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by Rob Brookler
We all know it, only too well. It’s that inner voice, that “inner critic,” that seems always present and always keenly prepared to defeat us. When we feel happy, the voice says: “Yeah, this can’t last.” When we’re about to attempt something, it whispers: “Watch out. You’re gonna fail.” And when we do succeed, the voice dismisses: “That was just luck. It won’t happen again.”
It’s an insidious, negative and negating voice. It’s a background chorus of doubt. Certainly if such constant nagging and ridicule came from another, we would flee from this person. But how do we address a critic that we can’t escape … and one that speaks with our own voice?
The answer to this question can be found in what this “inner critic” does … or aims to do. By criticizing us, this voice seeks to constrain us. By being unrelenting in this criticism, it seeks to keep us always worried, always on our guard. It undermines our belief in ourselves and our life so we will not act, not risk, not explore, not believe. It is a constricting voice, pulling us back. It is a voice of fear.
When such a voice comes from outside, it is seeking to gain power over us. When the fearful voice comes from inside us, it is in large part a survival mechanism.
So, from what danger is the voice trying to protect us? Pain, disappointment, rejection, fear. Or, more precisely, the memory of these. Part of the mind’s role, the more primal part, is to protect us from danger. It’s “hard-wired” for our survival. To this end, it “records” vividly the past incidents and situations that seemed to endanger us. And, when we approach similar situations, the mind “plays back” the fear or injury to remind us to pull back, to be on guard.
But while this survival mechanism works well in keeping us from real and fundamental dangers (e.g., we pull back from the hot stove, having associated the action with the physical pain), it does not serve us when it holds us back from “dangers” we are intended to outgrow.
Indeed, the painful experiences our minds record most vividly are from our earliest years: our infancy, our childhood, even our teens. During these early formative years, we were understandably overwhelmed by the world. In our infancy, we were completely dependent; and, as such, we justly interpreted the slightest physical or emotional discomfort as a very threat to our existence.
In our childhood, any sense of separation (from parents or other comforting things) triggered real and visceral panic; and, any sense of disapproval might be interpreted as complete rejection. Later, in our adolescence, disappointments that would now seem minor felt then like our world was collapsing.
Certainly, we know now that we are no longer infants or children. But because these “traumas” occurred during our most basic developmental years – when our minds were literally "looking" for patterns and associations to make sense of ourselves and our world – these fear associations can become almost instinctual and unconscious … and often fixed in time.
So while we may now be grown up, this part of our mind, through the inner critic, is “protecting” us as though we were still children and in actual danger. In effect, this “inner critic” is speaking from the past and as though these early “traumas” existed in present time. This “inner critic” is a very young voice, a wounded voice.
So, when we do – or even consider doing – something that triggers this old association with danger (or disappointment, rejection, loss, etc.), this wounded part awakens, panics, and starts to vocalize. It will “play back” the original trauma to prevent us from re-injury.
To the extent that the original trauma involved personal rejection and impacted our early “sense of self,” the voice will actually play the role of the perceived attacker: anything to control and safeguard this wounded place and keep it from further outside attack. In other words, our inner voice will actually attack us – picking at any insecurity, any chink in our armor – in order to drive up our own defenses. And so the stream of fear and invective sounds off within us.
Not surprisingly then, arguing with the “inner critic” does little. Why? Because it isn’t really a rational voice. It’s not trying to reason with us. In fact, it wants to engage us. It wants to keep our attention because by distracting and engaging us, it gains control. By attacking and “scaring” us, it keeps the upper hand and holds us back.
So how do we deal with this offensive/defensive inner voice?
Since this voice is essentially that of the “insecure child,” our best response is to be the calm, strong parent. Again, this “critical voice” is not a reasoning voice. It may speak with our familiar adult voice, but it’s really just a scared, distressed child. And like an actual insecure child, this young, wounded part is looking for calm, confident reassurance.
And this confident, reassuring voice must be ours. Why? Because by demonstrating our strength, we prove to this wounded part that we (and it) are not in danger. We disarm the “survival mechanism” by showing that we’ve outgrown this danger, that we survived this “trauma” and are strong enough to face any further challenge.
This strength, by the way, should not be shown through anger and antagonism towards this wounded part … as it will interpret this as further validation of its unsafety and rejection. By being angry or oppositional, we’re only showing that we’re threatened, not strong. No, it needs to see and feel our composure and strength. In response to this young, fearful voice, we need to be the calm, grown-up voice.
Often there is also an emotional “charge” to the original trauma, which the wounded part remembers and holds on to (being frozen in time). So, as we hear the fearful voice, we may also feel our adrenaline pump, our voices tremble, our hearts sink, our anger swell – all those responses that accompanied the original experience. Again, our body and mind are very good at memorizing, associating, and later recalling these “survival” reactions.
But just like our “inner critic,” these emotional-physical responses are speaking to us from the past. And we begin to disempower these wounded patterns as soon as we recognize this – as soon as we identify these “alarms” as mere echoes, not signals of present danger. As convincing as these emotions may feel, by consciously acknowledging them as past rather than “reacting” to them as real and present, these patterns – like the voice of our “inner critic” – will begin to fade.
As mentioned at the outset of this discussion, the “inner critic” seems persuasive in large part because it speaks with our own voice. In fact, it does not. Our “inner critic” speaks from a place and time in our past when we felt like we were not enough. It is not a whole or true voice. And, if anything, it is calling to us for our true voice.
As we see this “critical voice” for what it is and begin to disempower it, our true voice becomes ever clearer and louder. How do we distinguish our true voice? Our true voice will never speak to us in fear and judgment. Our true voice will never be separate from us, speaking against us. Our true voice will speak from our strength. It will speak to us calmly, compassionately, and patiently … knowing that we are always enough.
Ultimately, whether it comes from within or without, the voice of fear and criticism can assert its power only where we have surrendered our own. It can and will speak only where we do not. So do not see the “inner critic” as a nuisance or an actual enemy, something to war with or be afraid of. See it instead as an internal signal calling you to a place where you need to bring more of your balance, healing, and strength – more of who you truly are.
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