. The Inner Critic initially plays a helpful role in reminding us of the rules and making sure we follow them.
Frozen in time
Problems can arise when our rules become frozen in time, as can happen with unresolved trauma. If “avoid him when he’s drunk” comes from growing up with an abusive alcoholic, it may not apply to the company holiday party. The party stops being fun if the Inner Critic starts wildly criticizing clothing, behavior, and everything else in an attempt to get out of there.
Agitated nervous system
Unresolved trauma also raises the activity level of the nervous system, so that the body is continually prepared to take emergency action. This leads to a feeling of, “Something is wrong!” and the Inner Critic steps in with an urgent rundown of mistakes and failings in an attempt to explain the feeling and fix the problem.
Proceed gently, with support
Resolving trauma that is held in the body is an ongoing process. As you tune in to your body and your inner self with the suggestions below, you may connect with upsetting information about past trauma. Especially at the beginning, it is important to proceed gently and with support, preferably from someone trained in body-centered trauma therapy.
Starting the conversation
Much of the Inner Critic’s harshness comes from concerns about safety, as well as the urgent need to be heard. It can help to notice the Inner Critic’s voice, and gently inquire into the underlying reason for panic. Awareness grows gradually over time, working backwards from the effect to the trigger.
- Start by noticing your body sensations when the Inner Critic is active. Does your stomach hurt? Do your shoulders hunch? Do you feel ashamed or defensive?
- As these sensations become familiar over time, start noticing the messages behind the sensations. Sometimes these messages are shockingly abusive, using insults we would never allow from the outside. Rephrasing the messages in respectful language can offer the Inner Critic a broader range of tools for communication, as well as affirming your right to respectful treatment.
- Once you’re hearing the Inner Critic’s messages clearly, you can pay attention to the situation that triggers them. You can ask inside about what’s frightening, and what needs to happen to make the situation less frightening. It is important to take thoughtful action on the information you receive, even if it appears to be all about the past, since it’s impossible to tell in the moment. Maybe that co-worker does behave badly when he’s drunk, and it really is time to leave the party.
As the Inner Critic gains confidence that you’re paying attention and keeping yourself safe, it won’t need to yell so loudly or abusively. As communication improves, the Inner Critic will also “thaw out” some of those frozen rules, and respond more to the present than to the past.
Quieting the nervous system
At the same time that you’re noticing and establishing communication with your Inner Critic, it is helpful to do a regular activity to calm the body and lessen that overall feeling of threat and agitation. As the nervous system quiets down with yoga, meditation, bodywork, or body-centered trauma therapy, the feeling of impending doom is reduced, and the Inner Critic, with less to explain, also quiets down.
What to do Right Now
Both of the previous suggestions can take months to bear fruit. When interactions with the Inner Critic are spiraling into paralyzing anxiety, an immediate intervention is needed.
For me, the magic words are “I am already doing the right thing.” This simple sentence creates quiet out of chaos, and lets me notice what I want to do next.
It also opens the door to viewing situations in new ways. As I explore the possibility that I really am already doing the right thing, I notice ways in which that’s true, and my Inner Critic calms down. After all, her goal is to make me do the right thing. If I’m already doing that, she can relax and doesn’t need to yell at me about it. It’s a relief all around.
Try it now
Try it for yourself and see what happens. “I am already doing the right thing.” Breathe it in. Believe it for a moment, and allow yourself to explore the ways in which it might be true. Notice how your body responds.
Gaining an ally
Converting the Inner Critic from enemy to ally can lead to huge improvements in quality of life. As you tune in to internal signals, you’ll turn old rules into a flexible set of guidelines for making choices that work best for you. You will be well rewarded for the patience and work required to make the shift, as brief moments of calm turn into long stretches of peace.
Robyn Posin writes eloquently about making peace with her inner Hatchet Lady. Her website www.forthelittleonesinside.com has been an inspiration on my journey and a source for some of the ideas in this article.