Monday, February 21, 2011

Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini - Should we listen to our inner critic?

Antonia Macaro
and Julian Baggini posted this interesting article in the Financial Times a week or two ago. Long-time readers of this blog know that I am a fan of the "parts work" approach to shadow work, so it's cool to this in a mainstream publication - even though it isn't really about how to work with this part as much as it is a critic-activating assertion of what a healthy critic should be.

In my head, I'm hearing, "Why can't I have a healthy critic? Damn, I suck." Oh, the challenges of an over-active critic.

Should we listen to our inner critic?

By Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini

Published: February 11 2011

The Shrink

If you were to pay attention to every available self-help book and therapy workshop, you would be justified in concluding that we are experiencing a plague of self-criticism. Here are just some of the titles I’ve recently come across: Embracing your Inner Critic, Master your Inner Critic, Self-therapy for your Inner Critic, Beyond the Inner Critic, Coping with Your Inner Critic, Disarming your Inner Critic.

Macaro is the shrink. While she finds this huge assortment of books on how to deal with the inner critic, she also suggests that many of us could use whole lot more self-criticism (not me, and people like me, who have been enslaved by the critic at various points in our lives - see the sidebar for details).

She notes that we tend to take all the credit for our successes and blame others for our failures - neither of which is accurate. Likewise, most people think they are above average in some way, which is statistically impossible.

There's more to her argument, including some distinctions in the type of self-criticism we employ, but she ends with this distinction from psychologist Paul Gilbert:

[C]ompassionate self-correction is a desire to improve, while shame-based self-attacking is a desire to punish. We should listen to our inner critic only if we have nurtured a kindly and rational inner voice.

Julian Baggini is the sage.

The Sage

Philosophy is often accused of being excessively rational, dismissing emotion as irrelevant at best and a harmful distraction at worst. Such charges usually put me on the defensive, but when it comes to self-criticism, philosophy’s alleged vice turns out to be its greatest virtue.

Most of us want to believe what is true rather than what is false. We want to have an accurate picture of the world, not one distorted by wishful thinking, ignorance or prejudice. Yet, if we are honest, most of our beliefs are based on scanty information, hearsay or received opinion. Of course they are: life is literally too short to examine rigorously the bases of all our beliefs.

Baggini argues that we must have an astute inner critic who can examine our beliefs and discard the ones that do match the evidence. I like this kind of self-reflective inner critic - too bad so few people have reached a stage of ego development where that is possible.

His version of the critic is emotion-free and hyper objective - impersonal. If we can adopt this form of the critic (and I am not sure how possible this is), we can avoid shaming attacks on ourselves and simply look at the facts.

If the critic makes things personal (whether we are a good or bad person), then it activates our defense mechanisms (often avoidance, repression, or paralysis of various types) and may end up needing to be right to be good. Baggini concludes:

That’s why the best philosophical inner critic is neither nice nor nasty, neither gentle nor harsh. In fact, it’s a critic that has nothing to do with you as a person at all. It’s all about the beliefs.

This is a brief but useful article, so go read the whole thing. Now we just need some guidance on how to develop the healthy version of the critic.

Oh yeah, according to FT, The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England.

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