Redeeming the Critic

Firsov-Kubla Ancestral Voices by Dmitrismirnov

When we begin to listen to the inner conversations, we might learn to discern different “voices” that are speaking internally. Not voices we hear with our physical ears, but the range of thoughts and impressions that can seem like they’re pulling us in different directions. Difficult emotions may go with the voices, like guilt and shame, anger or a longing for something different.

With greater refinement we might come to label these voices as “the inner critic” or “my mother’s voice” or something else. Some of these influences feel good and positive, others feel daunting and harmful. Inner critics can become overwhelming or immobilizing, and some of us have to learn how to quiet the critic or develop mindful awareness of it while continuing to act and live.

With time, I think we can develop an even deeper level of integrity with these voices by remembering that they are our own. Yes, they sound like the teacher who said we’d always be a failure, the ex-lover, the parent, the boss. They use their words and call up the memories of them saying it, but if it is the present moment and this person is not physically in front of you repeating the statement, then it is no longer their voice. It is yours. (Stay with me!)

We develop complexes about ourselves, what Jung termed as sensitive clusters of emotional energy in the psyche, that continue to grow and gather meaning and weight with time. If, for whatever reason, a complex says “I am incompetent,” it will always be on the watch for evidence confirming its worldview and ignore evidence that disproves it. It will remember the critical comments from the teacher and forget all the other glowing reviews.

This is painful, but it does not mean that we have to ignore or try to get rid of these complexes. Generally, that does not work. One thing that does work is taking it a little seriously (a little meaning not too seriously!). If I feel guilty about something, it’s worth taking time to think about the situation and why I might feel guilt. Perhaps there is something for which I need to apologize—not for the entire situation, but a lapse in judgment or failure on my part.

I once worked in a very hectic environment in which I had a number of shifting responsibilities and no clear guidance on which ones were the most important. Come to think of it, that describes most of my jobs. When I felt overwhelmed by tasks and walked by another one that was not done, I noticed that I often had inner visions of being yelled at by my boss for failing to do the task. This felt even more stressful and overwhelming, and fed into this complex that I was a failure and inept.

One day, however, I noticed this happening and thought—“Maybe this is just a part of me saying I should deal with this now.” So I did not walk by the task, I addressed it. It was over quickly, I felt more energized, and I no longer had those images of being yelled at because I knew I had done all I could.

This is where taking those inner experiences seriously, but not too seriously, and owning these voices as our own is deep and enriching. The particular boss was never happy with what I did and always found some flaw, but I felt freer when I followed my inner guidance and acted in integrity with myself. The “inner boss” acted out when I was giving into my feelings of overwhelm and my beliefs that I could never get everything done so why do anything. I needed to own that the “inner boss” was me, some part of me speaking out, and to look at it with curiosity about how it might be helpful to me instead of overwhelming.