Critics and How to Face Them: Part 1 – Inner

‘Tis the season for trying new things! But how often do we start something with the gusto of New Year energy, only to be swiftly met with a barrage of discouraging voices?

The mere whiff of New Year enthusiasm brings my inner critics to the yard like it’s two-for-one on stop-me smoothies.

“What’s going on here?” “A downward dog? They need a lot of looking after.” “Kale schmael.” “The Artist’s Way Out, more like.”

Ergo, “You’re going to fall, so why try?” “Who do you think you are?” “You’re going to die.”

Thanks, gang!

We are frenemies of old. They usually hang around on street corners in my mind, clicking their fingers, waiting it out for an ambush. Getting caught between the push and pull of their messy chorus can be compromising. They are like a pointing song gone horribly wrong.

In the past, I thought these voices were me. It turns out, they are not.

When we are little, we get imprinted with lots of voices that are not us. Where do they come from? Parents, family members, teachers, coaches… The way we are spoken to when young people is very important, and we soak it up. Before the age of seven, we are like a sponge – a sponge in a hypnotic trance.

Much gets imprinted on us during these formative years. Some ways we are spoken to become our inner critics.

It is because they are such a time-old bunch of bastards, we can find it hard to see them for what they truly are. Not you.

About a year ago, I did an excellent workshop with Maria Peters on the inner critic. I’d highly recommend taking it if you get the opportunity. Peters explained how our inner critics are designed to keep us safe. We are hardwired to avoid social rejection. In ancient times, social rejection would likely lead to exile. And exile meant certain death.

In modern times it is more likely to lead to increased time with your PlayStation… but we’re still wired the certain-death way.

And even though we’ve created more things to occupy ourselves when alone, it doesn’t mean we’ve staved off loneliness. During the pandemic, periods of lockdowns, isolation and shielding have highlighted to us how much mixing is key to our mental well-being. We are some of the most sociable creatures on this planet.

Over Christmas, I had to isolate myself and by day eight on my own, I was feeling really down. I hadn’t noticed the gradual descent in my mood but what was abundantly clear on my release was what an extraordinary difference having a cup of tea and a chat with a friend made. I leaped from ‘everything is awful and hopeless’, to singing Disney songs around the house.

No, I don’t think there was anything in that tea but a herbal teabag. It’s powerful stuff this socialising.

The look of exile might have changed but the consequences may not be so very different. Our bodies understand that isolation is still dangerous.

It’s possible that part of the thrill of performing on stage is dancing with the risk of social rejection. Seen through this lens, improv becomes an extreme sport. The physical risk may be further removed (although improv injuries do happen), but the historical need to please the crowd is still present within us.

Because of this, on stage, our inner critics can really get in the way, particularly in improv where we want to fall into creative flow states and not be pestered by an inner scaredy-cat.

Sometimes I feel like the practice of improvising is a sneaky attempt to outrun my inner critics. Things happen at lightning-fast speed, so my street corner gang hasn’t always got their act together in time before it’s all over. They’re still getting their backs off the wall when “Scene!” is called. This leaves the harsh voices to ambush me afterward, in order to get their fill, by detailing all the “stupid” things I’ve done and said.

After a show, we might practice Millican’s Law. This is a rule created by comedian Sarah Millican whereby regardless of how a gig has gone down, she stops thinking about it after 11am the following morning. It’s done. It’s over. No more inner critic consequences chatter. She draws a line.

Maria Peters also has some great techniques for taking attention away from your inner critic. One such suggestion was to focus on breath work and on observing facts. You may have heard of the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. Here is a description of the technique as taken from the University of Rochester Medical Centre website:

“Before starting this exercise, pay attention to your breathing. Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state. Once you find your breath, go through the following steps to help ground yourself:

5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. It could be a pen, a spot on the ceiling, anything in your surroundings.

4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. It could be your hair, a pillow, or the ground under your feet.

3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. This could be any external sound. If you can hear your belly rumbling that counts! Focus on things you can hear outside of your body.

2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. Maybe you are in your office and smell pencil, or maybe you are in your bedroom and smell a pillow. If you need to take a brief walk, do, to find a scent. You could smell soap in your bathroom, or nature outside.

1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like—gum, coffee, or the sandwich from lunch?”

University of Rochester Medical Centre

I mean, who, given the opportunity, doesn’t want to smell pencil?

Once we’ve slowed down, it can become easier to notice the critics as separate from ourselves.

“Consider how self-critical attitudes developed inside you, perhaps when you were younger. When you’re mindful of your inner dialogue, you might notice there’s something familiar about the words, tone or attitude in the self-criticism. Does it remind you of anyone — a parent, sibling, relative, teacher, coach? By listening to yourself, you can hear the dogmatism, harshness and absurdity in much of what the inner critic has to say. Stepping back from the criticism to observe it can stop reinforcing it and help you dis-identify from it: In other words, you may hear it, but you don’t need to be it. This kind of calm witnessing can make the voice of your inner critic less intense and more reasonable.”

Rick Hanson

Psychologist Rick Hanson suggests once we practice observing our inner critics, we might then try turning them into cartoonish characters to undermine their messages.

“You might also try regarding the inner critic as something that lacks credibility. Imagine it as a ridiculous character, like a silly cartoon villain. Place it “over there” in your mind, outside the core of your being — like that annoying person in a meeting who is always critical but whom everybody tunes out after a while.”

Rick Hanson

I often feel I don’t just have one inner critic but a gang. They are a noisy bunch. It is hard sometimes to hear anything else over the cacophony.

A study conducted by Jay Earley, Ph.D. and Bonnie Weiss, LCSW suggests there might be something to my inner critic gang idea. They identified seven types of inner critic: an Inner Controller, a Taskmaster, an Underminer, a Destroyer, a Guilt Tripper, a Conformist and a Perfectionist. You might want to picture these guys as naff cartoon villains. Perhaps spandex is involved.

Inner Controller – This critic tries to control your impulses: eating, drinking, sexual activity, etc. It is polarized with an Indulger –addict who it fears can get out of control at any moment. It tends to be harsh and shaming in an effort to protect you from yourself. It is motivated to try to make you a good person who is accepted and functions well in society.

Taskmaster – This critic wants you to work hard and be successful. It fears that you may be mediocre or lazy and will be judged a failure if it does not push you to keep going. Its pushing often activates a procrastinator or a rebel that fights against its harsh dictates.

Underminer – This critic tries to undermine your self confidence and self esteem so that you won’t take risks. It makes direct attacks on your self worth so that you will stay small and not take chances where you could be hurt or rejected. It is afraid of your being too big or too visible and not being able to tolerate judgment or failure.

Destroyer – It makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self worth. It shames you and makes you feel inherently flawed and not entitled to basic understanding or respect. This most debilitating critic, comes from early life deprivation or trauma. It is motivated by a belief that it is safer not to exist.

Guilt-Tripper – This critic is stuck in the past. It is unable to forgive you for wrongs you have done or people you have hurt. It is concerned about relationships and holds you to standards of behavior prescribed by your community, culture and family. It tries to protect you from repeating past mistakes by making sure you never forget or feel free.

Conformist – This critic tries to get you to fit into a certain mould based on standards held by society, your culture or your family. It wants you to be liked and admired and to protect you from being abandoned, shamed or rejected. The Conformist fears that the Rebel or the Free Spirit in you would act in ways that are unacceptable. So it keeps you from being in touch with and expressing your true nature.

Perfectionist – This critic tries to get you to do things perfectly. It sets high standards for the things you produce, and has difficulty saying something is complete and letting it go out to represent your best work. It tries to make sure that you fit in and that you will not be judged or rejected. Its expectations probably reflect those of people who have been important to you in the past.

Jay Earley, Ph.D. and Bonnie Weiss, LCSW

What do all these guys have in common? Other than being not you.

They’re trying to help. They think they know what’s best for us. Just like the supervillain thinks they know what’s best for the world.

How do we convince them otherwise? Rick Hanson believes one way to tackle these critics is to demonstrate to them how their messages are outdated. For each criticism, try coming up with at least three examples of times the message has been wrong. So if, for example, the criticism is “You never finish anything”, I might remind this critic that during lockdown I knitted a hammerhead shark of surprisingly large proportions, that I now have an obscure online diploma in monster hunting, and my books are organised by category and author.

If the critic revises their comment to “…anything useful”, then…

… …No revisions!

Another suggestion from Hanson is to boost your inner nurturers. It’s a numbers game.

Inner critics < Inner nurturers = more inner fun times

Inner nurturers? What are they all about? Cute bunnies?

If you like! I’m going to suggest the bunny from the film Harvey. Maybe you don’t need an Inner Donnie Darko rabbit. Unless you already have one, and then these two can go head-to-head in mortal combat.

Harvey was a film released in 1950, based on a play by Mary Chase, in which the affable central character Elwood, played by James Stewart, has an invisible giant bunny rabbit who accompanies him in his day-to-day life-giving advice and encouragement. Elwood explains that Harvey is a Pooka, a shape-shifting spirit from Celtic folklore. Harvey is generally rather a good example of an inner nurturer, but unlike Elwood (James Stewart), you may choose not to have lengthy discussions with your inner nurturers in public. Your call.

James Stewart in the film Harvey (1950).
© 1950 Universal International Pictures

“It may sound silly, but you could imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself with different characters who represent various kinds of support and wisdom. My committee includes my wife and kids, a tough-but-kind rock-climbing guide, several close friends, and even some fictional characters, such as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Spock from Star Trek, and the fairy godmother from the story of Sleeping Beauty. Who’s on your own caring committee?”

Rick Hanson

I’m glad to hear someone else has an Inner Gandalf. Mine often says, “This Too Shall Pass!” in a booming voice to remind me feeling crappy doesn’t last forever. Everything shifts. Even his more famous catchphrase.

The idea of assembling a caring committee speaks to me. I imagine this motley crew working out how best to keep me away from the inner critic cartoon-villain street gang who they suspect, quite rightly, are not a good influence.

If you spend too much time with the inner critic villains raising Hell, this can spill out in unsightly ways. They aren’t always a contained bunch. In part 2 of Critics and How to Face Them we will explore the relationship between inner and outer criticism. How do external critics team up with your inner ones and what can we do about it?

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