Three Alchemical Tools to Understand Self-Criticism

Brian Nuckols
Feb 18 · 21 min read

The psychiatrist Carl Jung was an influential figure in the history of psychology.

His contributions to personality theory are undeniable as he was the first to distinguish between extraversion and introversion two terms that have become ubiquitous in modern western culture over the last 100 years.

In more recent times, influential psychologists like Raymond Cattell have built on Jung’s theory of personality and his ideas continue to impact the development of personality theory.

This is a fairly conservative description of Jung’s legacy.

His ideas about synchronicity, archetypes, and the collective unconscious are much more interesting yet clinical psychology and more rationally minded depth psychologists tend to give them the side eye.

An example of one of Jung’s more interesting (and I will argue enduring) projects is the synthesis he attempted between depth psychology and a psychological reading of the alchemical process.

For the not yet initiated, the alchemical process is another way to describe for “The Great Work,” “the magnum opus,” or the transformation of lead into gold.

Jung read this psychologically as a description for fulfilling latent potential.

This is interesting because it serves as a major distinction between Jung’s psychology (sometimes called analytical psychology) and other forms of depth psychology.

In short, hidden causes and clues about behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are not only encrypted in past childhood experiences.

Instead, future aspirations and latent potential also beckon to us through dreams, moods, fantasies, and yearnings.

In analytical psychology this yearning to develop potential is called the process of individuation or the analytical process.

Jung’s provocation is that his “discovery” of this process is nothing more than a remembering of something that has been encoded in alchemical tracts from ancient China, to India, and all throughout Europe.

During the last 30 years of his life, Jung used these alchemical texts as the fundamental resource for depth psychology and presents teachings on how the symbols in alchemy are a map for unfolding personal development.

Personally, I believe strongly in rigorous methods of empirical social science while also revering mystical and spiritual teachings and practices.

Analytical psychology opens up a space to reconcile these positions.

Much of modern psychology has viewed Jung’s mystical side with a combination of indifference, anger, skepticism, and dismissal.

Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones writes that Jung “descended into a pseudo-philosophy out of which he never emerged.”

I don’t think this is quite right. There is evidence that suggests that many of Jung’s intuitions and thought during his alchemical period are profoundly insightful and pioneering.

Here are a few exhibits that help demonstrate this claim:

  • Depression's Evolutionary Roots: Research showing that depression is often adaptive and is attempting to pull us out of suboptimal circumstances. This bolsters Jung’s ideas about latent potential.
  • The Holy Grail of the Unconscious: The publication of the Red Book that gives us a method and praxis for testing these ideas as laboratories of one. These laboratories are creating case studies, testimonies, and tacit knowledge that is reviving interest in Jung’s thought and informing new clinical research and hypothesis generation.
  • Unexpected convergences with the work of folks like Daniel Kahneman is bolstering the evidence for depth psychology. Dual processing theory is congruent with notions of a collective unconscious ( I would argue) and defense mechanisms from depth psychology are quite similar to what Kahneman calls decision making biases.

In this piece, we’re going to put these theoretical notions to the test.

In my personal work and private practice working with substance abuse and behavioral addictions we use methods developed from depth psychology to solve real problems.

My hypothesis is that they help cultivate what Paul Cooijmans calls associative horizon as well as what’s called lateral thinking.

Both of these concepts help us work through challenging problems like addiction and depression through finding solutions that were not available to our current conceptual frameworks and implicit guidance systems.

Recently, in my practice there’s also been a lot of work with applying these ideas to the the experience of self- criticism.

Things like procrastination, perfectionism, self sabotage, and other maladaptive coping mechanisms develop to escape the wrathful eye of an internal self - critic who judges any creative or interesting work we try to do harshly.

This is a tough problem and is a perfect opportunity to explore the theoretical ideas put forth above.

We can do this by investigating the separation stage of the alchemical process.

It is the 3rd of 7 stages and involves dividing, cutting, and breaking substances to retrieve their basic essence.

Below, there are 3 psychological tools that we can use to separate hapitual and automatic self critical thoughts from our conscious sense of self.

By doing this we not only place ourselves in a long and interesting tradition of alchemists, but also open to the possibilities for personal growth that we may have never considered.

Inner work is helpful for anyone, but I’ve found that creatives who are feeling stuck or blocked from doing their art can find self- critic work particularly fruitful.

Alchemical tool one: dialogue with the self-critic

The self-critic is an external reality that we can negotiate and collaborate with and not a personal flaw that we have to remove or fix.

A valuable first step is to become acquainted with the individual and bespoke preferences of our own critical personality so we can understand their inclinations and help them fulfil latent potential.

To say it another way, we must pay special attention to the unique nature of our self critical personality.

Adopting an attitude of curiosity about the self-criticism that allows us to undercover the interesting wrinkles of their personality, motives, style, and preferences is crucial.

This is the obvious and polite thing to do before embarking on a painful yet rewarding alchemical transformation.

Instead of sneaking up on them with heavy handed cognitive methods designed to change habitual and automatic tendencies by brute force we shall make a direct attempt to personify them and give them an actual voice.

Then, we will take the time and attention to discuss things with them as a colleague.

We will try our best to divine the particular character of our self- critic by writing their thoughts down on paper.

I suggest the following exercise for working with the dialogue method to achieve separation from the self-critic.

Step 1: Open your favorite writing software (I like google docs) and set a timer for 15 minutes

Step 2: Take some deep breaths, relax the body, and clear the mind.

Step 3: Now, we begin the dialogue by typing the first thing that comes to mind. Often expressing emotions or asking a question is a good start. After the initial question or statement take one breath, press the caps lock key, and respond as the self-critic

Step 4: Continue in dialogue for the 15 minutes. Follow the principle of “yes, and” most commonly found in improvisational acting. In short, it’s an acceptance principle where we agree not only to accept whatever comes up in the dialogue, but also to build on it.

Step 5: After completion save results in a folder. Allow at least 24 hours in between completing the exercise and coming back for any type of interpretation

Step 6: Continue daily for one week.

Alchemical tool 2: Active imagination

Active imagination is one of the most interesting tools in depth psychology.

As a brief preface, the vast majority of people who practice this technique have some small difficulties getting started, but then find the practice incredibly illuminating.

For a small minority of us who are particularly open to the form of cognition that Jung called intuition images from the unconscious can become incredibly vivid and overwhelming.

This is not meant to discourage us from doing inner work with our self- critic, but it’s worth mentioning that if any feelings of overwhelm start arising it is a good idea to seek out a Jungian analyst.

I’m happy to point anyone in the direction of awesome analysts in their area so please reply or to this article or find me on Twitter if you need any help with that.

Also, there will be some resources on grounding and mindfulness below the active imagination practice section that will help mitigate feelings of overwhelm while staying open to the transformational power of working with the inner world.

A simple explanation for active imagination is that it’s another form of dialogue between us and unconscious images or subpersonalities.

In this case, we’re using it for working with self critical thoughts in particular, however it has a wide scope of potential applications.

It’s different from the first tool in the sense that it’s more like stepping into a waking dream and less like participating in a creative journaling session.

Like a dream, images, events, characters, and stories will rise up from the unconscious mind.

Unlike a dream, we’ll be awake and conscious so the images will rise up to the level of our imagination. During the practice of active imagination we learn to talk and interact with these images.

What is quite shocking when you first get started is that these internal entities often have starkly different viewpoints from the conscious mind. They will share thoughts that we never thought and give us information that we never heard before.

During these practice sessions, a lot of the communication is done with these figures where we try to work out compromises, find middle ground, share advice, build a deeper relationship, and exchange points of view.

The modern pioneer of this method is Carl Jung who we talked about in the introduction.

It was crystalized during a series of visionary experiences that made up one of the most important texts in the history of psychology. This text is known as the Red Book or Liber Novus.

During the creation of this book Jung learned that he could go into his fantasies and visions and participate with them using his conscious mind.

In doing so, he found that active exchanges between conscious and unconscious energy systems led to great insight and movement towards personal development and wholeness.

The following example from Jung comes from one of the first sessions of active imagination that led to the creation of the Red Book.

“ I was sitting at my desk once more thinking of my fears and I let myself drop.

Suddenly, it was although the ground literally gave way beneath my feet and I plunged down into dark depths.

I could not fend off a feeling of panic, but then, abruptly, at not too great a depth, I landed on my feet on a soft, sticky, mass. I felt great relief though I was apparently in complete darkness.

After awhile, my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom which was rather like a deep twilight. Before me was the entrance to a dark cave which stood a dwarf with a leathery skin as if he were mummified.

I squeezed past him through the narrow passage and waded knee deep through the icy water to the other end of the cave where on a projecting rock I saw a glowing red crystal. I grasped the stone, lifted it and discovered a hollow underneath.

At first, I could make out nothing but then I saw that there was running water in it and a corpse floated by a youth with blonde hair and a wound in the head. He was followed by a gigantic black scrab and then by a red newborn Sun rising out of the depths of the water”

In his exploration of these images that rose up from somewhere in the psyche Jung discovered that they were in fact symbols that represented the most deep interiors of his mind.

Thus, through active imagination, we can understand the symbolic images that are at the core of our own self critical thoughts.

As an interior being, the self critic literally has a mind of its own and through active imagination we can allow its individuality to make itself known.

This is useful because through the practice the subpersonality will share things that are new to us, off putting, startling, and often illuminating.

Because subpersonalities often speak through automatic thoughts and conditioned patterns that are fused with the ego mind (as in recursive negative thoughts) their true nature and agenda is often a secret to us.

By means of an alchemical separation through active imagination we can get more clarity about how to deal skillfully with their point of view.

The essence of active imagination is a conscious participation with imaginative events.

Let’s investigate active imagination schematically with a four step process anyone can use to get started on their active imagination journey.

Step 1: Inviting the self -critic

In the first step, we have to invite the self critic and any corresponding images associated with it to flow up from the unconscious. This is done by first taking our mind off the external world, relaxing our bodies, and calming our nervous system.

Then we must direct our inner sight to the place within us that the self-critic dwells.

Once we arrive in that place the active imagination begins with whatever images are revealed.

Step 2: Dialoguing with the self critic

In the second step, we are now ready to begin speaking with the self-critic.

These are crucial moments in the separation process because it allows the critics individual identity to start crystalizing.

This step is mostly a matter of fluidity and giving ourselves over to the imagination.

On a practical level, as images arise we can internally say the first thing that comes to our mind and wait for a response.

If there is no response or movement from initial promptings it is good practice to ask the images about what they would like to do, how they are related to the self-critic, or what they would like to talk about.

Often times, these figures want to take us on a journey.

If it feels right to go off with them it’s a good idea to follow and see where things go. However, if the intuitive side of us does not feel right about going then it is an excellent opportunity to voice that feeling.

This will often lead to a confrontation and lead to a sometimes heated discussion between our conscious self and the inner self critic.

Contradictions between what we think we want or don’t want, are afraid of, or don’t approve of are excellent material for an active imagination session.

Step 3: Taking an ethical stance

Now that we’ve begun the differentiation process between the conscious “I” and the self critic we need to start thinking about why we’re feeling called and motivated to do this work.

One function of the ego mind is to help order the raw expression of powerful unconscious archetypes into more defined conscious or physical form.

A fundamental goal of Jung’s analytical psychology is to integrate these forces and apply them to a unique and individual developmental process.

This is a fundamentally personal question that has to do with what gives us meaning and purpose in life and no formula or theoretical outlook can answer that for an individual.

Certain teachings can help give us more clarity on this topic. In a previous essay, we talked about a concept called aspirational projection. In it the following suggestion is given to find things that inspire or motivate us:

To find some of these aspirational yearnings you can look for:

1. Religious teachings that speak to you

2. Pieces of art (books, movies, cartoons, dances) and the artists that create them

3. Figures from history

4. Specific characters from myths, fairy tales, etc

5. Fascinating animals

When we’re able to locate some of these aspirational projections we can analyze how they point to certain values and qualities that we admire.

This is a great signal that the archetypal forces at work underneath the projection are calling us to express them in the conscious world.

With this information at hand we have to understand that this call is crucial to our individual development and all of our inner figures and personalities will eventually have to accept that fact.

Because this is an incredibly personal component of this work I will share a brief example from my practice to clarify.

I have a deep and enduring fascination with the composer and musician Tori Amos.

Upon a deep analysis of her albums, interviews, and performances I realized two things about her work that create a lot of emotion and drive within me.

First, much of her work points to an alchemical transformation from suffering to hope. She’s taken experiences of trauma and loss and helped transform them into music that inspires, gives meaning, and heals millions of people.

Second, she has a conception of songwriting and art that is about authentically and truthfully expressing and engaging with the forces that move through her as she writes a song.

These examples help illustrate two fundamental principles that guide my life and help me find meaning in the work I do.

This relates to our work with active imagination and the self critic because in step 3 it’s important for the conscious “I” to set boundaries around these ethics and have a reciprocal, adaptive relationship with the self critic that allows the values to flourish.

In my case, when I’m inspired to write poetry about an emotional experience and the self critic berates it for being eager or cringe worthy I need to stand up for myself vigorously and remind them about my guiding principles.

During any dialogue, it’s important to not let things become one sided. We need to respect the inner figures and help them express themselves in the conscious world, but never at the expense of our values.

Also, it is good practice to ask the figures explicitly how they can help us embody and live out our values more effectively.

Note, finding purpose and meaning is a lifelong process so it’s important to not overthink this step.

The above examples are the product of many hours of thought but if we haven’t had a chance to think deeply about values in awhile this is no reason to put off doing active imagination.

More broad values like happiness, meaning, ease, and self compassion are fantastic things to discuss with the self critic.

Recursive negative thoughts that keep us from creating get in the way of all of those fundamental human values and we can confront the self critic for keeping us from them.

Step 4: Ritual (making the unconscious conscious)

The final step in active imagination is to ceremonially write down and express the results. Ritual is a fascinating topic in and off itself and is one of the fundamental survival strategies our ancestors developed to live more skillfully.

From a psychological perspective, it helps make the inner work we’re doing concrete and physical.

There is no need to make rituals elaborate.

The process of setting aside 20 minutes of complete privacy with no distractions and lighting a single candle is enough to broadcast a signal to the psyche that we are developing and ready for material.

Briefly, there are two guiding principles for this portion of the active imagination. They are non-judgement and acceptance.

There are signals from culture, our history, and conditioning that the imagination is fake. That inner work is self indulgent. Because this work is dealing with the self critic thoughts about feeling stupid or making it all up are incredibly common.

This is a good sign as it shows a natural thawing out process and reawakening of inner sight.

We need to find the courage to face these critical thoughts and the blank screen (or piece of paper) as we begin to write about the active imagination.

I like to remember when sitting down to do inner work that I’m entering into a long tradition of my heroes who had the audacity to respect the process of inner work and direct revelation.

From Joan of Arc, to Dante, Carl Jung, and Siri Hustvedt many have went inward and come back with experiences that have been great gifts to themselves and humanity as a whole.

It is our right to do the same.

Suggested practice:

  • Step 1: Relax the nervous system, breathe. Become mindful of raw experience. Gently release recursive, self referential thoughts. Take 10 deep breaths and direct the inner eye to the place where images that are symbolic of our self critic will reveal themselves
  • Step 2: Wait for the first image. As it arises gaze at them as you would a new person walking into a social situation and proceed naturally
  • Step 3: As the encounter progresses, articulate values and feelings sincerely
  • Step 4: After half of the time you’ve alloted has passed begin an expressive writing ritual. Light a candle and spend the remaining time facing the blank screen while sharing your impressions of the active imagination

Alchemical tool 3: Cognitive Journaling

The 3rd tool is the most heavily rational and thinking tool we’ll discuss in this piece.

It’s purpose is to open ourselves up to self reflection while trying remain as objective as possible. The tool is designed to help us increase our awareness of the self-critic while also challenging their assumptions.

Through putting the thoughts, emotions and external events that we associate with the self critic down on paper we can begin to more easily categorize our experience and flesh out how their personality is impacting it.

This is because the self criticism itself becomes differentiated and in this state they are no longer so absolute, habitual, and automatic.

In short, this method can be described as attempting to observe our own thinking.

Observation gives us a more broad perspective and through journaling we can slow down our thoughts and learn to more skillfully abide with them.

With time, we can even start to reorganize our self critical thoughts, find patterns, and give ourselves more agency in how we decide to respond to them.

The aim of this technique is to describe mental events as they appear in consciousness. We’ll also introduce the self critic to the concept of empiricism through establishing cause and effect relationships between circumstances, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

There are three key principles to keep in mind during cognitive journaling sessions:

  • Falsifiability
  • Focused non-judgement
  • Detail

Let’s look at each in turn.

Falsifiability

This principle is crucial because it’s a mechanism that helps release our self critical beliefs and conditioning right from the beginning so we can get a clear picture of the internal and external facts.

For an event, emotion, or thought to be a fact we must have the ability to falsify it using a yes or no question.

A good example of this is the distinction between “I was” and “I felt” statements.

Perhaps we’re going along with a writing session and a thought intrudes that the particular line of thought is stupid and we need to do more research before continuing.

If we want to do a cognitive journaling session about this idea it’s better to categorize this event as “I felt my writing wasn’t good enough” as opposed to “I was judgemental about my writing.”

This shift in language may seem subtle, but it’s quite crucial to the process of differentiation.

The “I was” form fixes the emotion or thought and denies the inherent fluid nature. Emotions and thoughts are actually transient, but the self critic is often absolute.

By drawing this distinction firmly we can start to see a real difference between reality and how it’s perceived from a self critical lens.

It’s helpful to remember that “ I was” and statements like it enhance the fusion mentality whereas “I felt” and statements like it help us use the observer lens.

Focused Non- Judgement

As we describe events that are happening to us using cognitive journaling we can choose how to categorize the judgments, deductions, and inferences that might come up during the process.

Let’s look at an example where motivation disappears and we haven’t written or created art in a long time. Before we jump to a conclusion that “not creating art in a long time is bad” or “I didn’t create enough art because I waste too much time” it can be interesting to create more space through a process of focused, non-judgemental exploration.

It’s rare that there’s a simple, black and white answer that explain long droughts in production. Perhaps there are mitigating factors we didn’t notice or aren’t thinking about in the moment?

If we make the choice to explore things instead of jumping to conclusions immediately we may discover or remember information that will help us deal more skillfully with waxing and waning motivation in the future.

This principle is called focused non-judgment because when we get to the journaling practice and introduce the ABC model of cognition the implicit beliefs we have that create the judgements, inferences, and make up the self critic personality have their own category.

Thus, it’s focused non-judgement because unlike regular non-judgement that we explored in active imagination it’s not a complete free for all. We accept the thoughts and beliefs that come up, but during this particular exercise we make a choice to differentiate what category they belong.

Detail

This principle is directly related to the idea of opening up space outside of our automatic and habitual judgements about a situation. Often times, it seems like there’s a race to orient ourselves and describe why a situation is happening as fast as possible.

On a evolutionary level, this makes sense. Uncertainty is dangerous in some contexts and the risk averse approach is to cling on to certainty even if the conclusions aren’t quite right.

However in most contexts, embracing uncertainty in the short to medium term to gather more information and calibrate our decision making is a less limiting approach.

In practice, this looks like gathering as many falsifiable facts as we can about the situation we’re journaling about.

Richard Ragnarson M.D is a practitioner of CBT and does an incredible job of laying out his approach to cognitive journaling. Below is an excerpt for a recent article he wrote that describes a good example of adding detail to a journaling session:

I went to the supermarket. I met my boss Chris by chance. We spoke and he brought up my work. I thought, “Why can’t he leave me alone even when I am not at work?” I felt annoyed. I thought, “I don’t like feeling like this.” I felt angry. I thought, “I can’t stand getting annoyed anymore,” and then I thought, “I need to change jobs.”

This is very different from writing: “I was out and met Chris; he’s such a jerk. I can’t stand dealing with him. I need to quit this job

Now that we’ve discussed those three principles we can dive into the journaling practice itself.

Cognitive journaling relies heavily on a framework of cognition popularized by the psychiatrist Albert Ellis. This framework supposes that we have a unique set of assumptions about the world and ourselves that serve as an implicit guidance system.

However, when this guidance system is heavily influenced by a grumpy and maladaptive self critic it can influence us in ways that don’t make sense and aren’t helpful.

One of the tools he used to help elaborate this framework is called the ABC method.

It helps us visualize the a sequence or chain of events that make up our cognition.

The “A” stands for an activating event, the “B” stands for latent beliefs that make up our internal frameworks for interpreting the event, and the “C” stands for the consequences of that interpretation. Consequences manifest as either thoughts, emotions, or behaviors.

Even though the system progresses linearly from A — C it’s useful to reverse engineer the process to get more clarity before starting with the practice.

It’s quite helpful to begin with “C” consequences: thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

We’ll want to brainstorm the common thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (think procrastination, self sabotage, etc) that we think are related to the self-critic.

Also, it’s helpful to remember the principle of falsifiability during this step as it’s good to avoid the tendency to fix emotions with the “I was” construction.

Second, well want to brainstorm a list of “A’s” or activating events. These are triggers or events that are linked to the consequences we identified in step 1.

It’s helpful to remember the principle of detail for this step making sure we’re dropping judgements and describing the event for what it actually was.

Lastly, we can look for the belief that transforms the activating event into the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we relate to the self critic.

This can be quite tricky at first as these beliefs are often deeply embedded and fused with our world view and cognitive schemas.

However, there are four categories of beliefs that the self critic often owns that I’ve commonly come up in my work with private clients and in my own practice.

  • Dogmatic demands: musts, shoulds, any absolutes
  • Awfulizing: this is awful, terrible, horrible,
  • Low frustration tolerance: I can’t stand it, I need it
  • Self / other rating: I’m or he / she / they are is bad, worthless

With all of these beliefs we can use the following heuristic to challenge the self critic.

  1. Is there evidence for this belief?
  2. Is this belief logical?
  3. Is this belief helpful for accomplishing my goals and embodying my values in the world?

When the answer is no we can take that material back to tool 1 or 2 and confront the self critic and work out an agreement for new more adaptive beliefs.

Suggested practice:

Step 0: Set a timer for 10 minutes

Step 1: Relax, breathe. Gently release recursive thoughts. Take 10 deep breaths and set an intention to journal with non-judgment, detail, and falsifiability.

Step 2: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Journal continuously on the consequences of the activating event and the activating event itself.

Step 3: Now contemplate the beliefs that are linked to the “A” (activating event) and “C” (consequences) This can be done for any length of time, but I suggest starting with 20 minutes.

Note, if we get stuck on this step the following prompts can help with the linking process:

  • Why did I behave this way?
  • Why did feel that emotion?
  • What does this event mean to me?

Step 4: Once the belief has been identified we ask:

  1. Is there evidence for this belief?
  2. Is this belief logical?
  3. Does this belief serve my goals and values? Is it useful?

After completing this step the alchemical version of cognitive journaling is complete. We’ve established clearly to the self-critic that we aren’t necessarily going to default to engrained, habitual beliefs if there is little evidence for them or they aren’t helpful.

With this perspective, we have a rich opportunity to confront them directly with this information with tools like dialoguing and active imagination.

In this article, we’ve looked at three tools to help differentiate our conscious sense of self and the internal self- critic subpersonality.

We discussed a dialoguing technique where we become acquainted with some of the unique personality traits the critic holds. Next we learned more about active imagination where the self- critic can begin to thoroughly differentiate themselves.

Finally, we explored a form of cognitive journaling where heuristics were introduced to ethically and assertively set boundaries and confront the critic with new perspectives and evidence.

To conclude, I believe strongly in these methods they have helped me develop as a person immensely and I’ve seen folks in my private practice start to flourish in their creative life.

The first step is making time for inner work. If you’ve made it to the end of this article you’ve sent a powerful signal to the unconscious. It’s my hope that we can use the momentum and start applying these practices.

If you try them out let me know as a reply or on Twitter.

Good luck!

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