Resources for Recovering Resilience: Getting In Touch with Your Inner Critic

The excerpt and exercise below on working with your inner critic are from John Prendergast’s beautifully written new book, In Touch: How to Tune in to the Inner Guidance of Your Body and Trust Yourself.

John is an experienced psychotherapist and wise spiritual teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Touch offers state-of-the-art explorations and experiments of many tools of embodied wisdom and growth, among them:

Resonance and the sense of inner knowing
Attunement and alignment
Witnessing thoughts
Questioning core limiting beliefs
Being with experience: shadows as portals

May this example be useful to you and yours.

Excerpt: The Inner Critic

We have an inner critic – that part of the mind that creates an idea of how we and the world should be. The critic is actually a mental process, rather than a discrete entity. This inner critic is never satisfied; no matter how we or the world are, it is never good enough. When political and religious ideologues assume positions of power and try to impose their ideals, they bring great suffering to their subjects. Pol Pot, the idealistic communist leader who transformed the former Cambodia into a killing field in the 1980’s, is a good example. Similarly, when we give the inner critic authority by believing it, we create a kind of inner killing field that chokes off any spontaneity and self-trust.

You can easily detect the presence of this kind of tyrannical thinking within yourself: just notice when you have a thought that includes “should” or “should not.” How often do you torment yourself by thinking, “I should not be experiencing this” or “This should or should not be happening” or “He or she should or should not be doing that.” If you observe your thinking for a few minutes, you will usually find evidence of this critical tendency. It is pervasive and persuasive

Judging always creates distance within yourself and between yourself and others. I can recall the relief I felt as I gradually discovered the difference between how I thought I should be versus how I actually was, between an ideal and the real. If you relate to your experience as you think it should be, you keep it at arm’s length. For example if you believe that you should not be experiencing a difficult feeling such as anger, shame, or fear, you will not give your fully affectionate attention to it. You will ignore it, push it away, or try to change it.

The same process of refusal applies to others. If you believe that the others should not be as they are, you will also try to ignore them, keep them at a distance, or change them. On the other hand, if you approach your life with the questions, “What is actually happening?” you will have a very different experience. Judging always creates alienation. Nonjudgmental, affectionate attention fosters intimacy and understanding.

Judging is different from discerning. Judging is about determining what is right or wrong, good or bad. Discerning is about clear seeing. Letting go of our judgments does not mean that we lose discernment. In fact, judging is a distortion of discernment. Once we are able to see through the mind’s tendency to judge everything dualistically, in terms of good and and and right and wrong we are actually much freer to see things as they are and respond appropriately. On a social level, thieves and murderers will still need to be isolated from the rest of society until they change their attitudes and behaviors. On an individual level, we may no longer want to spend time with someone, yet we can do so without closing our heart and condemning him or her. We can set clear boundaries and keep our hearts open.

It has been a surprising discovery in my work with clients that the inner critic almost always means well. Strange as it may seem, even as the judging mind may torment us, it is full of good intentions. It is not the enemy; it is innocently confused.

Sometimes in my work with clients I will ask to speak directly to their inner critics. People who are heavily burdened with self-criticism are usually strongly identified with this inner voice and have difficulty stepping back from it. If we can first step into this self-critical voice without judging it and explore its origins and intentions, and then step back and witness it from a place of compassion, the experience can be revelatory. When I talk to these inner critics directly, I discover that they are always trying to help my clients, albeit unskillfully. For instance, they may believe that harsh criticism will lead to self-improvement and eventual approval by others. Or they may believe that it is less painful to stick the knife of self-criticism into themselves than to have it done by another – a compassionate preemptive self-strike. Reflexive self-apology, where we automatically apologize for whatever we do, is one form of this. Inner critics may also be attached to a pattern of self-criticism as a way to stay connected to one of their critical parents or as a way to avoid the uncertainty of not knowing.

While the inner judge may at first appear to be as authoritative as a Supreme Court justice, in fact it’s more like the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” commands the voice of the wizard as Dorothy’s dog, Tot, pulls away the veil. The source of the booming voice is an ordinary man with a microphone and no real authority. This seemingly authoritative voice of judgment actually forms in childhood. In essence, it is a child dressed up as an adult. It is doing the best it can with limited resources and understanding to guide us to survive and navigate life with as little pain as possible. It is using an innate adaptive strategy of the mind that exists in all people of all cultures. We pay a heavy price when we believe what it tells us.

Certainly the inner critic can be deeply influenced by our parents and educators. We internalize their critical voices and then add our own layers of self-critique onto them. Even a relatively benign psychological upbringing will not prevent his self-critical tendency, which seems to grow out of the ground on its own. This is particularly evident in early adolescence, when the critical mind easily finds fault with everyone and everything. You may have gone through this phase when you were a teenager or when you raised one.

I don’t try to reform the views of these inner critics when I dialogue with them. It is usually enough for them to step forward without condemnation and tell their stories. They discover things about themselves, and they also learn about the effects of their criticism. The critical and criticized parts overhear each other as each comes out of the shadows, takes the center stage of attention, and has a turn to speak. It is an inner truth and reconciliation process.

When these voices are witnessed with compassionate clarity, they have a way of gradually harmonizing. No part needs to leave; each holds a valuable quality, even if it is initially masked. For example, the inner critic expresses the essential quality of discernment in a distorted form. Its true nature is to see clearly rather than to judge. A judged part usually carries some early unexpressed human need. For example, one of my clients recently discovered that the root of his sexual acting out came from a deep childhood need to be held and soothed by a nurturing maternal energy.

You can have a dialogue with your own inner critic in writing or out loud. You may find a friend or partner to help you, or you can do it on your own. This approach is strongly influenced by Voice Dialogue, a method developed by Hal and Sidra Stone which grew out of Gestalt therapy.

EXERCISE: Dialoguing with the Inner Critic

Invite your inner critic to come forward. Then become it. Take your time and get a feel for the energy and physical posture that goes with this voice. It can be helpful to get out of your seat and stand, move about, or take another physical position.

As the critic, write or speak about how long you have been around, where you learned what you did, what your intentions are, what you need, how you feel, and how well your criticisms appear to work.

When you have finished, shift gears, and take the voice and posture of the part of you that feels criticized. As this part, express your experience of how long you have felt criticized, how you feel, what you need, and what the effects of the criticism have been.

Go back and forth between the voices, taking turns writing or speaking as each of them, until you feel complete. They don’t need to agree with each other. It is enough that each honestly speaks and listens.

Stand back from both voices and assume the voice of a compassionate witness. Observe what has been expressed without judgment. Notice the relationships between the critic and the criticized.

Take your original sitting position and notice how you feel in your body. How and where do you experience each of the voices in your body?

What is the overall impact of this experiment? [Share your reflections on this exercise with yourself in writing or with a trusted friend or therapist to fully integrate the learning.]

For more of John’s teachings, visit www.listeningfromsilence.com

I will be teaching exercises to dialogue and work with the inner critic at upcoming trainings:

Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY
July 3-5, 2015

Institute of Noetic Sciences Conference, Chicago, IL
July 24-25, 2015

Cape Cod Institute, Cape Cod, MA
July 27-31, 2015 (note: registration for the Institute is open all summer]

You will also find exercises on shifting from a self-critical voice to a self-compassionate voice on my website