What is the Inner Critic?
There is a story my teacher tells about getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. As she makes her way carefully through the dark, WHAM! She stubs her toe on the edge of her dresser. Her next thought is: “You are so stupid! I can’t believe you did that again!”
Meet the inner critic.
This aspect of ourselves tries to “keep us in line” by using various methods of shame, judgment, and criticism in order to motivate us into some sort of action. It takes a set of circumstances or facts and weaves a self-critical story.
In the story above, the facts were that my teacher stubbed her toe. In Buddhism, they call this the “first arrow”--the initial source of pain. The second arrow--the optional one--is the one that we shoot at ourselves: “You are so stupid!” This is what causes suffering.
This may sound strange to someone who is not yet aware of their own inner critic. When I first began learning about mine, I was dumbfounded. “You mean, that voice isn't who I am?!” I was shocked to learn that listening to the judging mind was optional.
After practicing awareness for a while, I became familiar with my inner critic’s voice and began to separate this part of me from my true nature. Some of my inner critic’s greatest hits are: "Get it together! What is wrong with you? You should (blank). If I could just (blank). You're never going to be able to be as successful as her. Why even try? You shouldn't have eaten that. You're lazy.”
Though this voice has been referred to as a bully, dictator, disciplinarian, and the judging mind, I like to refer to it as: the Wizard of Oz.
If you can recall, the Wizard of Oz is a floating projection that bellows criticisms and orders, scaring those in his audience into action--much like my inner critic. But then, revealed behind the curtain is a scared little man speaking into a machine.
Similarly, there is a very scared little girl inside of me hiding behind a critical voice. She has been judging me for years in an attempt to protect me from abandonment and from not being loved or accepted. The reality, however, is that I am now 31 years old (yikes!) and the only one who can abandon me is me.
But this little girl doesn’t know that. So like the Wizard of Oz, she is bellowing out from behind a curtain, calling the shots in my life based upon unrealistic fears.
It's crucial to remember that this isn’t just some tyrant screaming at you for the hell of it. Whether you picked up these fears from your parents, society, or someone else in your life, they somehow became ingrained in you and this part of you is terrified and trying to keep you safe. With this knowledge comes the possibility of healing the inner critic with the only effective way I know--compassion.
How do I heal the Inner Critic?
The solution to begin healing this part of us is not to silence it. Fear does not go away the moment someone says, “Stop.” In fact, it tends to metastasize. In order to heal this part of us, we have to treat it like the scared child it is. As a wise friend said to me once: We don’t let her drive the car, but we don’t throw her in the trunk either!
We can meet her as we would a dear friend: invite her to sit and tell us her fears while we extend understanding, comfort, forgiveness, and compassion. I’m certain I would never speak to my friends in the way I speak to myself. So ask yourself: What would I say to a friend in this same situation? Likely something similar to: I love you anyway. I’m still here for you. You are enough just as you are.
As Pema Chodron says, “You don’t turn your back on yourself and abandon yourself, just the way you wouldn’t give up on a good friend when their darker sides began to show up.” Just like all of the other parts of ourselves, as we befriend the inner critic, we will find that its voice begins to soften. Again, the goal is not to silence it, but to cultivate compassion so that when the critical voice arises, so does our compassion voice.
With continued practice it is possible that one day only our compassion voice arises.
Eventually, when you stub your toe, your response might sound like “Oh my darling, I’m so sorry you are hurting. What do you need? How can I care for you?” The inner critic may not ever shoot that second arrow and add the layer of suffering. But if the critical voice still arises, we don't get angry, we continue to care for it.
So begin by noticing the dialogue that goes on within your mind. Where does your inner critic get triggered? How can you bring more kindness to that area? You may be surprised at how such a seemingly small shift could begin to change your entire relationship with yourself. I promise... it's possible. :)
May your compassion voice be louder than your inner critic today. ♥