Refections on Inner Critic

  • Participant
    Lisa Lahey
    May 4, 2015 at 1:19 pm #1857

    I had the privilege of attending a 2-day class last week called “Thwarting the Inner Critic: Generating Creativity and Resilience Under Pressure,” taught by Sarita Chawla, a deeply wise and very wonderful woman. If you are looking for a safe place to explore yourself more deeply, I whole-heartedly encourage you to take this class. Like the ITC community, New Ventures West seems to be a magnet for wonderfully big-hearted, real people who want to make a difference in the world.

    I want to share two of my big take-aways from the class: 1) the inner critic is likely to be alive and well in most adult’s immunity to change maps, and 2) there is a strong relationship between how successful one’s inner critic is (how much it forms the self) and where that person is developmentally.
    At the expense of oversimplifying the inner critic concept, can we agree that we all know what it is and have a felt sense of it?

    According to Sarita, the sole purpose of our inner critic is to maintain homeostasis. It is to keep us safe. It’s overall strategy is to keep us from taking risks. Most of the time, it succeeds in doing so by sending negative, attacking messages (though our inner critic can also give us approving messages). These demeaning messages can lead us to feel bad about ourselves. For some people, the voice is so harsh and relentless that they feel worthless.

    How might this apply to ITC? Something I learned about myself during the workshop is that my inner critic will reliably chime in when I am trying something new, like most recently, taking up meditation. If my personal experience is generalizable, we can suspect that our client’s inner critic might become activated when they attempt to act consistently with their improvement goal.

    One of the relatively recent clarifications we’ve made to column 2, Doing/Not Doing is to explicitly state that the same way “talk” is behavior, “self-talk” is a valid entry in column 2. I’ve tended to make a little joke when I clarify that criterion, saying “If you’re asking yourself ‘What the heck is self-talk?’ this moment, well that’s self-talk.” But really, the self-talk that’s most valuable in column 2 is the inner critic’s voice. And so the next time I describe the guidelines for column 2, I’ll give a different example of what I mean by self-talk, e.g., “Don’t bother; you don’t know what you’re talking about”.

    I was struck, when listening to people in the workshop describe their inner critic, how many people also had a felt sense, a bodily experience of the critic. For some people, the physical dimension was a cue that the critic was about to attack, and for others, it was almost a substitute for critical words. To the latter point, one person described her experience of feeling immobilized, frozen, a bodily message that she heeded. She couldn’t exactly name what was going on in her head (though she was able to do so by the end of day 2). I’m joining the many of you who already are big advocates of asking clients to include the physical realm in their self-inventory for column 2.

    We know that one of the purposes of getting good entries into column 2 is so that the person can generate powerful column 3 commitments. Again, listening to my co-learners in the workshop I could hear them touching on self-protective purposes of holding onto their inner critic. For example, someone (a very successful entrepreneur) said, “I’m sure my inner critic got me to where I am now, and that I wouldn’t be as successful as I am in my career without it.” It’s easy to imagine that this person might have a commitment “to not lose my self-critical edge” or “to not lose my Kryptonite” (the source of Superman’s power). Another participant said, “I’d make a fool of myself without it,” which could be stated as a hidden commitment “to not make a fool of myself.”
    All kinds of juicy Big Assumptions could follow from these self-protective commitments. The first person might be assuming that, for example, “what led me to be successful will keep me successful“ or “self-criticism is a crucial part of my success formula” or “self-criticism is the best motivator for me.” The other person’s assumptions might include “if I let myself act spontaneously, I will make a fool of myself” or “being seen as a fool is to be avoided at all costs” or “playing it safe all the time won’t lead to me being sorry.”

    Sarita described Susanne Cook-Grueter’s Leadership Maturity framework, based on Jane Loevinger’s Ego Development theory, and offered her own view of the relationship between the inner critic and development: the inner critic only begins to emerge at the end of the Pre-Conventional Stages, has full reign during the Conventional Stages, and progressively recedes in the Post-Conventional Stages. In a fully mature mind, introjects (what the self internalized of the parent figures and their values), “are inspected and provide mere guidelines.” She says that the fully realized person attains ego autonomy and is free from superego programs.

    Kegan’s developmental model offers the same picture. Given we coach adults, and are growing adults ourselves, I am most interested in the look, feel and possibilities to develop freedom in adulthood. By definition, our capacity to recognize our inner critic shifts when we develop, as does our relationship to it. We become progressively less at its mercy. I wonder, does the content, the message, of our inner critic change of the over time? Or does it tend to be fairly stable? Sarita explains that the source of our inner critics’ voice is typically our parents and early caregivers. If we go with that idea (which makes a lot of sense to me and is consistent with how to think about the source of column 3 hidden commitments), it seems quite possible that the message stays the same—that’s our psychological “thumbprint” so to speak) but that its harshness reduces as we develop. That is consistent with my personal experience. As I reflected on my recent inner critic’s messages, all of them are entirely familiar, but not so loud and bold they once were.

    At the risk of overusing a tool because it is in our hands, can we use the ITC process to help our clients who have active and mean inner critic voices to use them as a resource for their development? Returning to the two participants whose maps I’ve guessed at, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were operating from different developmental homes. Even though both are roughly the same age, the first person had built her own business and was at a point in her career where she was wondering whether she could revise how she worked so that she might enjoy a more balanced life. She introduced herself by asking whether she could befriend her inner critic. The other person, by contrast, introduced himself by saying how tortured he was by his inner critic demons. He wanted to leave his job to start his own company but was riddled with self-doubt. From a developmental perspective, I can also imagine that it could be useful to invite this person to consider where his definition of being a fool came from as a means of beginning to be less subject to it. Or maybe he would benefit from naming the assumption “I assume my inner critic is correct” and then take intentional steps to disprove his critic? My guess is that he would need to learn some skills (which his self-doubt has kept him from learning), but still, that learning could create small and more immediate testing grounds for him.