Everyone has an inner voice. It’s the voice that tells us we can’t do anything right! Although research repeatedly states there is a positive side to that inner voice, mine must have drowned because I haven’t found it yet. Who knows, it may have drowned because the dam needed to open to create extra space for the negative. Does your inner voice characteristically take on a negative slant? Seeing how my inner voice is mostly negative I refer to it as my inner critic. In this article, we’ll explore the inner critic and the ways it connects with the ego to create a large part of our identities and its impact on intrinsic value.
For some of us, the inner critic has a uniform voice and for others, it takes on its voice of origin, like that of your mother or father. Sometimes the inner voice is out loud: “Boy, was that ever stupid Honey-Ray.” When I first became aware of my inner critic, I did what most of us might do: I tried to crush her, get rid of her, tame her, and forget she ever existed. This journey felt oddly familiar as I recalled doing the same when I learned about the ego years ago. An internet search on the inner critic and ego results in a slew of titles that uniformly state tame, quieten, face, contain. They all indicate battle. Think of this as creating an internal conflict.
Taming requires the use of willpower. Willpower by itself can earn results, better known as the hard way. Ask any overachiever who has an unending appetite for success and takes no rest or time for self-care. Some of us are hardwired to think in those patterns. In any attempt to tame or contain, you are resisting yourself and resistance fuels the inner critic. Who’s in control here? And how could anyone ever think they’d be able to tame their critic after spending decades building, developing, and supporting them through our choices. Let’s meet my inner critic.
My mom’s upbringing was extremely strict, and she lost a big dream in her late teens. Her intention was always to encourage me to take the next step and reach for bigger and better achievements. I know she wanted to ensure no one, or nothing would limit my potential. Out of that, I concluded at an incredibly early age that nothing I ever did was good enough and I gave birth to Pissy, my inner critic. She was my first pretend friend, and I originally named her Pissy Long Stocking. I was desperate for someone to talk to because it was taboo in my family to talk about mistakes or feelings. And the more I developed Pissy, the more she became my best friend.
Every time I got in trouble, which was a lot, I added to Pissy’s repertoire. Every time I failed at something, I added more. Every goal I missed; she was right there waiting. After all, what are friends for. Long after my outside critics’ influence was gone, Pissy continued to fuel the fires of nothing ever being good enough. I like to think I am a perfectionist in recovery but Pissy reminds me anything less than perfection is not acceptable. Everything I do, say, think that is shy of perfect is judged harshly and leaves me feeling shame and guilt. As Brene Brown so beautifully describes in Atlas of the Heart, shame focuses on the self whereas guilt focuses on the behaviour. Brown adds “Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.” This triangle is probably where a lot of us go when we are spinning our wheels or being the hamster running on the wheel and not going anywhere. Brown titles the chapter Places We Go when We Fall Short! Our inner critics are most alive when we fall short and tend to quieten only when experiencing success in all areas of life. In my experience, they quieten in one area while growing louder in others. No matter what, the inner critic is alive. Here’s an example of Pissy at work.
I started my battle with weight and my body early in my life. In hindsight, it was the way I protected my weak sense of self as a child and teenager. By the time I was sixteen, I weighed in at 222 pounds. After several rounds of Weight Watchers, I managed to lose one hundred pounds in seven months. The battle never ended and to a smaller degree, still exists. I added more exercise and became a group fitness instructor in my forties and taught classes for a decade. As if that wasn’t enough, I completed a bodybuilding competition at the age of fifty-seven. Sixteen gruelling weeks of limited food and ten hours of exercise weekly. Post competition, I was mad at myself because I could only complete one set of 100-pound squats. WHOA! It was in that moment that I realized how hard I was pushing my body. Why? Because Pissy will never be happy with the way my body looks.
That’s only one example of Pissy at work. Our inner critic operates in all areas of our lives, relationships, finances, career, home, and spiritual. Pissy does an excellent job squashing any faith muscles I build if I let her. Pissy also loves to make up stories. She has a vivid imagination and together, we are guilty of creating made-up stories that do NOT reflect reality or contain facts. This happens most often when I fall short in any way. Naturally, because our inner critics are most alive when we fall short of some unwritten, unknown expectation, they excel at being right. What was driving me to push my body beyond extremes? It was Pissy and more importantly, I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t have the awareness. It became easier to maintain the status quo, and erode my intrinsic value and worth than to push past Pissy.
My research on the inner critic often came with a mention of the ego. I started to wonder where my inner critic sat in relation to my ego. Both are part of the psyche and exhibit many of the same characteristics. They want to be right; they have lofty standards and, in some instances, unrealistic expectations: they both expect and demand perfectionism. They both thrive through instilling fear, shame, and guilt. Resistance of any type is futile and fuels their fires. Any evidence of mistakes or failure, whether perceived or real, threatens both the ego and the inner critic. They were remarkably similar and yet had nuances that differentiated them. And I wanted a better understanding of their relationship.
The ego is often linked to negative judgements like conceit, narcissistic and egoistic. Yet, at its core, the ego is our identity, and its greatest purpose is to function as a protector and keep us safe. It contains all the self words, self-esteem, self-worth, and self-importance, to name a few. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ego as the “self especially as contrasted with another self or the world.” This definition infers that comparison is foundational to the ego. I know that for me, the comparison is linked to my image also known as the way I show up to the world. The dictionary adds that the ego is part of the psyche that “serves as the organized conscious mediator between the person and reality, especially by functioning both in the perception of and adaptation to reality.” Perception includes what my mind imagines.
The ego acts to protect our identity AND what it believes is in our best interest. The ego lives mostly in an ideal world and works hard to uphold its image. Sonia Choquette in her book Walking Home, about her pilgrimage on the Camino, described the ego as a “scared child who always likes the status quo and aims for unrealistic perfectionism.” The ego and inner critic love the status quo and perfectionism and their end goal is to instill fear so that we don’t take that next step or move forward in our lives or towards what matters most. Together, they can and will impact your level of intrinsic value – your level of self-worth.
The ego is more likely to keep us safe from looking like a fool while the inner critic is the voice that defends the ego’s fear and pulls out all the places and experiences in our lives where we let them down and failed or made mistakes. Together, they work to activate our fears. They live in fear. We are born with our ego, despite its immaturity at birth. The inner critic, on the other hand, is developed in early childhood to protect an immature ego under construction. Eventually, they create barriers that get in the way of our dreams and getting to what we really want. The ego is driven to easy pops and accomplishments rather than risking looking foolish or failing. Whereas the inner critic is deeply connected to our wounds and prefers to live those stories rather than have the stories inform the creation of new and more exciting future stories. That is where I want to spend my time and I make up a story you might too.
My theory, currently, is that the ego is our image. This is the part of us we allow the world and others to see, and not always congruent with the truth or all of who we are. It is human nature to hide any places or experiences where there remains shame and/or guilt. The inner critic is the enforcer and controller that protects that image. It acts like a shield to protect the ego and our identity. My ego has, in the past, scared me off a little and not stopped me from moving forward. My inner critic on the other hand is the voice or voices that bring me to that downward spiral of perfectionism, guilt and shame AND it stops me as it drains me of all my energy. I get tired of fighting it.
Don’t despair, there are ways to figure out how they work for you and most importantly, how to befriend them. Making friends with my inner critic and ego is the only thing that has worked for me. Remember any wish other than making friends IS resistance and resistance gives them ammunition. Here are some hot tips to make friends with your inner critic.
- Listen to your inner critic. Spend time really listening. We tend to get defensive and that only diffuses the voice temporarily, until it comes back even louder or more often. This is about paying more attention to those conversations we have in our heads. The inner critic can be merciless and tenacious. Listen with a sense of wonder and curiosity. I like to ask questions. Describe the voice. Is it condescending? Does it bring back memories? Does it have a specific tone that reminds you of someone or an experience? What is it saying? Do you have evidence to the contrary?
- Name your inner critic. I learned from Debbie Ford in her book Dark Side of the Light Chasers that naming an entity or characteristic I don’t like about me makes it more tangible and easier to be curious about. I also use a lot of humour to be more compassionate with myself. Hence Pissy! I also have a Bossy Betty the Bitch!
- Stand up to your critic. This is not about creating internal conflict or going into battle. This is about a conversation to appease the scared child. It’s about changing the tone and using the answers to your questions to develop a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at situations.
- Do not ignore or suppress the inner voice and critic. Research shows that ignoring or suppressing increases the activation of thought to an unconscious level. Suppression is resistance and with the inner critic, it’s resisting yourself. What I resist, persists, and grows in my experience.
- Treat your inner critic as your best friend. Do not view it as toxic or as an enemy. An enemy fights. whereas a friend listens with the intention of learning. Treat your inner critic as one of your best teachers. It is here to remind us of experiences we have not yet healed where shame and guilt continue to expand.
- Build your kind voice. Your kind voice has two main characteristics: it is compassionate and lives in a state of wonder. This voice does not judge. Don’t use this voice to counteract or balance out the inner critic. Use it to ask questions and learn more about your identity.
What has worked for me is to see my ego and inner critics as parts of me that need more love. With increased consciousness, the inner critic has changed the ways I process information. In the past, when I had an inkling or a sense something was off, I was like a dog digging holes all over the place, chasing the bone or the insight in this case. It was arduous work and sucked my energy dry. Adopting a kind voice and making friends with my ego and inner critic allows me to process information gently and know that the answers to my questions will come when I need them. In other words, making friends with my inner critic has freed up space to build my faith muscle and sustain that growth over the years.
I am called to help humanity transform darkness into light: illuminating pathways to love. My personal healing journey led me to gain a deep understanding about the pieces of me I consider dark and how these limit our potential to love others and ourselves fully. My deeply rooted desire for self-love led me to 30 years of research, group and one-on-one facilitated sessions and an exploration of what others might consider tough topics – on the dark side. If this article inspired you and piqued your curiosity, I can be reached at email@example.com.