The Inner Critic
Like many people, perhaps you are aware of having inner thoughts that are critical of who you are or what you've done. These thoughts are usually some version of "you're not worthy," or "you're incompetent," or "you're unloveable," and so on. This is the inner critic and the impact of it's messages can be anywhere from annoying to devastating, significantly affecting our relationships, career and self esteem.
The inner critic is a program that was useful for ensuring our survival as a young child. It’s an internalized voice, usually of a parent, that we developed to keep us alive by focusing our attention on our parents expectations and away from ourselves. Unfortunately the imperative is to keep us alive at any cost; think shame, guilt, judgment, depression, and low self-esteem.
Also unfortunately, there is no software update or delete function for this program. As far as I know, we’re stuck with this voice for the rest of our life, but we can learn to counteract the attack of the inner critic and minimize its affect.
The inner critic does not like to be noticed or challenged. It prefers to influence our lives quietly in the background. Here are two exercises that you can do to recognize and challenge the inner critic. You can do both of them at the same time if you want.
Learning to notice the inner critic… Get yourself a notebook or someplace you can keep notes. When you recognize the inner critic attacking, take note of:
Notice how many inner critic attacks you catch in one day. It’s not unusual for there to be so many attacks that you can’t make note of them all. Now notice the details. What is the general message of the attacks? When do they tend to happen? What are you being “protected” from - interacting with others, the risk of failure, something else? Whose “voice” does the attack sound like? If you can do this for a few days or a week, you’ll get lots of good information and just the noticing will change your relation with the inner critic.
If you’re ready for a challenge, try challenging the inner critic… The next time the inner critic is attacking, yell out loud something like, “That’s not helpful, go away!” or even “Get the **** out of my head!” You have to match or exceed the energy of the message, so put some oomph behind it - yell like you mean it! If the inner critic doesn’t stop, try again - remember you have to be more committed to ending the critical messages than it is to continuing the critical message. Be sure to notice if the voice of the inner critic stops.
I hope this gives you some insight and control over the inner critic and it's messages.
Anger, Fear and Secondary Emotions
The other day I was driving, and as I slowed down to take a corner, the driver of the car behind me aggressively laid into his horn. I became instantly angry. There was no time to identify the trigger and choose a response; I just went from zero to furious in the blink of an eye and executed a near simultaneous rude hand gesture without making any conscious choice. Instantly regretting it, I wondered, What just happened?
As I reviewed the incident in my mind I saw a fleeting moment of fear that happened after I heard the honk. It makes sense; a horn indicates someone’s idea of danger and danger elicits fear and I was focused on turning the corner, not what was going on behind me. But where did the anger come from?
We are all conditioned in how we respond to anger. Anger is often called a “secondary emotion” because, much of the time, anger is covering over another emotion that, for some reason, isn’t acceptable to some part of us. A lot of families had some sort of unspoken rule about anger like, “anger is the main way we communicate” or “no one is allowed to be angry” or “daddy can be angry but no one else can” or “we’re not angry, we’re nice.” These rules from our childhood can affect us into our adulthood.
On top of this there is a cultural norm in the US that anger is a “strong” emotion and therefore, it’s OK to express as opposed to all those “weak” emotions like sadness, fear, shame, and guilt. While this applies generally to everyone in this culture, it’s especially true for males. I had, in a completely automatic and conditioned reaction, covered my fear with anger and attacked the other driver rather than simply feeling the fear.
The main technique in de-conditioning ourselves is to recognize what’s going on. In our recognition distance from the conditioned response is created and we have access to more options in how we respond. After all, it’s my fear and my anger and my response. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the other person; the other person is just there coincidentally, a handy screen to project my conditioning on.
I hope you find this helpful…
Self Esteem in Action
A friend in my men’s group said something this morning that kind of blew my mind. He said, “self-esteem is not a judgment, it’s an action.” Usually when we think of self-esteem we think of feeling better – a subjective evaluation of how I think I’m doing. My friend is suggesting that self-esteem is me treating myself well, that the focus needs to be on the action – the feeling will come on its own.
It’s worth looking at the definition of esteem, which is “to have respect and admiration…” for the object of our esteem. It’s not about how the object of our esteem feels! The definition is about the one doing the esteeming, not about the person being esteemed!
Hang in here a moment – this means esteem is a gift or honoring that comes from outside of the person being esteemed… Which makes self-esteem seem a little tricky. This question will help pull it together:
“Do I respect and admire myself?”
What is it to respect and admire? The first thing I notice is that respect and admire are both verbs, which reinforces my friend’s original observation. Now, what are some of the qualities of respect and admiration?
When I respect someone I let them be who they are, I don’t try to tell them what to do, I support them without judgment, I let them have their own experience, I try to withhold my unsolicited advice. When I admire someone I see in them an example of what I’d like to be, and sometimes through that vision, I become aware of my own gifts and shortcomings and am inspired to be better.
Now I can ask:
Do I let myself be who I am?
Do I support myself without judgment?
Do I allow myself to experience my life as it is?
Am I an example of who I’d like to be?
Am I aware of my shortcomings?
Do I inspire myself to be better?
These questions take me beyond merely feeling better about myself, and point down a wider path that I can begin to walk: I can take action. I can choose to do the better, the right, the healthier thing. I can catch myself when I judge myself harshly. I can give myself a break. I can give myself encouragement instead listening to my inner critic. I can open myself to challenges and opportunities rather than shutting down or trying to control. I can be grateful for where I am and from where I’ve come. I can notice my growing edge and step up to it. And I can look at myself in the mirror and be OK with who I see.
It’s helpful for me to remember that this is a journey and an exploration, not a checklist. This is learning skillful means – an action to practice, not something to convince myself about.
I hope you find this helpful…
Over the years I have encountered a few stories that really speak to me. This story reminds me to hold lightly my ideas about “THE WAY THINGS ARE” and to remember that there are forces at work that I don’t know about.
Once there was a farmer who lived with his son and one day they found a beautiful white horse. The people of the village said, “Such a beautiful horse, you are so lucky!” The farmer gave the horse a handful of grain and said, “We’ll see…”
Sometime later the son and the horse were clearing a field when the horse took fright, and the son fell and broke his arm. The villagers said, “Oh, too bad your son broke his arm, that horse was bad luck after all.” The farmer took his son to the doctor and said, “We’ll see…”
A week later the army came to the village and conscripted all the young men except the farmer’s son who had a broken arm. The villagers said, “You’re so lucky, your son didn’t have to go to war!” Putting a saddle on the horse the farmer said, “We’ll see…”
As humans we have meaning-making minds, but in this story the farmer declines to presume he knows what events mean. In his openness, the farmer demonstrates great skill in riding the wave of existence, staying in the present moment without grasping at this or that.
Sometimes in my life difficult situations arise, situations that I’m likely to judge as dire before I even take a moment to breathe. One of my growing edges is to wait and see…
Of Trees, Change, and Space
If you’re in counseling or thinking about starting counseling, you probably want to change something in your life. Some changes are straightforward, like the new software program you have to use at work, and some changes get hung up in our psychology. We can tell the changes that get hung up because we get distracted when we try to implement them or the change doesn’t last very long. “Getting more exercise” fits in this category for a lot of people. When we try to “just do it” or reward ourselves in order to change we often end up feeling frustrated, discouraged and judged by ourselves and others. If change were a matter of just making a decision and acting, we’d all be happy and wealthy, right?
What if satisfying, long-lasting change wasn’t about imposing some new idea about how we “should be” but was about being more of who we actually are? This approach to change asks that we become more fully invested in where we are now rather than focusing forward into the future. When we are present in this moment the next step (change) arises naturally from the spaciousness of our acceptance. Just like a journey; we don’t start a journey at the end, we have to be at the beginning first and proceed step by step. If the beginning is done well, the whole trip will be more satisfying.
Allowing natural change by nurturing spaciousness means accepting ourselves as we are now and lightly holding the change we’d like to make. A tree doesn’t grow (change) with a goal in mind, “My goal is to be 100 feet tall!” It just grows (changes) from one moment to the next as tall as its biology and environment will allow. Of course people aren’t trees but maybe, rather than trying to force some idea we have about where we should be, we can practice allowing what’s next to show itself and go from there.
For more on this you can check out:
The Paradoxical Theory of Change, Arnold Beisser, M.D.
Scott Nighbor, MA, LMHC
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