Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Continuing Adventures of My Inner Critic

Surely some of you have grown weary of me bitching about this stuff, but it's where my exploration is centered these days. If I can bring these demons into the light of day, they cease to have control over my psyche.

One of the subpersonalities I've been working with for the last year or two is my Inner Critic. I've written several posts on my work with this sub in the past (in order: here, here, here, and here). I'm sure I've looked at it in other posts, as well, but those are the main ones.

Here is how Hal and Sidra Stone, innovators in working with subpersonalities (or selves) describe the Inner Critic:
This Inner Critic is a voice within each of us that criticizes us mercilessly. With an IQ of about 500 that enables it to spot all of our shortcomings, an uncanny ability to read our most secret feelings, X-ray vision to reveal deficiencies that would be invisible to the naked eye, infrared tracking systems that can look within our dreams at night, and standards of comparison that would make Einstein look stupid and Mother Theresa look selfish, this Inner Critic takes upon itself the task of evaluating us. Needless to say, it always finds us falling short of expectations. When we speak of this Inner Critic we mean the voice within that criticizes us, we have called the self within us that criticizes other people "the Judge".

Silje Alberthe Kamille Friis

The Inner Critic is of special interest to psychotherapists, whatever their orientation because of it role in emotional distress. The anguish caused by the Inner Critic is always a basic factor in low self-esteem and is often a major impediment to any growth or change. Many of the difficulties in therapy experienced by your clients can directly be traced to this self which will question their ability to learn or to grow or, at the very least, will attack them for needing help in the first place. The Inner Critic is often directly involved in anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, addictions, and a variety of self-destructive behaviors. It is usually a key factor in dysfunctional or abusive relationships.

Most people are not even aware that there is a voice or a self speaking inside of them because the Inner Critic's constant judgments have been with them since early childhood and its running critical commentary feels quite natural. It develops early in their lives, absorbing (or internalizing) the judgments of the people around them and the expectations of the society in which they live.
One of the key points they make here is the connection between the Inner Critic and anxeity -- something those of us with social anxiety disorder know a bit about. But the Stones also make the point that the Critic develops as a part of relationships -- as a way to help us avoid failure or humiliation.

But the Critic can wreak havoc on our adult intimate relationships.
It responds to the judgments of everyone around us by agreeing with them. Ironically, although the Inner Critic's aim is to spare us judgment, it is quite likely to elicit "The Judge" those around us. This can happen energetically (almost like a magnetic attraction) or directly because once the Inner Critic criticizes something in us, we are open and vulnerable to the same criticism from the outside.

Last, but certainly not least, the Inner Critic prevents intimacy directly by shaming and abusing our Inner Child so that it cannot relate properly to others. It is this child that carries our deepest sensitivities and feelings and is a major factor in truly intimate connections. When it is frightened, abused and feels like a victim, it cannot relate normally and naturally and the deep, soul-satisfying intimacy that it brings with it is missing from all our relationships.

As the Stones point out, one of the things that happens in relationship when one partner has a strong Inner Critic is that the Judge in the other partner is triggered. This necessarily creates a parent/child bonding pattern that can be one of the most destructive patterns in any relationship -- which is not to say that all parent/child bonding patterns are destructive, but this particular one is very destructive.

When the Judge in one partner is activated by the presence of the Inner Critic in the other partner, there is immediately a parent-child dynamic at work -- and all of this is unconscious. The Judge criticizes -- even though it's owner may feel s/he is helping -- and the Inner Critic of the other person immediately picks up on the criticism and turns it inward, agreeing with it completely since it confirms everything it has been saying for years.

Here's where it gets ugly: when the Inner Critic gets activated that way, the individual is likely to respond in a variety of ways to remove the anxiety and self-loathing that has been triggered. The person may withdraw emotionally, strike out in anger, respond in kind, or simply just withdraw completely.

When this happens, the other person will respond with some other maladpative behavior -- and this all can happen several times back and forth -- switching roles between parent and child -- in the space of a few minutes. If no one is able to unplug from it, it can go on and on and become a recurrent pattern in the relationship.

If the Inner Critic is not dealt with, this destructive dynamic will be an undercurrent in all intimate relationships. Looking back over my life at my significant relationships, this has certainly been the case for me. It hasn't been the only thing going on, but it has been present.

During the last year, I have done a lot of work to uproot the Critic, or at least bring it into consciousness so that I have more awareness and it has less ability to control my behavior. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn't. One major thing did begin to change, however, and that is that I stopped turning inward all the external criticism from other people's Judges.

When this happened, or began to happen, I no longer went on the attack on myself -- I turned it outward. During August and September, I began to feel and express a lot more anger, which was how I was then reacting to my critic being activated. Some part of me had finally had enough of me treating myself that way.

That has lessened now, though I still feel a bit angry -- which is normal even in the best of breakups. But my Inner Critic went wild following the ending of my relationship with Kira -- what more proof could it provide that I was deeply flawed and should just lock myself in a cave for the rest of my life? Now, again, it has quieted a bit.

What I am left with a feeling of exhaustion. It is a hellish amount of work living with a powerful Inner Critic. It is impossible to live up to the Superman image the Critic demands. No one can ever be that perfect, and even if someone could be that perfect, the emotional cost would be devastating.

I have always been drawn to a song by Five For Fighting simply called "Superman." The part of me who rejects the image of the Superman that the Inner Critic demands sympathizes with this song.

As the song says, I just want to find the better parts of me -- and give them a chance to flourish.

The less the Critic is allowed to voice its stuff -- or the less I listen to it -- the more likely I am to be vulnerable enough to find those better parts -- which the Stones point out is a result of having access to the Inner Child that we all need in order to create meaningful intimate relationships.

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