At last night’s enneagram workshop we talked about the Inner Critic. While some there seemed to wrestle with the concept, it is one that, as a writer, I was familiar with. The Inner Editor, I call it. I first was able to put a name to it thanks to Chris Baty one of the founders of NaNoWriMo and author of the NaNoWriMo primer No Plot? No Problem! That book not only helped me name the Inner Editor, but made me realize I could control it. I could tell it to go away for a while. I could ignore it when it was not being helpful. I could tame it.
Even those of you who are neither writers nor enneagram aficionados probably have a sense of what I am talking about. The voice that tells you what you are doing it wrong. The nagging, harping voice. The voice that comes out at 3 am and wakes you up just to tear you down. The voice that makes you second and third and fourth guess yourself. The voice that shames you for just being you.
We all have an Inner Critic. All of us. Look around you. Think about the most generous person you know. Think about the most peaceful person you know. Think about the most successful, creative person you know. Think about the shallowest person you know. They all have an Inner Critic. At some point in the past 24 hours every one of them heard a voice say “Well, that sucked, but what did you expect? You suck and everything you touch turns to crap.” Every last one of them. The Inner Critic lies, and one of the lies is that it exists because you suck. No. You have an Inner Critic because you are a human.
Something I have always wrestled with (and I doubt I am alone in this) is how to sort through the various voices. Is that my Inner Critic or the voice of Wisdom, or God, of just plain good sense? Because not only do we also have an Inner Critic, we also have (as our presenter called it last night) an Inner Authority. How do we discern (oh those enneagram folks, they love their religious language) between the two?
The answer is to listen. Not just once or twice but to develop a habit of listening – not only to the voices in your head, but to your heart and body. It takes practice, and you will never truly perfect it, but like any spiritual discipline – be it prayer or hospitality or creativity or forgiveness – it is the practice that matters, not the result. Maintain the practice for its own sake and the results (or fruits, if we are going keep on with the religious language) will take care of themselves.
That’s some nice theory, I hear you say, but seriously, how do I do it? Try this for a start:
Get comfortable. Put your feet flat on the ground. Take a deep breath or two.
Think back to when you know your Inner Critic was active. Look at it from the outside and as objectively as possible. Then answer these questions:
- What stories does your Inner Critic tell you? What does it tell you about yourself, about other people? Don’t judge the stories, don’t decide if they are true or not. Just notice what they are so you can recognize them when they come up again.
- How does the Inner Critic make you feel when it speaks? What happens to your heart?
- What happens in your body when the Inner Critic shows up? What is your physical reaction?
My Inner Critic tells me I am forgetting something important. It tells me I don’t know enough yet to take action. It tells me I have gotten careless and someone is going to be upset; I need to go back and make sure everything is okay. Then it tells me I never finish anything and I need to hurry up. It tells me I am strong and independent and I can do it all on my own. Then it whines and get angry because I have to do it all on my own. I get fearful and distrustful and resentful when I listen too long. My heart feel small and dark and cold. I often get a flash of adrenaline when it first shows up. I can feel the flush on my face. The flight or fight reaction is so strong I often have to get up and move to another room.
That’s just my relationship with my Inner Critic. Yours may be different.
Here are some common traits of the Inner Critic’s voice:
- It tends to be all or nothing
- It is slippery, often putting us in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations
- It tends to shame
- It tends to isolate us from others
- It can build us up too high as well as tear us down too low
- It claims authority it does not have – it may present as the advice, expectations or feelings of others
- It spins elaborate stories
- It cuts us off from our Inner Authority and makes us forget our better selves
- It disrupts the creative process and discourages risk taking
- It is concerned with results and outcomes
- It is obsessed with the past and the future — it cannot live in the present moment
One of the things I like about the enneagram, is that it doesn’t just help us identify our type, but it helps us recognize and accept the habits of thought and reaction that we tend to fall into, say, as a type 6. We are not told to irradiate or “fix” those things. Pushing against the Inner Critic feeds it just as much as trying to follow its conflicting advice.
Once we can recognize the Inner Critic, we can put it in its place. Because does it has a place in our lives, just not the one it wants. Sometimes we do make mistakes. Sometimes we have make course corrections. Sometimes we have to follow the rules and stay on task. There’s no shame in any of that. When the Inner Critic is tamed helps us navigate our daily lives.
So, how do we tame it? Here are some things to try:
- Name it. Give it a cutesy name if that helps, but call it something to remind you it is not you.
- Interrupt it’s storytelling by taking some deep, meditative breaths.
- Let it speak, in a limited way. If it has nothing helpful to say, dismiss it with an attitude of “Thanks for sharing.” If it does have something helpful to say, acknowledge that and be genuinely thankful.
- Challenge the story it is trying to tell.
- Give it something else to do. Sometime I let my Inner Critic just plan next year’s garden or a possible vacation until it settles down. Let your Inner Editor edit something for a while. Count sheep.
- Be compassionate with yourself. Don’t let your Inner Critic get away with treating you worse than you would treat others.
And always, always remember these two truths: The Inner Critic lies and we all wrestle with it.