Many personal development books and blogs talk about banishing, firing, destroying, maiming, or otherwise seriously injuring one’s inner critics. Inner critical voices seem to be obstacles to creating “awesome” things, to being authentic, or even to just being happy. What happens when we try to get rid of an inner critical voice? Can we embrace this unwanted experience without letting it run our behavior?
I know a kid who sometimes blames his hand for doing things. For instance if he knocks a cup filled with water over he’ll say, “it’s not my fault—my hand did it!” Getting rid of a critical voice is like cutting off your hand because it does stuff you don’t like. Want to quit smoking cigarettes? Cut off your offending hands!
It’s even worse with parts of our inner experience though, because we can’t cut them off. We can only silence an inner voice by ignoring the information that is causing it to speak up in the first place. In other words, whenever we silence an inner experience, we become less intelligent. This kind of temporary peace is purchased at a high price. In the outer world, ignoring problems until they go away generally isn’t such a good strategy either.
One day you drive to work and there is an loud and annoying scraping sound coming from your car. This is the sound of your car’s inner critic! You could silence this critic by turning on your car stereo until you can’t hear it anymore, but eventually whatever is making the sound is probably going to cause more problems until you pop the hood and check it out.
Stopping the Inner War
“We can bomb the world to pieces. But we can’t bomb it into peace.”
Inner critics have a thankless job. There are always bits of information we’d rather not know about, but somebody’s gotta let us know about them. Whether it’s indigestion after eating a fast food meal, back pain from sitting in an office chair all day for years, or a nasty inner voice that tells us about every little grammatical error when working on a difficult paper, unwanted experience is a part of life. In fact, it’s so important to realize this that Buddha made it his first noble truth—life is full of sh suffering.
But here’s the thing—if we deal with life as it is, without deluding ourselves, we can have a whole less suffering. If we are aware that the car is making weird noises and we actually just stop and look and maybe call a tow truck, perhaps we can fix the problem before it destroys the engine. If we feel the back pain and figure out what it’s cause is, we can perhaps heal it and prevent future back pain before it becomes irreversible. And if we ask what the positive intention of the inner critical voice is, perhaps we can integrate the information that this part of us is bringing to our attention, improving the quality of our creative projects. We can even strive to become more sensitive and aware so that we can adjust course much earlier before things even become a problem.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are references to a spirit world full of various dieties and supernatural beings. The various dieties of Tibet are not all love and light however. For instance, sometimes nice guy Avalokiteshvara—the bodhisattva of compassion—gets all pissed off at how ignorant and deluded we are and shows up as Mahakala. His left hand holds a cup made from a skull and is filled with the blood of his enemies (and people think Buddhism is all about being peaceful!). Keep in mind that this is still the bodhisattva of compassion though. He only turns wrathful if there is no other way you will listen.
The same is true of our inner critics. If you don’t deal with your car’s inner critic, it may turn wrathful too, exploding with a bang in a fit of rage, so to speak. If you don’t regularly give the attention your body needs, your back pain may increase until it’s so unbearable you simply must deal with it. If you don’t listen to those inner voices and integrate the positive intention and information they hold, they can get sometimes get downright abusive. In other words, it’s better to deal with problems when they’re small and relatively nice than when they become overwhelmingly painful. The good news is if we really do deal with the intensely painful problems of our life with courage and compassion, our suffering decreases.
Mahakala doesn’t really want to kill us, but to give us a wake up call. Our inner critical voices don’t really want us to die or feel like crap, they want to make us more aware of something we’ve been leaving out. The way of communicating this information may not always be something we like, but we can always find a positive intention if we look for it.
“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
Sometimes we criticize ourselves in order to preempt criticism from others. We might instead repress our inner critics and then freak out when we receive the same kinds of criticism from outer critics. These strategies usually doesn’t work all that well. The strategy that does seem to work is to see criticism as important information and to look for the positive intent behind the sometimes harsh initial message.
Resources for Working Successfully with Inner and Outer Critics
Within the field of NLP—the system of communication and change I’m most familiar with—there are several explicit strategies and techniques for dealing with inner critics. Sometimes people criticize my articles for not providing as many positive solutions as they would like, so I figured I’d integrate that information here and make some specific suggestions as to resources for working with inner and outer critics.
Chapter six of Heart of the Mind details one such strategy which is called Responding Resourcefully to Criticism. You can also read a transcript and description of the process from Steve Andreas in this article NLP Strategy for Responding to Criticism. (Note: I work for Steve and Connirae Andreas but do not receive commissions for sales, nor was I paid to write this or any article for Beyond Growth.) This particular strategy uses the technique of double-dissociation (seeing yourself seeing yourself) in order to create emotional distance so you can get a more objective view and integrate feedback more easily.
Steve Andreas also has a 2-volume eBook entitled Help with Negative Self-Talk that contains many unique and useful ways of working to get to know troublesome inner dialogue and voices. Some of them I like more than others, but having lots of options can help us to become more flexible and resourceful in our responses.
From what I understand, Steve himself doesn’t much care for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but I have found it immensely useful for working with the kinds of negative self-talk that goes with depression. CBT is also the primary recommended therapy for depression based on the peer-reviewed scientific literature (although some think CBT may be overrated due to publication bias). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy is a what I recommend for CBT self-help as it has lots of practical techniques for breaking up black and white kinds of thinking.
My favorite technique is Core Transformation. In this method, you ask for the positive outcome, and then the outcome of the outcome etc. of an inner part in a recursive process until you get to a core state of Being like Peace, Love, Oneness, OKness, or Joy. There is also special attention placed on noticing any objections and welcoming all parts of one’s self, making this process the most deep and complete therapeutic technique I’ve ever come across. Not to toot my own horn too much or anything, but I do private sessions of Core Transformation on the phone or through Skype and am working on becoming a trainer soon. You can contact me at andrewmcduffee [at] gmail.com if you want more information about that (obviously replace the [at] with an @—I wrote it this way to dodge email-harvesting spam webcrawlers). I’ve actually done a lot of Core Transformation with my own reactions to critical feedback I’ve received right here in the comments of this blog. Some people may notice that my articles are less harsh than they used to be, something which I attribute largely to working with Core Transformation with my anger and reactivity to criticism. I’m also much less reactive internally to receiving harsh criticism than I once was, due to the results of Core Transformation.
The most important thing to me regardless of the technique employed is that we welcome and integrate the information contained in criticism, while lessening the destructive impact of how it’s delivered. The sooner we do that, the less likely the situation will get worse or the message will become more harsh and demanding, and the less suffering we will experience as a result. Integrating our inner critics, we also become smarter. Perhaps inner critics are not actually obstacles to peace, joy, love, authenticity, and creative expression, but doorways into greater wholeness and well-being when treated with compassion and understanding.
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