Self-critical thoughts often plague creative people and lead to excessive anxiety, frustration, and procrastination.
The goal of this article is to locate your internal self critic as an autonomous sub-personality.
We’ll explore three strategies that will help create distance between us and this inner dialogue while also developing a more thorough understanding of how and why they exist, what functions they serve in the psyche, and how we can all deal more skillfully with each other.
It’s crucially important to meet your own sub-personality before doing any work on developing or transforming this internal structure into a more adaptive and functional ally.
Before “fixing” the self-critic, we have to shift from the realm of abstract, clinical labels and wake up to the bespoke, individual personality that lives inside of us.
Strategy 1: The Projection Journal
This is a journaling technique where we will pay attention to a concept called psychological projection.
As a brief description of projection, it’s when we have uncomfortable, frustrating, or painful emotions and instead of processing them consciously they are projected on to other people.
By externalizing our emotions like this it can make it much easier to move throughout life without emotional pain.
However, this often limits our relational opportunity and can cause harm to the people who are the recipients of these projections.
To meet our inner self-critic, we’re on the look out for two types of this projection.
The first is what I’m calling “judgmental projection.”
It’s important to note that a concept like projection is slippery.
It doesn’t necessarily have concrete boundaries and the line between “judgmental projection” and the flow of consciousness we experience on an ongoing basis is permeable.
However, some of the following thoughts, behaviors, and language are common artifacts of a judgmental projection.
- Judgement (of morals, aesthetics, behaviors, etc)
- Shaming (shame can often be seen in “should” or “should not of” statements)
Even though this type of projection is talked about and studied in the context of our relationship to the external world it is also an invaluable tool to help us communicate with our internal self-critic.
It helps us understand one of the most basic functions of the self-critic as an autonomous structure in the psyche.
In short, it’s a watchdog for the things we value most in life.
For some, this first strategy alone will allow a sense of compassion and understanding about this structure to begin developing.
Another common outcome from this strategy is that it can begin the process of recalibrating our values and to make sure the more habitual and automatic structures are on the same page with our current level of maturity.
Also, as we begin to increase our awareness of the above language and thought artifacts, there’s an understanding that we often judge, blame, condemn, and shame ourselves more than people in the outside world.
This form of inner criticism is actually quite similar to psychological projection.
Whatever thought, behavior, urge, or emotional state that we have critical thoughts about, we’re actually putting distance between us and the part of the unconscious from where it arrived.
The distancing splits off an inner dynamic from our conscious world and a contradiction emerges between the part of us that authentically feels or wants to behave in a certain way and a part of us that’s not having it.
The problem is that even though the way the problematic dynamic is expressing itself may not be in accordance with the plans of our conscious sense of self , through the act of completely condemning it we’re cutting ourselves off from latent potential and future development of the dynamic.
In short, we’re limiting our own possibilities as a protection mechanism to avoid powerful emotions associated with past images or vague future notions.
An interesting side effect of increasing awareness of these habitual thoughts is an understanding of how common both the outward and inward form of projection are for most people.
This opens up a strange and fascinating recursive phenomenon where it becomes easy to become self critical of our own capacity for criticism.
I do my best to find this funny, but if it is, it’s funny in a cosmically horrifying frustrating way.
Nevertheless, it is not helpful. Personally, I practice and suggest curiosity as an alternative to guilt or shame when the self critic is revealed.
As we continue to explore ways to dialogue with this sub-personality and understand the function more thoroughly it’s my hope that we can also cultivate a tenderness, compassion, and sense of gratitude for ourselves as a whole and our self-critic in particular, but this is much easier said then done.
At the very least, it’s important not to pathologize our self critical thoughts.
Instead, engaging with them where they’re at before deciding if we’d like to transform them into a more adaptive internal ally or release them from our being entirely.
If you’re having trouble finding any projections at all to add to you journal, I’ve found the following relationship structures as particularly fruitful to go hunting for them.
- Family systems
- Political discussions
- Intimate relationships
- Behavior of strangers (people watching)
The next flavor of psychological projection is, in many ways, the sweet to the first flavors sour.
Broadly, I think of it as aspirational projection.
A few of the artifacts to look out for are things that we:
- Find motivating
In many ways, this is an easier form of projection to explore because there’s less of a taboo on it than the first form we explored.
Because humility is at the foundation of many common ethical teachings this form of projection is actually encouraged and cultivated in many powerful teachings and systems of thought.
Interestingly enough, this also can create a split similar to the first flavor in the sense that strengths, qualities, and behaviors that we admire are projected outwards onto personal heroes.
While this is clearly a crucial part of our development it’s limiting if our own latent potential to embody these qualities isn’t nurtured.
Aspirational projection is invaluable information to gather because the internal self-critic will often beat us up for not living up to the values of these heroes.
However, a disconnect develops where the critic beats us up for not living up to our own latent potential and our waking self misinterprets it as a call to consume more aspirational content.
Thus a feedback loop develops and even the most aspirational content begins to feel empty as we can never fill up what feels like gaping hole that sucks up all meaning and creates a sense of emptiness.
It seems to me that this dynamic is often at the root of procrastination and the type of anxiety people experience when feeling stuck or blocked.
The critic is demands that we live up to our own brilliant potential and the conscious I responds to the pressure by consuming more aspirational content or through intense urges to be around people that you admire, respect, or love.
Returning to the theme about avoiding pathology something to look out for while working through this practice is a fear or disgust of success.
While humility is an interesting and often an important value to cultivate it can easily go too far.
Healthy aspiration facilitates feelings of adequacy and self-worth.
The person who speaks enthusiastically about their projects, interests, and values may not be bragging or demanding appreciation as much as trying to share a process that is meaningful to them.
They are not possessed by self-interest or narcissism, but rather the good of the world through the expression of what matters to them.
A self critical tug of war can develop where one part of us wants to be humble and safe while the other wants to take risks and develop their full potential.
This dynamic is crucial to explore while getting to know the self critic.
To find some of these aspirational yearnings you can look for:
- Religious teachings that speak to you
- Pieces of art (books, movies, cartoons, dances) and the artists that create them
- Figures from history
- Specific characters from myths, fairy tales, etc
- Fascinating animals
While working with the projection journal a function of the self critic is often observed. They act as a watchdog for your personal values and as an aspirational barometer.
For deepening this work, I suggest the following practices:
- For one week and ongoing as needed collect as many internal and external projections of both flavors and see what you learn
- Journaling sessions on the relationship projection may play in your family system, intimate relationships, political views, and opinion of strangers
- Journaling sessions on the aspirational values underlying the things that inspire you
This strategy allows us to understand how the self critic can impact how we process information in the present moment. The next strategy investigates how the critic creates meaning from the past.
Strategy 2: Cringing at past memories
This strategy first began to reveal itself in my private practice when I witnessed a client having an involuntary full body tremor while recounting a past memory from school.
The intensity of the reaction struck me as important and even though at first they were sure it was an innocuous, random memory, after prompting, we uncovered important insights about the formation of their self critic.
Whether our tendency and habitual patterns are more future oriented (feeling either anxiety or anticipation for the future) or past oriented ( feeling shame or nostalgia) we can learn a lot about the critic by taking a look at past memories.
Note, this particular strategy takes some bravery especially when we’re not accustomed to feeling strong emotion.
With that being said, the amount of energy and liberation we achieve by understanding this sub-personality makes the process worthwhile.
I suggest the following two exercises for working with the past as a gateway to the self critic.
Exercise 1: Memory practice
For one week and ongoing as needed set a timer for 5 minutes, take some deep breaths, close your eyes, relax your body, clear your mind, and try to remember a scene from 5 days before. Focus on every detail you can remember: the activities you did, the people you met, the places you visited, etc.
After the timer goes off, repeat the same exercise for 5 minutes, but this time focus on a memory from 5 years ago.
Record in your journal for best results.
Also, try and incorporate all of your physical senses in the exploration. Many of us will be 1 or 2 sense dominate when mapping memory terrain, but the better we get at understanding each scene through all of our senses the more vivid the memories will become.
For most of us, the first couple of sessions are frustrating, but soon memories begin to come back in shocking detail.
Exercise 2: Active Imagination
Active imagination is one of the most interesting and useful practices in depth psychology.
Originally pioneered by Carl Jung, It was designed to help bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious mind.
Active imagination will help us take our approach to understanding the self critic to an additional layer of depth.
For our purposes, I will provide a truncated teaching of how active imagination can help uncover insight into what’s shaping our personalities.
- Step 1: Quiet your mind as in the memory exercise
- Step 2: Invite the memories. Often a statement like “take me to the pivotal events that led to the formation of my self critic” is enough to trigger the relevant past memories
- Step 3: Dialogue and interact with the memory dynamically. Make note of each of your senses
- Step 4: Record in your journal
Note, mileage can vary with this technique based on temperament, creativity, and experience with psychodynamic techniques that draw on the imagination.
If you’re interested in learning more about this technique or refining your practice I suggest the following resources:
- Inner Work by Robert Johnson
- Video summary of the technique
- Beginners guide to Carl Jung’s Red Book
- In depth lectures on the Red Book
As we’ve explored the second strategy for learning more about the self critic as a sub-personality, we’ve discovered another function that led to its development.
It tries to reduce shame in the long run by keeping us safe from repeating past mistakes.
This effort has utility and is important, but is often expressed in a heavy handed, emotionally violent way that limits our possibilities.
Now that we’ve gained that information we can move to the final strategy.
Strategy 3: Notice fortune telling and mind reading abilities
In the last strategy, we looked at working more skillfully with the past. During the 3rd, we’ll look at a way of getting to know your self critic that involves analyzing how we understand future potential.
Often, it happens like this, a future event is imagined that is attached to an emotion that is unpleasant such as fear, shame, and anxiety.
The self critic with it’s function to protect us from rejection, create more certainty, and limit risk decides that this future event is likely to happen and all possibility of it happening must be stopped now whether through more ruminating or a numbing behavior.
The problem with this is the future event is often quite unlikely to happen.
Often times, imagined events are things that have little evidence supporting them as likely to occur.
Similarly, the self critic sub-personality will often be certain, for example, other people are always looking down on us. It is easy to become so convinced of this mind reading ability that we don’t even bother to examine the evidence in a critical way.
This particular strategy is effective for working with the critic because it allows the structure itself to mature and develop as an inner personality.
I think this happens because the recursive practice of critiquing criticism as not being grounded in reality short circuits the process and transforms the nature of the critic into a more adaptive and coherent interpretation of experience.
To understand this point more fully, here are three connected journal prompts we can use:
- Determine exactly what the prediction is — what, where, and when will it happen? Make it very concrete.
- Collect and examine the evidence you have for the prediction.
- Determine by what means you could test the prediction. Is it falsifiable or testable in someway?
There is also a 4th bonus step where you can journal about what happens if the prediction is true no matter how unlikely. I have found it so fascinating to examine exactly why these predicted future outcomes actually matter.
This often leads to insights that help crystalize data from the first strategy on projection and help us understand what we truly value in life.
As we mentioned earlier, often times fixating on these future events serves a definite function to help protect us from rejection.
In this essay we’ve explored three strategies to learn more information about the internal self critic personality. The strategies we explored are:
- The projection journal
- Cringing at past memories
- Analyzing fortune telling and mind reading abilities
We’ve also tried to illuminate how and why they developed and some potential functions that play out in the real world.
Some of the functions we discovered are:
- The self critic is a watchdog for values and an aspirational barometer
- They protect us from shame and keep us safe from painful memories
- Act as a protective buffer against rejection, create more certainty, and limit risk.
Through the practices I gave in the piece there is an opportunity to address these needs in a way that may be more skillful and adaptive that allows us to more fully realize our latent potential.
To conclude, I believe strongly that it is important to engage with these internal dynamics and psychological theories in a creative and dynamic way.
It is my hope that these practices, teachings, and ideas are utilized as a jumping off point that spawns new insights, perspectives, and approaches.
If this happens for you or if you try my suggestions please tell me here or on Twitter!
Thanks for reading and best of luck on your journey.