By Nandini Murali
Thwarted, Ignored or Feared, the inner critic can cripple you. Treated with awareness and compassion, it can be a wonderful guide in the journey called life
The Snow Queen, an allegorical story by Hans Christian Anderson, fascinates me more today than when I first read it as a little girl. It is the story of a wicked hobgoblin who decided to make a looking glass with a difference. This special looking glass distorted everything that was good and beautiful and made it appear ugly and grotesque. In addition it minimised the good and beautiful and highlighted the bad and ugly. Spurred by the success of his invention in the world of humans, the hobgoblin decided to introduce it to the heavens where he hoped the angels, and perhaps, even God, could be deceived!
But when the hobgoblin reached heaven, an invisible force stopped him and the looking glass slipped from his hands. It was smashed into smithereens and sprayed across the world! Although each piece was no bigger than a grain of sand, nevertheless it had all the properties of the whole! If a small splinter lodged inside in the eye of a person, he or she would view everything as bad or ugly! The hobgoblin watched this charade and was filled with wicked mirth! Legend has it that those tiny shards of glass are still being sprayed in the world. It lodges itself in the souls of people, casting a shadow that eclipses the light of our souls.
The splintered mirror is a metaphor for the Inner Critic – the coercive inner voice within us that criticises, condemns, judges, compares, finds fault and assaults us with a fusillade of self-defeating thoughts on a 24/7 basis throughout our lives. Perhaps, the only times when the critical voice turns off is when we are asleep!
What then is the purpose of the much maligned inner critic? How and why did it develop? How do we transform it from foe to a friend and partner in our inner journey?
The inner critic is one of the multiple selves of the psyche. It is a self-critical voice that represents either singly or in combination the voices of authority figures such as one’s parents, teachers, society, and culture. The inner critic is a human internalised dictator of socio-cultural norms or dos and don’ts. In Freudian terms it roughly corresponds to the super ego or moral conscience. Thus the inner critic is a social guide in contrast to the true conscience or inner guide.
The inner critic disapproves of even slight deviation from normative behaviour. It essentially served as a protective mechanism so necessary to impart a sense of direction and act as a guide during our vulnerable childhood. The inner critic ensured our safety, both physical and psychological.
Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone pioneered the concept of voice dialogue – a process of engaging in a compassionate and healing interaction with the inner critic. According to them, the inner critic is one of the many primary selves or personality. This personality is made up of sub personalities or “selves” that help us adapt to the environment. Hal and Sidra Stone term these as “primary selves” “because they are primary in our lives – they determine who we are and how we act.”
Some of the primary selves include the Pleaser (one of the earliest primary selves whose role is to make the other feel wanted and accepted), the Rule Maker (a close ally, a proxy of the inner critic!), the Pusher (a great team mate of the inner critic whose role is to secure recognition for the person), the Perfectionist (an inner self that wants us to look and act perfect all the time).
“Our inner critic is not alone, but will play ball game with any of our primary selves to dominate our lives,” write Hal and Sidra Stone in Embracing Your Inner Critic. We live our lives, most often, in auto pilot, steered and directed by our primary selves. We live life by their rules, and are not aware of our choices and options available. Hal and Sidra Stone term the constellation of primary selves as our Operating Ego.
“When the Operating Ego is in charge, we are not driving our own psychological cars. Instead we are driven by whichever of our primary selves is strongest at the given moment,” write Hal and Sidra Stone.
A twin concept proposed by the Stones is that of the disowned selves. In simple terms, a disowned self is the opposite of a primary self. In Jungian psychology, the disowned selves represent the shadow that must be integrated into the psyche in the journey towards wholeness and freedom. With the exacting precision of a surgeon we try to eradicate or banish those aspects of ourselves that we dislike.
“Most of us have a surgeon’s mentality when it comes to the selves we dislike. We try hard to get rid of our temper, our rage, jealousy, pettiness, shyness, feelings of inadequacy – the list is endless. In an attempt to eradicate these rejected selves, we make them much stronger by driving them into the unconscious where they operate beyond our control. If we learn to step back and allow our awareness to operate, we will not only encounter these selves, but actually realise that our wish to eradicate these patterns is actually the work of another self. We have within ourselves a sub personality (the inner critic) that labels these unwanted selves as detestable and makes us feel absolutely dreadful for having them in the first place,” say Hal and Sidra Stone.
In my own case, I became acutely aware of the presence of the inner critic as an adult, especially after marriage. Of course, the inner critic had been broadcasting (the Stones term it Radio Station KRAZY!) since my childhood its Talibanised strictures on what was acceptable and what was forbidden that I received unquestioningly. As long as I complied robotically with its diktat, all was well in my world. Or so it seemed.
My Primary Selves included being a compulsive people pleaser, a hard core perfectionist, and a relentless pusher. This holy trinity relentlessly drove me on to be more perfect than perfect! They believed in a world of moral absolutes in which the world was only black and white. Shades of grey simply did not exist for me.
I prided myself on being a super woman—a stupendous cook, and homemaker, an excellent professional, an enviable spouse and a fantasy daughter-in-law and daughter. Even a slight deviation from my impossible standards would trigger tsunami “critic attacks.”
For example, I used to be a teacher. By the time I left home for work at 8 am, the home had to look like a five-star hotel, the kitchen as if it had never been used (I would have made an elaborate three-course lunch, besides breakfast), said my prayers religiously, washed and ironed my saris, dressed impeccably and widely regarded as the best teacher in the school for my teaching capabilities! If I fell short on any of these, my inner critic would reprimand, castigate and upbraid me.
The weapons my inner critic used with unerring success were guilt and reproach. I must have earned multiple PhDs in guilt! My inner critic also took on the role of a moral police, especially in matters of sex and sexuality. I aspired to be an impossible combination of Sita and Savitri! If I fell short of my exacting standards, I felt a colossal failure! My critic had no words of praise – every time I came near its impossible standards, the bar was raised higher! In short, I was my worst critic.
When I realised that a voice within me was running my life, I seriously began to wonder whether I had auditory hallucinations! That was my wake-up call; my moment of epiphany.
“Once you realise that this is the voice of your inner critic, that radio station KRAZY is playing, then you have choices and it is possible that you begin to take greater control over this area of your life. You can learn to turn down the volume or turn off the radio. You can learn to change to another station. Eventually, you can even learn to change the nature of the programming on this station. You can learn to change the behaviour and attitude of the inner critic. First, however, you must learn to hear the music,” say Hal and Sidra Stone.
K Anandh, Chennai-based psychotherapist, agrees that we need to have a realistic appraisal of the role of the inner critic. It is myopic to either be dismissive or brand the inner critic as demonic or counterproductive.
“As an inner guide, the inner critic has a valid function. We do need guidelines and in this sense the inner critic is a self that should not be decommissioned. The intentions of the inner critic are always positive. It becomes destructive when it becomes a negative critic, tyrannical, curtails freedom and thereby generates guilt,” he says.
Can’t beat em, join em
Experts suggest several strategies to befriend the inner critic. These include dialoguing, journaling, meditating, attention shift, and using the non-dominant hand to answer questions posed to the inner critic.
“One way to make the client aware of the inner critic is to educate the client before the session about it and encourage the client to ignore the inner critic. A second is to make the client go into a witnessing state of awareness and watch the inner critic as well as other aspects of the self. Generally, when the client witnesses the inner critic in a non-judgemental state, the inner critic transforms,” says Dr Newton Kondaveti, well-known past-life regression therapist.
How then do we make the inner critic an intelligent, perceptive and supportive ally in our personal growth? How do we transform the inner critic from a crippling adversary to a productive ally?
The first step involves the recognition that we are not the inner critic or any of our primary selves. As in every process of sustainable personal growth and transformation, awareness is the key.
“The inner critic is an ally in personal growth. What we deny is going to be a stumbling block. When the inner critic is embraced, it merges into the Greater Self in us and helps us ground ourselves. The inner critic is an important aspect of our Total Self,” says Dr Newton Kondaveti.
Hal and Sidra Stone say that this individuation or separation from the primary selves is vital in developing what they term the Aware Ego. “The Aware Ego is not a self. It is a ‘you’ that is not dominated by any self or a set of selves. It is able to contain all the opposites that you are, to accept and to honour them appropriately. It moves you beyond duality. It is both a process and a goal,” write the psychologists.
They use the interesting analogy of a car to explain the process of reclaiming our uniqueness and disengaging from the tyranny of the inner critic. “We take control of the car from the primary selves, unlock the disowned selves from the trunk and drive our own psychological car with all the selves as passengers!”
Dr TS Radhakrishnan, Chennai-based psychotherapist and transactional analysis practitioner and trainer, also avers that the inner critic is part of our personality.
“As our personality is based on our childhood responses to the then world, still residing in us as habits/ script decisions, etc, the inner critic can also be a part of our adaptation, rather than of our awareness – these two being the polar opposites of our self. Hence the ‘awareness’ levels will have to be enhanced to compensate for the adaptations,” says Dr Radhakrishnan.
Personally, my own process of forging a meaningful and compassionate relationship with my inner critic has been painful and challenging but ultimately transformative. As I gradually began to separate and release myself from its stranglehold, and integrate my inner critic and acknowledge it as an inner guide (but it is I who make the decisions) I freed my spontaneity and aliveness that was shackled and fettered.
I have now excavated several “lost” pleasures. Yes, these include wildlife trips, watching butterflies and birds, photography, and writing my novel – not in stolen moments but consciously giving myself the time and space to do so without the familiar burden of guilt deriding me for “wasting my time!” And before I forget, it also includes delegating cooking to my trained maid and never mind, my home doesn’t always have to look like a five-star hotel! The process has been liberating and healing; enabling me to glimpse the light within my soul.
Most of us begin the journey towards personal growth based on the premise that we are imperfect and flawed. No, we are not in need of correction, but just need a powerful tele lens to zoom in on the magnificence of our souls. I am reminded of a meaningful desert proverb: “Listen to the path. It is wiser than s/he who travels it.”
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