There’s an inner critic who gets far too much air time, and is given far too much respect. In a culture of achievement and self-improvement, the inner critic is lauded. We admire the “driven” individual. But do you ever wonder about exactly who is driving? We have so few defences against these voices within, that they can easily go from guiding to controlling without us noticing. And if your inner critic is running your life, it’s probably ruining your life.
The internalized voices of our parents and other caregivers speak to us and through us. Sometimes when I’m listening to somebody I know very well, and whose family background I know very well, I can name the voices. Now you are speaking as Aunty so-and-so. Oh, that one was your father. And so on. This is far from fully dissociative, but it certainly is a manifestation of the differentiated or multi-part self.
And the clearest voices are the harshest ones. Your batty old grandfather. Boy, I can pick him a mile off. He never shuts up, and he never has anything good to say. He wasn’t happy when he was alive, and now that he’s dead he is still making you miserable. And me, because I have to listen to him.
There’s an argument that the conscience is nothing more than the fully internalized voices of those who influenced us, so internalized that it has become identified with ourselves. And that one of the primary tasks of child-rearing, after providing safety, is being the voice that will become the conscience. Graving that moral compass rose into freshly poured and still pliable concrete of the young child’s foundations. That well-poured foundation, with the right spells woven into it, is the one thing that makes an emotionally secure existence possible. So this business of internalizing voices is not all bad.
But do we have to have this non-constructive carping? If these people are going to live on inside us, the least we can demand of them, and their long experience of life, is a little bit of wisdom. In fact we should require it, on pain of eviction.
There’s another critic who is worse, because it has no fear of eviction and is much harder to convince. And that’s our self, acting as a proxy, stooge, or even enthusiastic collaborator with our ancestral critics.
There’s a bargain we make with those who are shaping us. I will feel joy, and pain, but I won’t show it. I will feel triumph and despair, but I won’t talk about it. I am allowed to receive love, as long as I don’t feel too good about it, or admit to needing it too much. If I take over your mantle of chief critic, then I am allowed to live. You will let me go to start my life.
So it becomes life and death, like so many early traumas. If I cease the harsh self-evaluation, the inner monologue of fault-finding and correction, it will all come back. The angry father, the belt, the ruler, the open hand, the slammed door. “Don’t make me come up there”. We are writing our lines on the board, we are chanting our shame, we are standing in the corner with urine running down our legs because we’ve been told not to move. We are doing that in our minds every day of our lives.
And if all of this becomes a problem, starts to interfere with our ability to live our lives – well, then, surely the answer is to find the right critique, accurately diagnose the fault, name it and correct it. No? Well, no. More of the disease is not the cure, it’s just more of the disease.
In a loving relationship, in later life, all sorts of distortions can emerge.
If I love you and you love me, if being with you nourishes my soul, there must be a price, mustn’t there? And so often that price is eternal vigilance and self critique. I mustn’t get complacent, or self-satisfied, or too obviously happy, or too lyrically in love. Or – what? The demons will hear, the guards will come, I will have failed to keep my part of the bargain and external policing will be reinstated. With you I am whispering in bed with my best friend during a sleepover, I am practicing kissing behind the toilet blocks. And we are whispering, and hurriedly fumbling, because every good thing has someone who wants to take it away. “Don’t make me come up there”. So we spend so much of our lives whispering and hurrying and hiding, and so little basking and luxuriating and accepting. Even with the very best parts of our lives. Especially with those parts.
The thing is, that’s wrong. There is no one who wants to stop us being happy. Not usually. Only ourselves. Fate will do a good enough job of bringing us misery. It certainly doesn’t need our help. We know this. And yet…those voices.
And then, what should I expect from you, if you love me as much as I love you? Can I expect, do I deserve, acceptance, understanding, tolerance, joy, appreciation, every good thing? Comfort and safety and security? No, says Aunty Mabel. Who would love you? asks Uncle Alf, you have no manners, you eat messily, and your feet are too big. So if I am tired and I snap at you, you are right to snap back. It was my fault. I should be better. Or if I snore, who can blame you for being grumpy? If I am confused about how I feel, how can you be anything but non-commital? All my fault. When, finally when, I complete my self-improvement project, when I fix all of my flaws, then I will deserve your love. Until then, you are putting up with me, and I am grateful. Or – it’s too much, I can’t stand being “put up with”, please go away. Go away until I deserve you, which is maybe never.
This is how my inner critic is running my relationships. What a disaster. I have news for you, inner critic. Love is not a professional development program. When I come home tired from work and return to my haven, to the arms of my lover, I am not signing up for a self-improvement course. I want and need and deserve and expect rest, and safety, and warmth. Not more struggle. Not always.
We are told so often “relationships are hard work”. Well, yes – occasionally. Not all the time. But our inner critic understands that language, the bargain, the struggle. Hard work? I am allowed to have that. Mum won’t mind it if it’s hard work. Let’s make it hard work, let’s expect nothing, let’s keep accounts and not receive more than we give – then I am allowed to keep it. Dad won’t take it away. If I stay a little bit cold, and a little bit hungry, the world might not notice, and I might be allowed to have it.
But again, the only person on the other side of the bargaining table is ourselves. We can walk away from the negotiation, and that mirror self will do the same. We lose nothing by conceding, because we are conceding to ourselves. We only lose by remaining there, justifying ourselves to the mirror. Staying in that struggle, instead of living.
So, dear critic. You have your place. I do sometimes need your help. But do, please do, stay in your place. Keep out of my bed (seriously, uncle Alf, this is just creepy, get lost). Don’t come between me and my lover. Don’t tell me what I deserve. Don’t refuse life’s gifts on my behalf. Help me shape my striving, but in my down time, me time, comfort time? Go and find something else to do, I’ll call you.