Transforming Your Inner Critic

Invocation: HERE
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Those words of Rabindranath Tagore, and today’s topic of the Inner Critic – the voice inside you that is always telling you what’s wrong with you – and this month’s theme of Joy – somehow combine in thoughts about: Democracy.

Democracy is, as John Dewey said:
“more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”
When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I adopted Dewey as a special research interest. John Dewey, born 100 years before I was, helped me see democracy as not “simply and solely a form of government”, but a social and personal ideal – a spiritual value, for through democracy, he wrote,
“the incarnation of God in man . . . becomes a living, present thing.”
Thus I have come to see this as the great value of congregational life.

Yes, certainly a congregation facilitates and encourages your spiritual growth, but if you’re determined to pursue spirituality on your own, there are options for doing that. You can read books about spirituality, you can meditate and get a guru or spiritual teacher. You don’t HAVE to have a congregation to develop your spirituality. Congregational life is a particular container – we might say, chalice – for nurturing your spiritual flame, and congregations provide unique features you won’t find on any noncongregational spiritual path.

In particular, congregations are self-governing. Congregations have committees, and rules of procedure, and bylaws. Congregations give you a role in running the place. Meditation classes or sessions with a spiritual therapist don't. I know that the prospect of being on a committee is not a huge selling point these days. Nevertheless, spiritual community that is run by the seekers themselves offers a unique level of richness, meaning, and connection.

For those of us who choose this path, the activities of self-governance form an integral part of our growth and deepening. Through those activities we practice and hone the arts of democracy, and democracy is a really important spiritual practice.

And the skills of democracy – the habits of hearing diverse viewpoints, of weighing other people’s interests and perspectives with our own, of running a meeting and of participating in one so that your voice, and all voices, are sympathetically heard without your voice or any voice dominating – these are the skills of love. This is how equality of concern and respect is realized, how inherent worth and dignity of every person is affirmed and promoted. God becomes incarnate, as Dewey said, in and as democratic bodies -- whether those running a voluntary association or a town.

If spirituality is the meaning our lives have through being part of something bigger than ourselves, then democratic practice is quintessential spiritual practice. Our collective health and wholeness, our communal well-being, is a function of every voice being cared for enough to be heard, all needs and interests taken into consideration – and no voice dominating, overbearing, or becoming dictatorial. In other words: democracy.

In the ideal democracy, which actual democracies sometimes approach, everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone at the table is there to serve the greater good to the best of their capacity to discern it. And that service, as Tagore said, is joy.

I’m talking about democracy because I am one, and you are one – each of us is. Your psyche is an unruly and raucous parliament of voices, each looking out for one of your many and competing interests. Your decisions are products of constantly shifting coalitions of inner voices that are able to, for a time, have the votes to get motions passed.

No single voice is in charge in there. In the 2015 Pixar movie, “Inside Out” – which a number of you watched this week – we see inside 11-year-old Riley’s head as she negotiates life. Joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness are the emotional voices that, together, make Riley Riley. There’s no Riley inside of Riley – rather, Riley just IS the product of her inner voices interacting, sometimes one of them rising to prominence and sometimes another. In the same way, there’s no United States IN the United States – rather, the United States just IS the combined product of what all its people do.

Sometimes we may tempted to imagine that there is a little person inside our head taking in all the sensory inputs as if sitting in a theatre watching the movie of our life. This homunculus pulls the levers and pushes the buttons to give motor commands that make us move. When my son John was about seven or eight years old, I happened to mention to him this homunculus theory of mind, and he immediately put his finger on the problem. He asked, “And does this little person in my head have another little person inside his head?”

There isn’t one person in charge in there. You aren’t a monarchy. You’re a democracy. But democracies can get distorted. Certain interests can manage to hold disproportionate power and ignore and suppress certain other voices. The same thing happens to us individually.

At its healthiest, a democratic state or a person, hears all voices and allows none to gain too much power. And that brings me at last to the Inner Critic. One of the voices in the unruly parliament called “you” is the Inner Critic, and yours probably has too much power. It’s a bit of a bully.

Another voice is the Judge – who passes judgment on other people – and that voice can also often contribute to our misery – but even people that have become less judgmental of others may still be taking heat from the Inner Critic’s judgments of themselves.
“In America your Critic is likely to criticize you if you are not special enough or if you are not superior to others. Your Critic does not want you to disappear into the crowd, to be ordinary. Australian Critics take the opposite view...You are not supposed to stand out, to be special, or to do anything that will draw special attention to you.” Inner Critics there “are quite judgmental toward people who stand out too much or who try to be special.” (Hal and Sidra Stone 5)
"You're ugly," says the Inner Critic. "You're stupid." "You're fat." “You’re lazy.” "There's something wrong with you." "You're so weird."

“The Critic can become our ally once we learn to recognize it and to handle it. However, as long as we are unconscious of it, we must constantly appease it” (5).

And you can never satisfy it. The Inner Critic is never satisfied. “No matter how much you listen to it and try to change yourself in the way that it wants it follows you and grows stronger....The harder you try to change yourself, the stronger it gets. Try to please it, and it will grow” (6).

“Like a well-trained CIA agent, the Inner Critic has learned how to infiltrate every portion of your life, checking you out in minute detail for weakness and imperfections. Since its main job is to protect you from being too vulnerable in the world, it must know everything about you that might be open to attack.”

But just as the CIA in a democracy was formed to protect the democracy, it can grow too powerful and adopt an agenda that undermines democracy. The Inner Critic, as your Internal CIA, starts to pursue its own agenda, undermining the democracy of your internal parliament. “The information, which was originally supposed to be for your overall defense and to promote your general well-being, is now being used against you...With the Critic’s original aims and purposes forgotten, it operates secretly and independently of any outside control” (12).

The inner critic kills creativity. Criticism, inner or outer, kills creativity. Adam’s music today features the work of Beethoven, who was a creative genius, but not, Adam reminds us, during the year that Beethoven was studying with Haydn. Haydn’s critical voice brought on a dry spell for Beethoven. Quite possibly, Haydn’s voice internalized into an Inner Critic voice for Beethoven, but fortunately for us, Beethoven was able to differentiate from it. The inner critic is also apt to be a source of low self-esteem, of shame, and can make you depressed.

Maybe it starts with The Pleaser. An infant soon learns that life is better when ze smiles. So the Pleaser is born, making the child smile more frequently than spontaneous uprisings of delight would dictate. This way, the parent will be happy, which makes the infant safe, and the world feels nicer. The Pleaser’s job is to make others happy so that they, in turn, make you happy, and your vulnerability is protected. As the Pleaser expands, it takes on staff, who then function quasi-independently.
The Rule Maker makes up the rules about what kind of person you should be and what kinds of characteristics are acceptable.
The Rule Maker’s job is to notice what is rewarded and what is punished and draw inferences from that about what rules we should live by. Then the Pusher emerges. This is the voice urging us to achieve, to meet goals, get ahead in the world.

Where the Pleaser wants to please particular other people, the Pusher has abstracted particular people into the world in general, and abstracted concrete pleasing into gaining success and recognition from that world. “With a strongly developed Pusher, we are like racing dogs running after an artificial rabbit that we an never catch” (17). The Pusher has specific goals and objectives, and this may spin-off a counter-voice that says, "What about other things? It’s great to master the oboe, but what about being a great athlete? What about the Nobel Prize in physics?" Thus the Perfectionist is born. The Perfectionist quickly learns that you can’t master everything, so it doesn’t want you to do at all what you can’t do well. The Perfectionist cannot abide happily dabbling. For the Perfectionist, “nothing is less important than anything else. It is just as important to play perfectly during a friendly tennis volley as in the final match of a tournament. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing perfectly.”

The Inner Critic teams up with each of these voices to criticize you for not making others happy, for not working harder on your goals, for not being excellent at everything you do. To a large extent the Inner Critic grows from other people’s judge.
The more strongly we hear judgmental voices around us when we’re growing up, the more we internalize those voices and thus the stronger our Inner Critic is. The Inner Critic cannot be suppressed.

If you try to be rid of the Inner Critic, it just transforms into criticizing for not being very good at not being self-critical. “I shouldn’t be so self-critical” is just more self-criticism.

To become a more ideal democracy, none of the voices may be exiled. All the voices have a seat at the table. But none of them are you. France’s Louis XIV in the 17th century supposedly declared L’etat, c’est moi – the state, it is I – I am France. That, of course, is the opposite of democracy. Your inner democracy requires recognizing that none of the inner voices are you.

The problem isn’t that you have an Inner Critic. The problem is that you become identified with it. You mistake one representative in the parliament for being the voice of the nation itself. This is very common. Counselors who work with clients in recognizing their Inner Critic report that over and over they hear clients say, “I’ve heard that voice all my life. I just thought it was me.”

We see the world through the Inner Critic’s lens, or mirror – just as in Tracy’s story. And we think that’s just how the world is. Developing the Aware Self is like having a Board Chair who has no agenda of zir own, but oversees a process of letting the agenda emerge from the voices at the table, letting decisions be made only when all voices are taken into account.

Developing awareness of your voices – as voices – takes some work and some practice. But TRYING to live life from an Aware Self “gives the Inner Critic the best food of all! Inner Critics simply love to accuse us of not having an Aware Self...If you try too hard to live your life from an Aware Self, it is a sure sign that your Pusher, your Perfectionist, or both have taken over again. This will allow your Inner Critic to grow even fatter as it tries to help you to reach this new, unattainable, goal.”

There are some exercises you can do. But don’t TRY to do them. Just do them.

The crucial move is to not be identified with the Inner Critic – to differentiate from it – to see it not as you but as a voice talking to you. So do this: in your journal, or any piece of paper, write down some of your most common self-criticisms. Writing stuff down is really powerful for self-awareness, and it probably works better to use real pen and paper – typing on a computer screen just doesn’t feel as real.

So write down your most common self-criticisms, only, write them down in the second person – that is, as “you” statements. So don’t write: "I can't get anything right. I'll never be successful."

Instead write: "You can't get anything right. You'll never be successful."

This will help you see these thoughts as an alien point of view – something that an inner voice is saying to you, and not the absolute truth.

Notice how hostile this internal enemy can be. If another person said those things to you, you’d think they were being terribly hostile. Well, it actually is another person – only it’s an internalized one.

So the next step is to envision this other person. What does your Inner Critic look like? For some people, the first image that comes to them is their mother. If you had a critical mother, that wouldn’t be surprising. So, to help take away some of the Inner Critic’s power, imagine the inner critic as a cartoon character.

Imagine that it’s Daffy Duck saying these critical things to you. Or Goofy, or Popeye, or Homer Simpson, or Eric Cartman from South Park, or Tweety Bird, or Snagglepuss.

My inner critic is Yosemite Sam. Yosemite Sam’s insult vocabulary is heavy on “varmint” and “galoot.” I find I don’t take criticism so personally when its coming from someone who calls me a varmint or a galoot.

Next step: Respond to your inner critic by writing down a more realistic and compassionate evaluation of yourself. Write these responses in the first person – that is, as "I" statements. So if your Inner Critic says "You're such an idiot," you could write, "I don’t always understand as quickly as I might wish to, but I am smart and competent in many ways."

This is different from writing down affirmations, which I don’t particularly recommend. It’s a response to a specific criticism that doesn’t say you’re the greatest ever, but just brings a kinder, more honest attitude toward yourself. You’re not trying to give yourself an ego boost or make yourself feel better – your focus is just to be realistic.

You don’t have to do what your Inner Critic says. That ridiculous cartoon character is not you. Thank it for its input, and then take actions that represent your own point of view, who you want to be.

Your Inner Critic may respond by yelling at you louder and louder. Over time, it will grow weaker. And it does take time. Trying to rush it just gives the Pusher and the Critic more power.

Democracy doesn’t always deliver just what you wanted as quickly as you wanted it, but we remind ourselves nonetheless to trust the process. It's the same with our internal democracy. Trying to rush it would be, well, anti-democratic because some voices would get lost in the rush, and the best judgment of "the people" doesn't have time to emerge. Trust the process and give it time.

Spend a few minutes every day – or every week – doing the exercise: write down self-critical thoughts in the second person.

Imagine them coming from a cartoon character – because they are – the Inner Critic is cartoonish, a caricature of you. Write a more well-rounded response in the first person. Gradually, differentiation from the Inner Critic occurs. The Aware Self comes more often to the fore. Over time people learned to see the looking glass as only one lens or reflection of a much deeper experience.

May it be so.

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