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Taming You Inner Critic: From Dream Killer to Visionary

Published in Natural Awakenings Magazine, June, 2006

By Francesca Starr, Ph.D.

Each of us knows the ferocity of the inner voice we hear shouting self-criticism. This voice has an uncanny ability to hit our softest spots and to pile on additional misery when we feel the most vulnerable. The Inner Critic often says the very thing that reinforces self-doubt and insecurity, shuts down creativity, and points out inadequacy—but there are ways to harness this same aspect of our psyche to provide self-knowledge, protection, and wisdom. I know that sounds like a very tall order, but it is possible, and once you learn where this voice comes from and why it is such an important part of you, it will be possible to “embrace your Inner Critic” and use its immense powers to your benefit.

This critical voice developed very early in life as a protective mechanism. It mimics the critical and judgmental voices of your primary caregivers. Think about the major authority figures in your early life, and listen for the echo of their rules, the beliefs behind those rules, and the ways they were enforced in the voice of the Inner Critic.

If you were gently corrected as a child, your Inner Critic may be more reasonable. If you were treated harshly, you may have a Critic who barks orders and shouts insults like a drill sergeant.

As children, we learn the explicit and implicit rules of life from those around us, and since we lack the sophistication or experience to filter, modify, or reshape this input, the “rules” enter deeply into our psyches and become attached to shame, judgment, and guilt. The Inner Critic’s logic, in early childhood, is, “If I can criticize you first, about how lazy you are and how you never pick up your bike, before your real father comes home and sees the bike in the driveway, then he won’t have anything to criticize you about!”

The first breakthrough in understanding how to work successfully with your Inner Critic comes when you learn to separate from, and then engage with the Critic, without identifying with it, or being at its mercy. In Voice Dialogue, we don’t disown or cut off any part of the psyche, since every part has a role to play in living the complete life. The voice of the Inner Critic may be a huge irritant, but it can also be an ally as you name it (“my Critic thinks I’m stupid” – instead of, “I am stupid”) and dialogue with it, rather than struggle to suppress or get rid of it.

The next step is to become more aware of what specifically triggers an attack by your Inner Critic. This helps you understand the unconscious patterns at work in your life and brings greater awareness to them. Is your Inner Critic activated when you reach beyond former limitations, when you make a mistake, or when you are vulnerable and hurt? Is your Inner Critic an automatic response to stress of some kind; or does it arise with a sense of urgency to keep you within safe boundaries? Knowing what triggers it offers you options for greater self-mastery.

This voice of the Inner Critic is trying to protect and help you. Understanding this gives you the awareness to be able to tame it and then tap into its ability to assist you in new ways.

Let’s say you are taking on new challenges, engaging in self-exploration, or shifting the priorities of your personal or professional life. Your Inner Critic may very likely leap in to tell you how foolish you will look, remind you of your old failures, warn you of the danger of losing everything, or tell you that you are being very selfish. Rather than feeling the sting of those thoughts, and stopping dead in your tracks, you can, with practice, summon an objective part of you—a more Aware Ego—and engage in a dialogue with the Inner Critic. An Aware Ego Process (as it is called in the Voice Dialogue work) will be able to hear in these criticisms the underlying fear of the new and an almost desperate clinging to the old. It will notice undue concern for how things look to others, and will see that pleasing, safe, conformist behaviors are being enforced as the top priority (because these are the values of your family system, and society in general). But don’t miss the great growth opportunity here. While the Critic points the way to the old, established order, you would be wise to look in the opposite direction into the shadow territory of your psyche. There lie the new, untapped energies, or disowned selves, that are beckoning to you to discover and incorporate their hidden talents and skills that they have to offer you at this transformational time in your life.

As the Aware Ego continues to dialogue respectfully with the Inner Critic a shift may occur in which the Critic begins to additionally support your current, more flexible rules—the ones that support change, taking certain risks, and following your dreams. Imagine the powerful change that can occur as the Critic adopts new rules in order to help you express your emerging values. Once your Inner Critic vents its accrued reserve of criticisms and concerns, catches its breath, and is less hysterical and dramatic, it can provide important discernment, helpful insights, and practical suggestions. This updated voice inside your head can then be free to help you know who to trust, what to do, and when to do it. This marvelous Critic can provide guidance as a powerful ally and a visionary aspect of your inner world that focuses your attention on living a more complete life.

Francesca Starr, Ph.D., CPC
Certified Professional Coach, Post Graduate Voice Dialogue Training with Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone (Creators of Voice Dialogue), Ph.D. Counseling Psychology, MA Transpersonal Psychology, MA Education. Francesca brings finely honed skills and knowledge from previous careers (1. education, 2. business, and 3. counseling) to her passion as a Voice Dialogue Coach and Trainer. Gentle conversations with your Inner Selves that transform your life. Inspired, breakthrough coaching to resolve life and work issues, generate conscious choice and creative action, and evolve consciousness.