A Research Paper By Parbatie Khan, Transformational Coach, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
The Compelling Narratives of Our Inner Critic
How often do we sit in an office discussion and have questions or suggestions in our minds, but we hold back from sharing as we think that they may sound silly, or that it is too simple to impress the audience or have an impact? Only for a few minutes later to hear someone else voice the same thought or suggestion and be applauded or recognised for it!
On a personal level, how often do we never show up our best self as we think that we will not be welcomed into the group, or we are not articulate enough to hold a conversation? How many relationships do we never build because we do not think that what we bring to the table will be considered worthy by the other person? And when we do step forward and sometimes stumble, how many times do we feel ashamed, or we reprimand ourselves by thinking that the result was exactly what we thought would happen and we should not have taken that chance?
As a measure of self-protection, we hold ourselves back from venturing forth again when similar or other opportunities present themselves in the future. How many opportunities do we never pursue because we do not think that we could fit in; that our feelings of self-consciousness cause us to experience elevated levels of anxiety and stress, so creating the foundations for the self-fulfilling prophecies of failure we hear in our thoughts?
These are the disempowering sounds of blame, guilt, fear, shame, reproach, undermining, belittling, ridicule and scorn. These are the compelling chants for our protective barriers to be raised as we justify the reasons to continue to build walls against showing up in ways that could allow us to grow and develop, initiate change and spark creativity, to show up our best selves. These are the compelling narratives of our inner critical voice.
The “Inner critic refers to an inner voice that judges criticizes, or demeans a person whether or not the self-criticism is objectively justified”. (Good Therapy, 2015). Albert Ellis (2002) refers to “the beliefs that are making them (clients) miserable and exposing them to situations they avoid because of irrational fears”. This inner voice surfaces as thoughts; an inner conversation we experience, a “nagging” voice raised against ourselves which undermines our ability to show strength, to stand in courage, to pursue new ambitions, to create new connections, to become the person we aspire to be. A strong inner critic, if allowed unchecked, can inflict lingering damage to an individual’s emotional stability and self-esteem.
Hal & Sidra Stone (1994) see the inner critic’s initial role as one of protection. The inner critic surfaces as a reminder to prohibit certain activities or behaviour that, based on a previous event or learning, was seen as not being good for us. Human infants have limited instinctive behaviours compared to other species, but this is compensated for by a significant capacity to learn. To realise this potential though, the infant relies on his initial caregivers, mainly parents who also provide protection, maintain good health and foster growth. The parents are supported by other providers of learning such as the family circle, the community, and teachers. These persons, in one way or another, set the foundations of what the child considers right or wrong, what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour for himself and the world around and seek to identify what characteristics or behaviours need to be adjusted or fixed so that the child is accepted within the society.
In Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, the 1st stage is trust vs mistrust. The child in this early stage, depends on his primary caregivers, usually the parents, and forms expectations of whether the environment will give him what he needs. In Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the years between 7 and 12 are the concrete -operational stages, where a child’s own set of values begin to emerge. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky’s own sociocultural theory saw children as internalising conversations and explanations given to them; the words heard outside become their inner thoughts. The social and cultural contexts then become embedded within the child. (Moro & Rodriquez, 2000).
As children grow, other strong influencers, such as peers and the media continue to mould the expectations of what is acceptable, appropriate, and desirous behaviours as they go into adolescents. Behaviours and their attendant thoughts and emotions continue to be created over the life of an individual based on circumstances, personal experiences and outcomes. Operant conditioning reinforces behaviour patterns through rewards and punishment. These resultant anxieties, frustrations, joys, and expectations continue to shape future behaviours and become embedded as new thoughts which guide future actions, adding to the available dialogue of the inner critic.
Behaviour theorists consider that some fears are acquired early either by the child adapting to responses to their own behaviour or observing others, all with the self-interest of staying safe, being accepted, of belonging. As some of these fears are formed earlier than known memory, they may be difficult to rationalise, and so over time, the individual may continue to seek ways to avoid the situations which bring up these fears. This avoidance provides the individual with measures to reduce exposure of himself to any situation which generates anxiety or fear or other negative feelings. This allows the individual to contain the anxiety levels he may experience; in its own way, this reinforces that behaviour pattern.
Ellis (2002) postulates that it is a person’s beliefs and expectations about an event or situation, and not only just the situation, which stimulates our responses; it is our own cognitive assessment in the present, in the here and now, that will cause us to give significance to the event resulting in us being under stress or feeling miserable. For instance, in the situation referred to previously, where we do not speak up and share our perspectives in a meeting, it is really our fears about what we expect to be the results of our taking that action that holds us back. Or consider the young adult who thinks that he or she must behave or dress in a certain way to be considered attractive. Ellis referred to these as “irrational beliefs” as they often operate at an unconscious level; they form our often unrecognised “limiting beliefs”.
Carl Rogers (1951) thought that through freedom of choices and actions, people shape themselves. Therefore, you continue to evolve as you make choices based on the environment and your values. This unique frame of individual reference helps us to define ourselves and influences how we judge ourselves and others. Stanley Schachter (1962) notes that emotions are linked to physical reactions that can vary in intensity, but the significance we place on our reaction, whether it is a discomfort or a fear that causes us to shut down, is a result of how we label our emotion which is dependent on how we assess the situation.
The Defensive Inner Critic
The defensive Inner Critic can evolve also from experiences in which we were hurt or placed under stress, or seen others experience some level of emotional upheaval or loss or pain. Our internal defence mechanism takes these experiences and reflects them as a means of protecting us to hopefully, never have to experience that outcome. This however does not consider the circumstances of the event, the lessons learnt since then, the increased personal capabilities or the new learnings or other benefits that could come from going through the experience. Unfortunately, the Inner Critic usually reverberates within our consciousness without us even consciously deciding to admit it! The Inner Critic does not allow us sometimes to enjoy accepting compliments without questioning the honesty behind the giver or being brave enough to take on new challenges so that we can grow but rather, instil fears of failure and embarrassment.
How Then Do We Control This Inner Critic and Silence These Irrational Thoughts Which Place Is Under Stress?
It is often difficult for the individual to rationalise this behaviour as it surfaces almost simultaneously with the event, and so a defence of it can rarely be substituted to eliminate the anxiety or fears which have already surfaced.
The answer, instead, perhaps can be:
- Recognise the caution that the Inner Critic is advocating, but consider the implications of adherence/ non-adherence
- Consider what else may be required and choose our actions accordingly.
- Make the choice to move forward in the direction of growth and development, the areas of joy and acceptance, of greater self-love and self-esteem.
Though it appears to be an easy statement –“Just change the thoughts”; this will require some work. (S Rathus, 2011.)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on the interconnectedness of our Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviour. When something happens, this is our trigger (event) which generates almost simultaneously a thought (idea/rationale) and an emotion (fear) causing us to react, resulting in our action (behaviour). Therefore, if we can catch and identify our emotions, we can choose how we want to reframe them, then we can control how we think about them and then change how we react as a result.
Cognitive-behavioural psychologists (Marks & Dar, 2000) outlined a procedure for controlling these irrational thoughts:
- Awareness- Pay attention to your thoughts. What is making you miserable?
- Accuracy- Assess whether your thinking is accurate. Are they a true reflection of reality?
- Preparedness- Practice finding new, more positive thoughts and keep reminding yourself of these. Let these become your new thinking.
- Reward yourself – Feel good about yourself for making these changes.
Suzanne Kobasa (1990) noted that “hardy people may be more resistant to stress because they choose to face it” and that psychologically hardy business executives exhibited three key characteristics:
- Commitment – They tended to get themselves involved rather than allow themselves to feel alienated from the event or circumstance.
- Challenge – They saw change as a powerful incentive to growth and believed that rather than having stability, change is what is normal in life.
- Control – They behaved as if they had influence rather than appear to feel helpless as they face life’s circumstances.
They also saw stress as making life more interesting – e.g.: a meeting with a supervisor is considered an opportunity to clarify perspectives or create change rather than viewing it as something to be feared.
The concepts of adaptation and natural selection have also been applied to psychology through Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that fears which exist may reflect survival through natural selection. Susan Mineka (Oehman & Mineka, 2001) suggests that humans are genetically predisposed to fear stimuli that may have threatened their ancestors. As such, genetic coding transfers through generations could include not only physical traits but patterns of behaviour, including social behaviour. In a practical environment, this is seen in cultural norms and family patterns.
In view of the foregoing, we can contend that our Inner Critic evolved as evolutionary protection so that we are reminded to proceed with caution to ensure our survival in the face of previously stressful or dangerous situations. It has a purpose, but we can lose control if we dwell on the negative emotions and behaviours generated by it.
Instead, if we recognise these messages from our Inner Critic as a sign to be cautious, the amber traffic light we pause at and take stock of our surroundings before we proceed, or perhaps the cautionary hand that says maybe there are things we need to do to be better prepared before we venture forth, then we can welcome these reminders with appreciation rather than fears. We will then reduce the levels of stress, anxiety or disempowerment experienced with the thought. We can instead make a conscious decision and choose to take the appropriate measures to become the “hardy” people as identified by Kobasa.
An individual can utilize also the support of a coach or counsellor. The limiting thoughts experienced perhaps can be challenged in a structured manner with thought-provoking questions which may help to identify the underlying fears or limiting beliefs so that a new framework of thoughts can be erected. Over time, new neural pathways can be developed so that when a similar event occurs in the future, these new neural pathways become the reflexive responses rather than the earlier self-limitations.
With continued new actions, outcomes and the new feelings associated with these different results, the Inner Critic will have added to its repertoire, a new dialogue of positive reinforcements for the future. The new automatic response to the earlier stressors would now be shifted to feelings of preparedness, anticipation, welcome and excitement, propelling us to continued growth and success as we move forward.
The Inner Critic will always be a part of us. Let us leverage now the cautionary hand extended by this powerful ally as we progress in our various journeys in this life through growth and wholeness (Hal & Sidra Stone, 1994).
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Rathus, S.A. (2011). Psychology Concepts and Connections ( 8th Ed.). CA, USA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Stone, Hal & Stone, Sidra. 1994. The Inner Critic. Voice Dialogue International.
Thibodeaux, W. (2018). Why You Might Not Want to Silence Your Inner Critic Completely, According to Psychology.