Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It happens every day.
— ALBERT CAMUS
In a meditation course a lawyer once referred to the critic as a bad roommate who is always criticizing you for not doing anything right. A lot of people were nodding their heads in agreement as he spoke. During that course “the unpleasant roommate” became a synonym for all the unhealthy voices in our head.
Later someone noted that the critic wouldn’t be so bad if it were only one roommate living in her head. But, she said, it’s more like having a whole college dorm in your mind! She commented that “there are so many critics in there, and they are all making a racket, even in the middle of the night!” I had to agree, and added that it’s not a party I want to be invited to. But the critic doesn’t care about invitations. It just barges in, often at the most inappropriate moment.
Why Do We Have An Inner Critic?
If the critic is such an unwanted guest, why are so many people plagued by it? Nature rarely, if ever, makes anything that does not serve a purpose. So what is the purpose of the critic, and how did it get there?
There are many psychological explanations for the presence of the critic. Freud, one of the founding fathers of psychology, referred to it as the “super-ego.” For him the super-ego was an essential component of the psyche whose task was to rein in the impulses of the “id.” The id is the more primal, unconscious, sexual forces that lie within us. If these were not contained, he posited, it would lead to a rampant acting out of these aggressive, self-centered forces, which would make living in a civil society almost impossible. (The movie Lord of the Flies portrays this kind of reality, with its harrowing consequences.)
To put it in nontechnical terms, infants and children need to maintain the maximum flow of love, affection, and care from their caregivers, not only for survival, but for optimal development. This is partly why babies are born so adorably cute that we want to love and take care of them. In order to fit into the particular family system and norms you found yourself in as a child, you needed some faculty that would allow you to control the more wayward forces of anger, rage, greed, and selfishness that were running through darling little you.
Given that those forces are so strong, you needed an equally powerful mechanism to curb them. And there’s hardly a greater weapon than shame to shut down a strong force in ourselves. Just think about the ways you were shamed as you were growing up, as a prompt to curb those urges.
In one of many fierce fights with my older brother, I once called him a “bloody liar” after protesting to my parents that he was lying about some prank we had gotten in trouble for. My father, who was Catholic and furious on hearing me utter a profanity, proceeded to — literally — wash my mouth out with soap and water, claiming that swearing was sinful.
As you can imagine, I learned pretty quickly that it was not okay to swear, that I would be punished and shamed for doing so. So in order to preempt any future humiliation, my critic was very quick to remind me that swearing was bad, wrong, and shameful, and especially not to be done around my family.
In a way the critic was doing its job, trying to protect me from further public embarrassment and familial rejection. The problem is that it does not go away. It’s like a broken record, constantly repeating. It keeps harping on as if transgressing like that again will have dire consequences, even decades after the actual incident, which of course is rarely true.
Internalizing the Rules of Authority Figures
My father lives five thousand miles away and probably swears more than I do. Yet even today if I swear in public, I can feel a twinge of guilt and an unconscious concern that some judge’s hammer will come down and rule against me.
The critic learns to anticipate the judgments and condemnation of others — particularly our parents, religious leaders, teachers, influential friends, relatives, and other authority figures. In order to protect us from being rejected or shamed by them, the critic learns to internalize their rules.
To see this in action, just observe young boys and girls playing and notice the various rules they have learned and strictly apply to each other. Mostly they are just repeating the many rules and cultural norms they have been taught at home or in school. Simple, right-and-wrong codes of conduct. And if you violate the code, you will be punished, or at least banished from the group or game.
Look at how, even today, boys are taunted by peers and adults with shaming comments for any expression of softness or vulnerability, in order to keep them firmly in a stereotypical masculine, if not macho, mold. They can be labeled weak, soft, or a pushover if they display “feminine” attributes. These young males then repeat what they have been told and internalized, and pass it on to their peers, and eventually to their own children. So the cycle of shaming continues from generation to generation.
Social Judgment, Shaming, and The Need to Conform
Girls are not exempt from this social judgment and shaming. In fact it may be more intense for them. How often are girls told that it’s unladylike and unfeminine to be aggressive or assertive, and that they should instead be kind and supportive? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her book Lean In, observes that when girls display natural leadership skills at a young age, they are often labeled as bossy, to shame them into a more socially acceptable, traditional female role of deference.
The power of this need to conform is perhaps most evident during the teenage years, when it is considered essential to fit in and be accepted by one’s peers. And this is an age where the inner critic becomes more vocal, more evident on the surface, and at times intensely cruel and shaming. Teen suicide is one of the extreme consequences of this crushing humiliation and punishment from the critic.
The Inner Critic's Simplistic Outlook: Good and Bad, Right and Wrong
One important point to note is that the critic is not a particularly sophisticated mechanism, partly because it is almost fully developed by age eight. It operates with a child’s perspective and voice. This is why it has a simplistic outlook and a rigid code of good and bad, right and wrong. This explains, in part, why reasoning with the critic tends to go nowhere — the critic is inflexible in its thinking and incapable of grasping ambiguity and subtlety.
By the time you’re an adult, the critic has long outlived its usefulness. When you were young, it was an essential tool that your psyche employed to help you fit in and optimize the flow of affection. But over time it develops into the voice of your conscience, the authority on what is good or bad, and can heavily influence your choices. Even worse, it has the hubris to think it can decide whether you are worthy of love or are a good person at all.
Some argue that the inner critic emerges out of an innate negativity bias that has its roots in survival. In terms of evolution the ability to notice what is wrong, problematic, or potentially challenging helps us survive by enabling us to predict and prepare for the worst and anticipate potentially life-threatening situations in our environment. However, when that skill is turned on ourselves, it is not necessarily so helpful.
Ironically, when this negativity bias diminishes our own worth, we tend to function less well. This puts us in a worse position to survive both inner and outer challenges, and it hinders our ability to flourish.
This is why, in dealing with the critic, you need to bring a lot of discernment and wisdom to bear. This involves acknowledging the critic’s value and role in your past but, at the same time, intercepting it when it is not helpful or relevant in the present.
In a journal or in a quiet meditation, take some time to ponder the origins of your inner critic. What brought it into being? What triggered it? Think about whether your judge has the voice or tone of authority figures from your past.
Reflect on the following questions:
- Do your judgments sound like your mother’s or father’s voice?
- Do the critical thoughts have a religious overtone to them, perhaps internalized while growing up in a faith that had strong views of right and wrong?
- Were you teased by siblings who had strong views about you that were not kind?
- Were you raised by a grandparent or nanny who had their own strong opinions about who you should be and what was right and proper?
- In your teenage years were you particularly affected by your peers and their harsh rules and judgments?
- Did your judgments form as you internalized the way your family or caregivers were harsh, critical, and rejecting of themselves or others, and did you learn to mirror that behavior when relating to yourself?
- How might your judging mind initially have developed to help you fit into the particular family structure and culture you grew up in? Perhaps it was to dampen impulses, energies, and reactivity that could have caused you to be rejected or reprimanded by your caregivers. Or it could have been simply to repress emotions that were not welcome in the family, like sadness or anger.
Since we are social creatures, our need for love and affection are paramount, and the critic, at least initially, helped keep you in harmony with that flow of connection. For this reason we don’t need to judge the judge.
We can have compassion for the pain from which it arose, from a deep need to be loved and cared for. And, at the same time, we can recognize why the critic is so strong — it developed at an early age, for self-protection, and laid down neural pathways that were only strengthened as the years went by.
©2016 by Mark Coleman. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. http://www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, an executive coach, and the founder of the Mindfulness Institute, which brings mindfulness training to organizations worldwide. He is currently developing a wilderness counseling program and a yearlong training in wilderness meditation work. He can be reached at www.awakeinthewild.com.