But high achieving 5-year-olds come with baggage. I also had a fierce inner critic, especially around things I couldn’t control. I remember a few shame-filled moments of hiding underwear (in the hollowed out insides of a dead tree, for instance) after accidents that 5-year olds weren’t meant to allow to happen. At age 5, I knew what would separate me from my family: my inner critic told me that I should feel ashamed for having an accident, and I acted to protect myself by hiding the evidence.
I don’t remember the inner critic being an internalized voice of anyone in particular when I was that young, but as I got older, it was the voice of my father. When I discovered Christianity in my teens, my father’s voice was joined by that of God or Jesus – maybe they even replaced my dad. I believed that all these men could read my mind, so it wasn’t just my actions I was being judged for, but also the contents of my thoughts. If I could only just control my actions and my thoughts, I had a chance of getting to heaven.
My professor’s response was to call me into his office, reprimand me and tell me that he would be very concerned if he was my father.
An incident at university leaves me amused and dismayed. In a Psychology subject, we were required to meditate each day, and to record our progress in a journal. I couldn’t sit still and meditate, and my belief about the exercise was that I should be writing about how good meditation was and how good I’d become at it. Instead, my journal held angry entries about how unfair this assignment was and that it was setting me up to fail. My professor’s response was to call me into his office, reprimand me and tell me that he would be very concerned if he was my father. This did nothing to grow my own confidence in me – my inner critic simply told me that I’d be abandoned for not conforming and I felt ashamed.
In my adulthood, my inner critic morphed into any number of bosses, most of them male. My fairly kind, skillful boss in the government department I worked in, grew horns and a tail in my head. The inner critic became female when I worked at a girls’ boarding school, then male again when I worked on an organic farm for another innocuous, kind-hearted male boss. One of my most freeing jobs was as an ambulance officer where my boss was generally nowhere to be seen – what a relief!
Bucking convention helped me to start to find out what really motivated me, rather than what I thought I should be striving for in order to stay alive.
In my 30’s began the decline of terror, at glacial speeds. I can see it now, in hindsight. You don’t even know that you’re living in terror until you start to live in something else. In my 30’s I made the bold move to stop trying to live according to social convention. I got out of a marriage I was doing quite badly at; I quit my conventional office job; and I stopped wearing makeup and heels. I grew my hair into dreadlocks; I drove a motorbike and a VW van; I moved into my shed; I took baths in a WW1-era metal hip bath. And my inner critic started to drift off in the smoke of my bohemian lifestyle. Bucking convention helped me to start to find out what really motivated me, rather than what I thought I should be striving for in order to stay alive.
Eventually I left my hip bath-immersed ways, and I also left the country of my inner critic, but it followed me across the Pacific and got louder again. I took on managerial and administrative work where my inner critic was outed and got to manifest itself in my management style toward the undeserved people I was working with. I still felt that if I could just control everything, I’d be OK – and unfortunately I saw the people who worked with me as a mini army that would help me to control everything: cringe-worthy inner critic activity.
Just as I had earlier rejected conventional lifestyle, then I also rejected management roles. I couldn’t trust myself to not use people as a means to an end – the end was to satiate my inner critic’s voracious appetite for perfection. It was too painful to experience this, and the tragic outcome was that seeking perfection (and hence acceptance) actually drove people away from me. I couldn’t win if I allowed the inner critic to dictate my management practices.
My therapy work started to uncover some gems, and I started to get to know the inner critic. Internal Family Systems work helped me to see the inner critic as just one of a number of players in my system, all vying for their place at the table. MSC helped me work compassionately with all the parts that made me up, including the inner critic.
More recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve moved from a mostly unconscious sense of an all-pervasive inner critic, to one where I can more consciously and clearly see many parts of me, and can honestly say that I can get in touch with each of them and give them what they need in turn. It doesn’t always work out, but it’s happening more and more. And a new part has emerged – she looks a whole lot like Maleficent, and she protects some other parts who were previously at the mercy of the inner critic. She’s a fierce mother figure, a growing sense of myself as a protector. She is certain of her wisdom and compassion. And she is not afraid of the inner critic.
My inner critic had good intentions, but it didn’t care about casualties (mostly my own innocence and ability to play)
So, I trudge on. This adventure is ongoing. Sometimes I find myself gripped, once again, by a fear I have no chance of getting a handle on. Sometimes all I need to do is to grieve for the loss of a sense of safety. And at other times I can stand back and see the players at their games of survival. My inner critic had good intentions when I was a child, but it didn’t care about casualties (mostly my own innocence and ability to play). I am gradually shrugging off its cloak, knowing it will never drop away completely, but will become a smaller and smaller piece of clothing until eventually it’s that handkerchief I sometimes put in my pocket and sometimes leave at home as I venture into the world. All my parts feel very happy to think about that day.
- Podcast Episode 9: Compassion in a T-Shirt: In Session with Kristy Arbon - June 13, 2021
- Somatic Self-Compassion Tree of Practices and Neurochemicals - May 2, 2021
- Podcast Episode 9: Favorite Things on my Morning Walk - January 27, 2021
- Podcast Episode 8: Slow News Days and Companioning the Neutral - January 22, 2021
- Podcast Episode 7: Self-Care as the Shit Hits the Fan - January 6, 2021