On Self-Criticism and the Inner Critic

Everyone deals with their own critics, but those inner voices can be particularly pernicious for a certain subset of people who have, for most of their lives, derived their self-worth through what they can achieve. I know this personally because for much of my life, whenever people complimented me for being capable or confident or self-assured or smart, something pulled back inside me, like a visceral recoil in my gut.

And no matter how many self-development workshops I went to, on a very deep level, down in the bedrock of my psyche, there was a part of me withdrew with a hard, instantaneous reflex: IF YOU ONLY KNEW! If you only knew what I’ve been through. If only you knew how hard I’ve worked to make this look this easy.

I see the “inner critic” as a collection of parts within us, showing up as everything from self-patrolling inner dialogue to rumination on past failures to shame that manifests as tension and discomfort in the body. Ironically, the inner critic comes with good intentions:  it’s there to protect us and keep us safe. But so often our inner critics are working off old models and inaccurate maps that don’t reflect the reality of your adult life and relationships.

When we are blended with our achiever parts, we fall into a kind of tunnel vision where the force that drives us “to do it right and make it perfect” seems like an immovable part of reality.

Shockingly, there is life (so much more life) once the chains come off: there’s gentleness, and the connection that deep down all of us always want, and space. So much more space.

But inside that constraining prison, IT FEELS IMPOSSIBLE to think your way out of it; to force your way out of the harshness; to MAKE yourself stop ruminating on the criticism or past failures. And for this reason, it doesn’t help when people say “Stop being so hard on yourself!” or “Don’t feel guilty!” or “Don’t beat yourself up!” Often, that feeds a deeply worn cycle that cannot be resolved through the aggressive approach of “I need to fix myself.”

And so often we’re taught to deal with our self-criticism in ways that merely perpetuate the aggression, until the self-judgment becomes a horrible hall of mirrors, stretching into infinity. You know that place, where anything and everything becomes fodder for the chain reaction of self-judgment. I should be over this by now. I spent so much fucking money in therapy. Everyone else thinks I have my shit together. (If they only knew.)

This is the work.

This is not a triumphant heroic story of how to vanquish your inner critic.

This is about finding your way back to a kind of presence within yourself that can be with the self-blame, self-patrolling and self-judgment, and sit with presence until what’s hard softens; and what’s bitter becomes soothed; and what’s angry relaxes enough to reveal the vulnerability that rests beneath it. In that place, you find a gentleness with yourself, a gentleness that touches your most ragged parts. That gentleness lets you find a sense of humor again, and a sense of inner space.

This is about changing your relationship with the parts of yourself that you most revile, loathe and feel oppressed by–and discovering that, as Rilke said, “everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”