The value of your inner critic

What if your inner critic exists to help you stand strong?

Speaking your truth is one of the best ways to move our world towards a life giving state. But that is damn hard. Chances are that when you step out of the cultural script, your inner cultural commandant’s criticism starts. For a long time I loathed its negative voice. When I believe that voice, I can sit in shame and despair for days.

But recently I learned something that is changing my relationship with my inner critic. Psychologist Robert Augustus Masters says that when you have been raised in an authoritarian culture that uses shame to create compliance, chances are good that you never learned to engage with that voice. For example, when the culture around you said, “Shame on you,” you had no option but to say, “I’m so sorry, you are right, I’ll climb back into my box now.” You never developed a rebuttal, a voice that says, “Tell me more… Why do you think so?” Or, “No, you are wrong. I am worthy and what I did was valid.”

But here is a delightful thing about life: it is relentless in its desire for you to develop. It will bring you back to the situation of being bullied, diminished or mistrusted time and time again to help you grow the ability to speak to it. During the preparation for my TEDx talk, my inner critic (I call him Slim) was a busy boy. I would like to share some of our interactions, in the hope to normalize this inner turmoil we can see as shameful, and look at more options to shift this dynamic.

So, before Slim convinces me not to publish this post, I’m sharing some of our encounters with you.

#1 Do you actually believe you matter?

I’m lying on my back, legs up the wall, when my phone timer goes off. The urge to check email is strong and yes, there it is. An email from the TEDx crew. Instead of slowly rolling out of my yoga position, I shoot up in excitement: “I have been selected!” Only to sit down shortly after. “…for a nine minute talk.” Aren’t they supposed to be 18? Nine minutes? You can barely eat your oatmeal in nine minutes, never mind explain oppression.

“This, my dear,” says Slim, my inner critic, as he clears his throat, “is a sign that your topic and resume is only passable. Not great, not great. But…” he kindly offers me his perfectly ironed hanky, “don’t feel bad, at least you are selected. I can see it, you will be the space between stars, the silence between two notes. And that is better than nothing.” He turns around to finish his espresso.

I slumpishly get up, get dressed. I don’t share my news with anyone for another week. But on day eight it hits me. Nine minutes can be a really great nine minutes. The pressure to be Brené Brown is off, because who can possibly be that great in nine minutes? So I go ahead and whisper to my friends, “Hey, I’m going to give a tiny TEDx talk.” And a spark of excitement returns.

What happened here?
 Even though it took a week, I was able to reframe the belief from, “I am not good enough to be selected for a long talk” to, “I get to do a short talk! What a gift!” Next time you feel small, write down the belief that causes you to shrink and see how you can reframe it. Try writing the opposite statement. Find something to be grateful for inside the situation. Work with it until it no longer stands in the way of moving forward.

#2 Do you think you have something to say?

When I submitted my “idea worth spreading,” I believed that I had something to share. But as I start to write it down, it disappears like mist on a warm morning. “What exactly were you thinking when you submitted your proposal, dear?” asks Slim without looking up from his NYT article. “Did you really believe that you had an idea worth spreading?” I have trouble concentrating. “He might be right,” I think as I text my friend. “Why the hell did I ever think giving a talk is a good idea?”

The fear of failure, of public humiliation, of being seen as someone who has nothing to contribute, sails silently into my body. Unlike my inner critic, fear does not engage in a dialogue. It just happens, like the cool sensation of clouds moving between you and the warm sun when you are wearing only a bathing suit. One moment I’m fine, the next moment a constricting shadow pulls me into tightness.

Fear does not speak in words. The only language it knows is that of breath, kindness and chocolate. I often forget the first two options and go straight for the chocolate — the sweet dopamine-releasing sensation that helps me numb the fearful constriction and carry on with the next task. But no amount of chocolate has ever written or given a talk, and that is my job now: write a talk.

I remember that there are other options. I begin to breathe into my fearful shadow. I begin to be kind to it. I speak to it like I would to a wounded alligator. “Hello fear,” I say. “You are welcome here. It’s ok, you know. We’re going to be ok. Is there anything other than eating chocolate now that will help you feel more at ease?”

What happened here?
 I believed a thought that made me afraid of being rejected. Instead of staying tangled in my thoughts, I dropped into the felt experience of my fear. I welcomed it and allowed myself to feel the bitter tin taste of fear, the constricting tightness without running or numbing. In this space of allowing my fear to simply be, caring for it, breathing with it, it starts to relax, it moves towards more calm. Next time you feel seized up with fear, don’t run away from it. Just sit with it, breathe with it, be kind to it in the same way you would offer kindness to a crying infant. You can let your fear know that you care for it.

#3 Who the hell do you think you are?

My talk is infused with flavors from the world of social justice. At the heart of the talk is the deep urge I feel to create a better world. It is May Day weekend, and my neighborhood celebrates May first like Germans celebrate Christmas. During several events I am reminded of the incredible work people around me are doing to organize marches, show up for immigrants, speak up for injustice or work to shift deeply engrained injustices inside the prison system.

Slim, my inner critic with the pale chiseled face and beautiful hands, meets me at the baseball field where the parade has now collapsed into puddles of people. His hands are folded over his chest. “These people,” he says as he motions with his chin towards the crowd, “These are the people doing the real work of shifting oppression. You, my darling, sit sweetly and naively in academic la-la-land. You’ve never set foot inside a prison cell, nor do you hang out on a regular basis with marginalized people.” I nod my head in agreement, feeling the fabric of my heart pull up tightly. “Who do you think you are to give a talk about making the world better?” he asks.

Slim turns around and walks towards the water fountain. No beer or barbeque for him, I guess. I have little appetite after our conversation and the feeling of inadequacy stays stuck sideways inside my chest. It is only in the evening that I find some relief. I’m dishing pasta salad up next to a dear friend who knows me very well. Like me, she knows what it is like when criticism feels so real that it robs you of reason. I disclose my fear. She listens. She smiles and asks, “Hannah, who are you not to give this talk?” The stifling fabric slides off my heart. I remember that I do have something to give.

What happened here?
 Brene Brown’s work on shame is very useful in this regard. It has helped me to see that when we keep a shameful belief inside of us (in this case, the belief that I am not worthy to speak), it festers. When we can bring it into a supportive friendship, the light of unconditional acceptance removes the sting of the lie. When you struggle with thoughts of your unworthiness, reach out to a trusted friend, someone who knows you, believes in you, sees the best in you. Allow them to remind you of your innate worth.

#4 You are doing this so wrong

It is a hard week: my friend who leans into social justice work with every cell in her body is fired and escorted from her office; a suicide bomber blows 22 people to smithereens; a Jewish friend of mine, participating in resisting Israel’s occupation of Palestine, witnesses violence to her friends and fellow protesters. And here I sit in the comfort of my home writing about being good to each other.

My writing is interrupted by Slim slapping his hands onto my desk and leaning in. His face is close to me as he asks, “How can you spend time writing about wholeness when you’re not out there doing it? What precisely is the use of talking? Of spending soooooo many hours thinking, writing, re-writing? Don’t you feel ashamed of yourself, wasting so much time on a self-indulgent talk when there is actual suffering in the world?”

I’m taken aback by his anger. I know that I am standing on a ledge here. If I choose to believe him, I will slide slowly down — finding myself and my process deficient. But this time I don’t go there, because blaming myself for my actions or inactions is neither kind nor is it useful. I’m working toward a kind world. I’m committed to right action. I’ve had enough of this diminishing dialogue.

I look at Slim. He must feel shaky with everything going on in the world, and possibly frustrated that we can do so little to affect all of that. I stand up from my desk and look into his pale blue eyes. “Slim,” I say as straighten my back, “Let me tell you what Toni Morrison says about this. She says, ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ I’m sorry that life is hard for us right now and that we can do so little to affect it directly. But writing and speaking is part of helping our world heal. And it is as we heal that we find the resources inside us to heal the world around us. So, please excuse me. I have work to do.” With that, Slim goes downstairs to make a cup of Earl Grey.

What happened here?
 I stood up for myself! This is huge for me as I’ve spent decades under the damp blanket of my inner criticism. Try it. Next time you feel that you are being diminished or questioned, say, “Oh really? Let me tell you why I am doing this….” If you want to read more about standing up for yourself, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an inspiring piece on “The arrogance of belonging” in her book “Big Magic.”

I want to encourage you to keep finding ways in which you can shift the conversation between you and any voice that keeps you small, that keep you in the safe confines of the cultural script. There are too many Slims in the world keeping our radiant truths hidden, subduing our voice in boardrooms, smothering it around dinner tables and stepping on it in community meetings. Let’s not be complicit in creating worlds where the bullies win. Let’s learn to stand up for what is true and speak up where ever we can.

If you are interested in having an online conversation that delves a bit deeper into strategies to work with your inner critic, please sign up here. We’re eager to see our world get untangled from the things that keep us from speaking and living our truths.