Investigating our inner critic
“D - THIS POST IS NOT UP TO STANDARD. MUST TRY HARDER”
“I don’t know why you’re bothering to write this post Steven. You might get one or two positive comments from loyal friends but overall people aren’t really interested in what you have to say. Nobody whose opinion is worth listening to will read it. Why would they? There are far better posts out there, written by people who have really done their work and who can write in a far more articulate and insightful way than you ever could. You don’t really offer anything new – only your own rather immature and confused thinking. You are simply inviting criticism and displaying your lack of intelligence and insight in a very public place. Overall I think you’d be better off not bothering. Somehow you’ve got away with it up until now. I suggest you quit while you’re ahead or else people might suss out that you are actually an unqualified imposter!”
Meet my inner critic.
I’ve spent many years listening to his constant commentary on everything I do but only fairly recently have I stopped and thought to myself “Who on earth is this guy and when did he become such an expert in everything?” In January last year I began a CIA style investigation into this character and the source of his constant, de-motivating propaganda. Who is he? Where does he come from? And what are his motives? Through various experiments I began to compile a dossier about him. I began to notice that the overall theme of his unhelpful mantras were that I was an imposter, I hadn’t “done my work” (whatever that means) and that I should quit doing what I do until I was “appropriately qualified.” I began to notice the type of places that he would typically show up and how I would often project his cruel voice onto others, experiencing them as colluding and agreeing with him. Eventually I began to chat with him through personal journalling, drawing pictures of what I thought he might look like and recently I made a puppet of him that allows me to turn the tables, interrogate and challenge his perspectives and put him on the spot! (A creative variation on gestalt two-chair work). Through doing this I discovered him to be far more ignorant than I had imagined. I discovered that his reasoning was rather childish and immature. I discovered that he actually embodied every criticism that he habitually aimed at me!
He is still there but I am starting to experience him more as an annoyance, rather than an authority.
It seems that the more curious I have become about my inner critic the more his power has diminished. The more I learn about him, the more choice I recover whether to listen to his advice or not. He is still there but I am starting to experience him more as an annoyance, rather than an authority. I’ve even begun to find compassion for him. He is old in body and voice but young in age and experience. He looks and sounds like a wise sage but has the intellect and temperament of an overtired toddler. He is a composite of various introjects and rules I encountered as I grew up. He is a manifestation of the opinions of others that I swallowed whole as true statements about who I was and who I ought to be. Through finding this compassion I have learnt that, behind the powerful facade, he is scared and simply trying to protect me in a rather deluded way. He is a frightened, bewildered child trying to advise a grown man.
Last weekend I went to visit my parents and whilst in the loft (retrieving some of my old toys for my daughter to play with) I came across my old High School reports. I laughed to myself as I remembered their content portraying me as a pleasant, helpful but distinctly average and unremarkable pupil. However, as I started to read the comments my teachers had made, I began to feel a rising sense of upset and anger. I remembered that the grades my teachers gave me were average at best (our reports graded effort and achievement on an A to E scale and my average scores were C/D) but what shocked me, as I read the scrawly handwriting from 30 years ago, was how pointed, critical and scathing the accompanying comments were:
Steven’s work is well below standard. He does not listen enough and work is often incomplete.
Steven has not worked well. He Still makes little effort.
Steven’s work is satisfactory only.
Steven needs to make more effort.
Steven seems to have difficulty with the work. He would make more progress if he made more effort.
Steven has a lively imagination but does not pay enough attention. Work is often incomplete.
When Steven is interested he produces good work, otherwise his results are poor.
Steven’s work is not at the standard we would expect from him.
Even my art teacher had written “Steven’s drawing lets him down – his work is very sketchy” which I now actually take as a compliment! However, what I found most hurtful about these comments was the advice to “try harder” and “make more effort” when I was exerting as much effort as I possibly could. I now see how this simply triggered a pattern of stuckness.
As I sat and read these comments I experienced the words coming to me in the same voice that my inner critic uses in his most powerful moments. My anger then gradually turned into excitement. It was as if I had discovered the source of his power. As if I had accidentally stumbled upon an ancient book of his favourite scripts that he used to torment me. I realised that I must have been around 11-13 years old when these comments were written and, being a rather deferential, conscientious pupil who wanted more than anything to please my teachers, I must have swallowed these comments whole and believed they were a true description of who I was. Over time these comments must have slipped out of my conscious awareness to lurk deep in the shadows, ready to pounce when the moment was right.
I was left with a number of curious questions. How would things have been different if my teachers had sought to understand my difficulties instead of simply describing them? (As I help my own daughter with her dyslexia I am beginning to believe that I may have had similar difficulties during my school years). What if my teachers were to turn 50% of these critiques back onto themselves and the rigid, inflexible curriculum as the partial source of my problems? In particular I am struck by the comment that I produced good work when I was interested and can’t help but think that the state of being interested wasn’t solely my responsibility. As I reflect on these questions I notice that I don’t personally blame my teachers for any of this. They were likely struggling with their own projections and inner critics so I assume they were doing the best they could with the resources they had. Nor do I harbour any grudges or regrets as my difficult experiences of school eventually led me to the work I love doing now. Nonetheless the discovery of this document, ironically titled Record of Achievement, felt like a very important one.
The gestalt paradoxical theory of change suggests that change happens through becoming more aware of what we already are, as opposed to striving to be something we are not. Whilst my inner critic is still alive and present, my deepening awareness of his form, his origins, his motives and his tactics have resulted in his power diminishing a little. Whilst it was difficult to read, I am very grateful that I ventured into my parent’s loft and found these old school reports as they provided some vital intelligence for my ongoing investigation.
I am left wondering how much these seemingly insignificant comments from our childhood suppress and suffocate our creative spirit and spontaneous self-confidence in the subsequent years. On one hand they are only sentences, scribbled in the moment by time-pressed teachers with piles of other reports to write. But on the other hand they are powerful words that, in my experience, can provide a lifetime of material for our inner critic. If you are curious then it might be worth digging around in your own attic!
Steve is an independent consultant, coach, speaker and writer on change and creativity. This article was originally published on Steve's blog. Steve and gestalt psychotherapist Simon Cavicchia are running their next “Playing at the Edge – Discovering our Inner Critic” workshop in London on the 20th-21st October 2016. This workshop uses a variety of gestalt, mindfulness, creative practices, masks and movement to help us begin our own investigation into our inner critic. More details can be found here.