The Inner Critic
We all have one. It’s that voice so often speaking inside our heads that makes judgements about us. Sometimes it takes the tone and sound of one of our parents or another adult from our growing up years–they criticized us for not measuring up, for failing, communicating clearly that we didn’t have it, we couldn’t make it, we blew it and we’ll blow it again.
Someone recently told me about his Inner Critic’s primary message: “You’ll never make anything of yourself! You’ll never amount to anything!” It always has the voice of his dad who has put him down his whole life and has never expressed any true belief in his abilities. He’s labeled his Inner Critic, “The Chairman of the Board.” This voice has always had the last word, the word of ultimate authority. And it has prevented him from living his own life in freedom, with a sense of value, and possibility.
I definitely have an Inner Critic. I got off the phone today after engaging in negotiation over a coaching contract with the CFO of an organization. I felt really strong. I was pleased with myself and the confidence with which I had presented a proposal.
And then suddenly my Inner Critic piped up and in no uncertain terms reminded me of a very small but silly comment I made in passing during the phone conversation. As I listened, the “voice” started berating me and criticizing me. I was tempted to believe it once again and discount the entire conversation along with my credibility. I saw my Inner Critic looking at me holding up the big L on its forehead…Loser! And the irony was, all evidence to the contrary.
Why Is the Inner Critic So Powerful?
Does that ever happen to you? The Inner Critic is powerful. Why? Because we have given it power. Because we’ve heard it for so long. Because it speaks partial truth at times so that some of what it says is believable and we tend to lump all of what it says into that partially believable part. And because whenever it speaks, it doesn’t equivocate or articulate timidly. It always speaks with authority and clarity. Right?
The Essence of the Inner Critic’s Message
Even Jesus battled this Inner Critic, this Shadow part that showed up in the form of the devil, the tempter. The Bible elsewhere describes this Voice as “the accuser of the people.” Man, do we know this Inner Critic!
After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness desert to be alone, to confront himself, his identity, his calling. The voice of his heavenly father at his baptism was still ringing in his ears: “You are my son, the one I love; I’m so proud and pleased with you.”
Then the Critic showed up. In essence It said, “So you think you’re the Son of God, huh? You think you’re someone special? NO way! Not unless you can turn stones into bread. You think you’re someone special? NO way! Not unless you can jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and have angels break your fall. NO way! Not unless you acknowledge Me, honor me, listen to and believe everything I say. You’re no different than anyone else! Good try!”
Notice the essence of this Critic’s voice which echoes our Inner Critic all the time: it’s calling into question our identity, our sense of value and worth, our belief in ourselves and what God is calling us to be and do. It accuses us of being Nobodies. It’s connecting performance with success and identity. So if we blow it or act out or fail at times, the Chairman of our Board bellows, “See, you’re nothing. I told you! You’ll never amount to anything!”
Our Inner Critic always connects performance with value. So we end up only giving ourselves permission to feel good about ourselves when we perform well or are doing something “valuable” and “successful” (and usually we’ve bought into the ego-culture’s definitions of those two terms).
I’m wrestling with this temptation from my Inner Critic a lot these days. I’m in the middle of a big transition professionally, from spending most of my time pastoring a spiritual community to spending more time being a public speaker and spiritual teacher. Others have taken leadership with the spiritual community and my wife and I are working hard developing strategic plans to begin speaking and teaching in the City and beyond. So right now, one thing has ended but the new thing has yet to begin. I’m in the “no man’s land” of transition’s middle zone. And I struggle with a loss of identity and the corresponding sense of current “uselessness.”
My Inner Critic isn’t whispering It’s critique of me, It’s bellowing it. Maybe I won’t be able to pull off this transition to another manifestation of my Calling. Maybe we’ll try and it won’t work. What if no one shows up to the public events we plan? What if no one cares about what we have to say? What if I’ve lost whatever mojo I once had? What if we can’t earn enough income to make it? What if? What if? “See, you’re really amounting to nothing after all. You’re not good enough. You won’t make it. You’re not who you think you are, you’re a nobody.”
So how do you attend to the Inner Critic in a way that doesn’t cripple you? Here are several important strategies I’ve learned.
Strategies to Effectively Attending to Your Inner Critic
Honor the Voice–learn Its wisdom. This is a counter-intuitive step. The truth is, our Inner Critic speaks so loudly because It’s trying to tell us something. Believe it or not, it does have some wisdom for us. Unfortunately, It often couches Its words in negative value statements. But beneath those devaluing observations, It does have a role. That role might be different for all of us. It might be trying to keep us from doing something we’d regret later, like making a fool of ourselves, or biting off something we’re not ready to handle, or doing something that might not be safe. The Inner Critic speaks warnings ultimately to protect us, like oftentimes our parents tried to do. It wants to make sure we’re considering all the angles before jumping into something.
I’ve learned that this process is not about silencing the voice as much as properly attending to it.
If we are willing to honor that Voice by assuring the Inner Critic that we will take Its warning into consideration and will not purposely try to do something dangerous or foolish, that we’ll be strategic and wise in what we do, the Voice actually tends to quiet. It wants to be heard and respected. And we can listen to what we need to hear in its statements and honor those parts. And then simply not embrace or accept the negative value judgments.
Say to It, “What is the wisdom you have for me? What are the cautions I need to pay attention to? How can I assure you I won’t be foolish and unwise here?” Honor and respect the voice of wisdom in It and then let go of the value judgments about identity and worth. You’re not a Loser no matter what you do or what happens.
Honor THE Voice–don’t play the identity game. Though my client has named his Inner Critic “Chairman of the Board,” the truth is, there’s only one Voice that we should give that title to. Jesus got it right. His first response to the Tempter and Accuser was, “Man should not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”
The Accuser had just challenged Jesus to prove his divine sonship by turning the desert stones into bread. Jesus refused to play that identity game. “I don’t need to prove anything about who I am. I don’t perform my way into an identity. I accept my identity as a state of being given to me as a gift the moment I was born. I’m choosing to listen to the words of The Chairman of the Board, the One who just reminded me at my baptism who I am by telling me, ‘You are my son, the one I love; I’m so pleased with and proud of you.’ That Voice is the one that counts to me when it comes to my identity, value, and ultimate worth!”
The next time your Inner Critic bellows that you’re a failure, a loser, and that you need to do much better at performing and proving yourself otherwise you don’t count, don’t buy it. Remind yourself of the Highest Voice who assures you that you’re a child of God with ultimate and eternal value no matter what! Your identity is secure, period.
Can we learn from our mistakes and foibles and even failures? Of course. We should. The Inner Critic has wisdom for us to learn from if we allow ourselves to listen. And sometimes we have to work hard to catch what It’s saying “in-between the lines” of Its judgments and criticisms.
Choose to play the right game. When my Inner Critic, after my phone call, reminded me of my silly statement, I stopped for a moment, replayed that part, and ended up saying, “Good point. I was trying to be funny and light when I made that silly comment but I didn’t need to. I could have left that out. It didn’t add any value to the conversation and my point. Next time, I’ll remember and not feel the need to throw something like that in.”
But then I chose to refuse the Voice’s judgement label of Loser on me and went about my work, celebrating how strong I was on the call and my hope for a profitable outcome. “I am a divine son who is called by God and loved by God and infused with eternal value and worth, no matter what happens. Thank you for that secure and solid identity! Now I’ll keep moving forward, being as wise and strategic as I can, and knowing I’m the Man all along the way!” 🙂
Don’t get caught up in your Inner Critic’s identity game. Only allow the true Chairman of the Board to settle that issue for you.
In Jesus’ story, once the Critic-Accuser-Tempter crossed this line by demanding worship (an act of bowing to something as ultimate authority) , Jesus did a major push back and rebuked It by saying, “Get behind me! Be gone!” He refused to play the identity game. He refused to give the highest status to It. Only God is the Chairman of the Board who always pronounces value and worth and acknowledges inherent goodness.
So honor the wisdom of the Inner Critic and learn what you need to learn from It. But don’t mix Its messages up with your identity. Don’t get sucked into that game. When it comes to identity, choose to play the right game: listen to and honor the Voice of God who has the most authoritative handle on your identity as a loved and pleasing child of God, forever and period! Beyond that it’s all logistics and strategy.