1003613585 Marla Estes headshot.jpg
1003613585 Marla Estes headshot.jpg

Dear Inner Critic: Bug off

It’s hard to feel inner peace when our Inner Critic is active. Many of us regularly feel that “someone in here doesn’t like me.” How can we begin to understand and dissolve this internal conflict?

Where does the Inner Critic come from? Usually from our parents, family, schools, communities and the culture at large. Meant to “socialize” us (teach us how to behave in our world), theirs are voices we’ve internalized. They tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. They were formed by what we were accepted for (rewarded) and rejected for (punished in some way). Often shame was used to corral our behavior.

As adults, we often subconsciously maintain these rules and guidelines. What that tends to do is to keep us “safe” (that is, create the illusion of safety) and small (for fear of crossing the parameters of acceptable behaviors).

It also serves to undermine us.

I notice my own Inner Critic attacks happen most often when I’m trying something new and challenging (also known in psychological circles as Self-Actualizing). My internal remarks include the following: “Who do you think you are?” “No way you can pull that off,” and the most dreaded, “You are going to make a fool of yourself.” I don’t know about you, but my Inner Critic has said things to me I would never say to another human being. The level of meanness can be shocking.

At the same time that I get smarter about my Inner Critic, it also gets smarter about me. It gets cagier. I stop getting these messages in words, but I start procrastinating, or get very, very sleepy even though I’ve had plenty of rest, or become paralyzed by anxiety.

When this happens I compose a letter. “Dear Inner Critic,” I write. “I really appreciate you trying to keep me safe and small, but I am going through with X (the challenging activity) anyway. If you continue to hammer at me and sap my energy, then you’re making it more likely than I will fail. So. Here’s the deal. On my end, I will 1) get enough rest, 2) cut down on my social life, 3) eat more healthily and stop drinking alcohol and 4) do my due diligence about preparing for this challenge, e.g. proper research. This will give the best chance for my success and get you off my back. Remember too that I’ve done difficult things before and many have turned out rather well and, even when they haven’t, I’ve learned things that have helped me in future endeavors.”

This really helps me get firm with this aspect of myself, setting a boundary so to speak, and also reassures it that “I’ve got this.” And it’s important to cultivate an inner world where, if things don’t go as well as I’d hoped (no guarantees, right?) that I’ll be OK and I’ll learn and get better at the things that are important for me to get good at.

I’ve had many other realizations about and reckonings with my Inner Critic. For example, in the past I’ve subconsciously believed that if my Inner Critic wasn’t on me all the time, I would simply not get anything done! After experimenting, I found that wasn’t true at all and that I actually got things done more efficiently, smoothly and pleasantly without this task-master at my heels.

What helps? First of all, cultivating a friendlier inner environment (an antidote to “someone in here doesn’t like me”) where we can explore our inner dynamics in a more kind, curious and non-judgmental way. We find out where these inner voices came from, how they operate and how they get in our way. We learn how to separate from them and not be under their thumb. All serve in cultivating and deepening our sense of inner peace.

Want to learn more? Marla Estes and Delaine Due (a registered art therapist) will be giving their “Dear Inner Critic” workshop on Sunday, Sept. 30. For more info, email marla16@charter.net.

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