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Disengaging from the Inner Critic

All of us know the Inner Critic, that nasty, relentless, sometimes obvious and often insidious voice of self-criticism, or even of self-hatred .. the gremlin on the shoulder that whispers in our ear, telling us things like:

 

You can't do that

You're bad / stupid / wrong/ evil / hopeless/ not good enough/ too fat / too thin / too smart / not smart enough (etc)

He /she / they are better than you

You'll never ...

You always ...

You should ..

You shouldn't

 

(or we project this onto others .. He / she / they are bad, not smart enough / always / never / should / shouldn't ....).

 

In short, it's that nagging intermalised critical voice that keeps us scared and small, in judgment of ourselves and of others. It makes us (and others 'wrong'). It infantalises us, so we temporarily lose touch with our grown up, capable, adult self. We literally become a psychological child. We feel small (defensive, or hopeless, scared, or defeated).

 

AH Almaas, the depth psychologist, calls this the Superego. Hall and Sidra Stone (Voice Dialogue) call it the Inner Critic, or even Killer Critic, because it will fight to the death rather than have us change our old patterns and habits and limiting beliefs. It hates change. It hates personal development. It's the doubter, the cynic. This voice is often the echo of the voice of the internalised parent (or teacher, or elder sibling, or of our socierty overall, or our particular culture). It can be the voice that says 'girls shouldn't do x', or 'boys should do y'. Sometimes what it says has been useful, at some point in time, but as we grow up it outlives its usefulness. Really, we know when to use or knife and fork - we don't have to automatically do it because an old voice inside our head says 'this is what's expected', or 'people will judge you if you do that (or don't do that).

 

David Whyte has a beautiful description. He speaks of 'the berating voice that is constantly trying to interpret and force the story from too small and too complicated a perspective' (Consolations, p.4).

 

I love this description because it captures so much about this 'berating voice'. It literally berates us .. until we learn to turn it off, to simply stop listening to it. He points out that it interprets our experience, getting in the way of us simply living it. It complicates things, making them more complex than they need to be, and can paralyse us, or take the joy away. This happens when we constsantly second guess ourselves. By interpreting we filter rather than allowing ourselves to experience life directly. We could be swimming naked in the sea (or wanting to swim naked) and be thinking 'what would my mother / father / teacher / friends etc think of this?'. This can happen when we meet someone interesting and let our preconceptions and judgments get in the way of simply meeting them afresh, as they are. And so we are doomed to repeat our experience according to preconceptions.

 

It may say particular things, often over and over again. Or it can just be a flavour like a bad feeling inside. The feeling of self-judgment. It often is a felt sense that reminds us of how we felt as little children when we felt bad. Like when our parent shouted at us to stop us running across the road, or, for many people, when people criticised and shamed us. Everyone has has this experience. Some had it more than others.

 

This voice had an important function developmentally. It kept us safe by scaring and shocking us. Like the voice of the parent that screams 'stop' when we are small and about to rush across the road, or touch that interesting glowing ember in the fire. It shames us and frightens us, so that even when the parent (or guardian) isn't there we imagine their disapproval telling us not to take a risk, not to get ourselves intro trouble. It's an imporetant aspect of the formation of a healthy ego .. otherwise we would have no limits when we are not yet ready to make good decisions. At one point it probably did keep us safe, did help us to develop ways of fitting in socially, of behaving ourselves according to others' expectations.

 

But now we are adults, we can make decisions, guided by our wisdom and trusting in our experience and judgment. Our nervous systems are now adult nervouis systems. We don't have to play small and safe anymore. We have much more capacity to know what's safe for us, good for us. In fact, when we make bad decisions, it's often because we are listening to old, no longer relevant voices in our heads. When we feel, and then act, as if our old sourpuss granny, or teacher, or priest, or nextdoor neighbour, or cross mummy or daddy are watching and judging us.

 

In short, the superego keeps us stuck. Limited. Contained, endlessly, in old patterns, habits, beliefs and belief systems. Imprisoned within too small a perspective, too complicated a perspective, from the old straight-jacket of (often unconscious) opinions and beliefs .. that aren't even ours! That have been imposed on us by others.

 

Just imagine what your life might be like if you ignored that superego. You might walk to the shops in your ugg boots, not wear make up, wear bright blue eye-shadow, strike up a conversation in a cafe, look someone in the eye, start a new project, paint, get dirty, not waste time with a time-wasting person or situation ... in short, follow what you really want to do and would do if that critical, nagging voice was absent.

 

And the best way to deal with the superego ... recognise it and defend against it. Tell it to shut up. Ignore it. Give yourself permission to turn it off. Everytime we recognise it as the superego it loses more and more of its power to inhibit and depress us. We create new neural pathways where we trust ourselves, and  - more and more - experience feeling good rather than feeling awful. You want to stay in your pyjamas all day? Try it .. from the point of view of celebration, self-love, self-care ... and enjoyment, rather than feeling guilty and struggling with all the inhereted or projected ideas that you're bad for doing this, or need to justify it. Feels different huh?

 

And by becoming aware of our particular superego and what it says (we all have one) what we gain is an incredible freedom. We see the ways we 'mess with' ourselves, and can even learn to have a giggle at our superego, because it recognising it, we start, slowly and surely, to dis-identify from it, rather than being unconsciously identified with it.

 

We learn to see when we're in a hurt child state, which is where that superego voice puts us. And our adult awareness - the part that is not the child and can recognise what is happening - can then give the child part what it needs. Compassion, understanding. An ice-cream. A day in bed. A cuddle. And to do this .. feels really good when we can give ourselves permission to simply be.

 

And from the perspective of neuroplasticity, the old self-judgmente become overwritten with self-acceptance, compassion, self-forgiveness .. and yes, self-love. This becomes our experience of being in the world. Safe. Ok. More than ok.

 

A great book about all this, with exercises to help understand and defend against the Superego is Soul Without Shame: a Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within, by Byron Brown. It can also be something you learn to work with with the help of a good therapist. Or through doing group-based processes, like Path of Love or other deep repair-work, where you get to see that everyone has this voice, and it's part of the human condition .. and how pretty much everyone believes on some level that they are really the only one that has it, or that their critic is worse than everyone else's .. Together we get to see that this is all part of the superego's modus operandus.

 

And it is possible to live a life free of this inhibiting, berating voice. Indeed, to live a life of true freedom. And eacxh time we free ourselves of the superego, we feel just a bit better, just a bit freer ... we don't have to do it all at once. Easy does it, you're ok. And if that superego is rearing it's ugly head and sowing doubt ... tell it to get lost. And feel the energy of that freedom ...

 

** Please note that Byron Brown is offering an online course all about the Superego (startying October 23 - and available top download and listen to at your leisure, which I highly recommend. Click here to find out more ***