We all have an active inner critic. It’s a force of human nature that I can, in whimsical moments, visualize as the leader of an outlaw trio that includes the gun-slinging desperado, Yosemite Sam, and his fellow Looney Tunes cartoon character, the ferocious, dim-witted Tasmanian Devil.
There’s nothing comic or funny, however, about having an active inner critic. It might be more accurately depicted as the leader of a trio that includes Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. It produces much of humanity’s anxiety, fear, and depression. The inner critic can operate inside us like a cruel aggressive tyrant whose intent is to rule our life. Subduing or taming it could be the most heroic thing we ever do.
That process can be accomplished in four steps. First, we must become aware of our inner critic. A lot of people don’t even know they have one, though they might be suffering acutely from its influence. We want to notice how and when it intrudes into our life. Second, we begin to understand that our inner critic is a big fat liar. Third, we start to realize how we tend to be passive to it, how we let it get away with harassing, belittling, and punishing us. Fourth, we learn how to stand up to it. Our stronger sense of self and growing inner authority begin to subdue it. Here’s how we can make this happen:
Step One – Our inner critic dishes out self-aggression. We all have aggressive energy, and ideally we learn to channel it in creative, constructive ways. But we have to be emotionally strong and healthy to keep our aggressive energy from becoming a negative force, both in terms of how we relate to others and in terms of how, on an inner level, we relate to ourselves.
When our inner critic is acting up and intruding into our mental and emotional life, we want to try to realize that this is occurring. People often don’t experience the inner critic in any conscious way. The stream of negativity that emanates from it can do much of its mischief entirely at an unconscious level. Even though our inner critic is a callous bully, it can go unnoticed, like a little ant walking across a carpet. In such instances, we can detect its presence through feelings or thoughts we might be having that are defensive in nature. Examples include, “Nobody is perfect,” “I had no choice,” and “It wasn’t my fault.” Such defensive thoughts are produced when our inner critic is in attack mode.
Step Two – Recognize that the inner critic is a blatant liar. It has no interest in our wellbeing. Nor does it care about the truth. All it cares about is the expression of its primitive, aggressive energy. It only wants to lord it over us and hold us accountable. It wants us to be passive to it and to feel guilt and shame at its judgments and condemnations.
On occasion, the inner critic comes after us with allegations or accusations that seem to have some basis in fact. For instance, you might have said or done something foolish. Normally, you make note of any apparent foolishness on your part, and you resolve to do better in the future. The inner critic, however, is prepared to berate you mercilessly for the transgression and go on indefinitely doing so. The inner critic declares, “You were a fool to say that!” or “You should know better!” It gladly makes a felony out of some misdemeanor and blows it out of proportion.
It’s important to get a feel for the way our inner critic manipulates the truth. A big part of how we vanquish our inner critic is by seeing clearly just how irrational and cruel it really is. Again, suppose you did something foolish. Now imagine that a good friend talks to you about it. He or she would try to be helpful or supportive, and maybe have advice on how that behavior could be avoided in the future. In contrast, the inner critic lashes out cruelly, holds you accountable, and punishes you. As a general rule, discount anything the inner critic says or implies. It simply can’t be trusted to represent the truth or to care about your wellbeing.
Step Three –We begin to become aware of how, on an inner level, we’re passive and defensive with our inner critic. As a primitive, aggressive part of our psyche, it will rule our inner life if we let it. It whips out aggression like a scorpion snaps its stinger. To empower ourselves, we become conscious of the part of our psyche that is passive to it. I call this part inner passivity. This part of us occupies a zone in our psyche that psychoanalysis has called the subordinate ego. It’s a region of your psyche that hasn’t yet been claimed or secured by our consciousness. We need to understand this inner passivity in order to get the full scoop on our inner critic.
Not only is our inner passivity an enabler of the inner critic, it is very much ready and willing to play that role. All it knows is the instinct to be passive and defensive. It always operates from a position of weakness because, for one thing, it’s intimidated by the inner critic. Much of the fear that people feel has its roots in this inner dynamic.
Many people, in their sense of self, become the voice and experience of inner passivity. They see themselves, others, and the world through the “eyes” of inner passivity. They easily feel victimized and they identify with people who they feel are being victimized. (This identification with the victim is not an experience of compassion. Compassion involves being heart-felt and loving, so it’s not a painful feeling. Compassion is likely to inspire people to respond effectively to help reform situations. In contrast, experiences that are influenced by inner passivity tend to be painful and are more likely to produce apathy or paralysis.)
Step Four – As we bring inner passivity into focus, we become aware of how we have been far too accommodating to our inner critic. We start to feel how we can now stand up to it. We do this not by enlisting inner passivity as an ally but by experiencing our authentic self as it emerges out of the conflict between the inner critic and inner passivity.
We identify with inner passivity one moment, the inner critic the next. Our weak sense of self is buffeted back and forth between the polarities. We’re weakened when trapped in that conflict because too much of our sense of self is smothered or consumed by the influences of those two parties to the conflict. The conflict also binds up considerable energy that would otherwise be employed for useful, creative, and pleasurable pursuits.
When we see the conflict, we can manage through our intelligence not to participate in it. We’re no longer inwardly defensive. We demote the inner critic to being just a minor nuisance, saying in effect: “Go away! I don’t take you seriously anymore!” In this process of liberating ourselves from the negative inner critic, we see more clearly the irrationality of both the aggressive and the passive sides of the inner conflict.
We now evolve away from conflict toward greater harmony. With the inner critic no longer able to get away with its belittling harassment, we acquire a fuller sense of our integrity and goodness. We begin to feel our sense of authority. We stop second-guessing ourselves. Self-doubt evaporates. We trust ourselves more. We believe in ourselves and in our value.