Working with Your Inner Critic
We all have an inner critic. It’s that little voice that echoes through the cracks and crevices of our brain to shower us in self-doubt. It often arrives at the most inopportune moments, like right before we hit send on a query letter. Many of us hear these thoughts in our own voices, which gives us the illusion that the thoughts are our own. But, as crazy as it might sound, I’m here to tell you that this is a myth.
In the 1980’s a gentleman named Richard Schwartz developed what we know today as Internal Family Systems Therapy. Essentially, his theory is that our minds are ‘naturally multiple,’ which helps us function. Think of the last time you made a big decision. You may have said to a friend, “There’s a part of me that feels really excited about this, but there’s another part of me that’s a little scared.” These ‘parts,’ Schwartz argues, are small subpersonalities that contribute to our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, like excitement and fear. They work together to make meaning of our lives, push us to achieve our goals, and they also serve to protect us from outside dangers.
This is where you will often find your inner critic. Schwartz suggested that some of our more negative ‘parts’ sometimes serve in the role of a ‘protector’ to prevent harm from coming to us, even if their words hurt our feelings. The good news is that there are ways to learn more about these protectors and work with them to lead more satisfying and productive lives. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Open your mind. Identifying any part of yourself can feel silly and a bit weird. It’s important to stay open-minded so you can truly hear out the needs of your parts.
Step 2: Put yourself in a comfortable position in your home so that you can remain present with your parts. Close your eyes and look for your inner critic. What do they look like? What are they wearing? Some inner critics look pretty tame (mine looks like Meg from Hercules), while others might look a bit scary (like a t-rex). Consider sketching out what your inner critic looks like and giving it a name.
Step 3: If you are struggling to see your inner critic, you may need to call them out so they talk to you. You can do this by recalling a recent event in which your inner critic was present or simply recalling some of the things your inner critic has said to you lately. Either of these will help pull your inner critic to the forefront of your mind.
Step 4: Once you have found them, place them somewhere in the room with you to have a conversation with them.
Step 5: In this step, you want to learn your inner critic’s emotions and concerns so you can understand the core of their role. Ask them how they feel. It’s important to listen without judgment and let your inner critic do as much of the talking here as possible.
You might ask your inner critic:
1. How are you feeling?
2. What are you most concerned about?
3. What is your role?
4. What are you scared might happen if you didn’t have this role?
When I asked my inner critic about her fears, she told me she was scared that I’d experience mind-numbing disappointment without her. If you’re a writer, chances are this might resonate with you too. With the amount of rejection we see, it’s no wonder she was trying to protect me. Once I realized her intentions were good, our relationship began to shift. With the lines of communication open, I was able to start reworking our relationship.
Step 6: Negotiate new ground rules. Together, Meg (my inner critic) and I were able to talk through her concerns, why they were once valid but perhaps not quite as accurate as they used to be, and how we could work together to avoid the negative aspects of her criticism in the future.
While you can do this exercise on your own, I recommend using a coach to help walk you through the process your first time. You may still stumble through it, even with outside help, but you’re also more likely to stay present with your inner critic, learn their true intentions, and redesign an alliance with them that serves you both.
I can’t say that Meg doesn’t show up anymore. She does, sassy attitude and eye rolls galore. However, instead of feeling anger or resentment toward her, I feel a sense of gratitude. She gives me the second or two of pause I need to make sure I’ve thought through my decisions. She doesn’t hang around quite as often, but when she does, I know she’s showing up for me, and that has made all the difference.