Your Inner Critic

by Gary Holdgrafer

I heard the crack of the bat and saw the small white sphere as it escaped the infield. It came bouncing rapidly toward me in left field like something wild turned loose from a cage. I was alert instantly. I knew the base runner on second base would try to score. I charged that baseball like any good fielder would. My dream of being the hero was right in front of me as I prepared to make the perfect throw for the dramatic out at the plate. A little too prepared to be a hero, evidently. As I looked up to draw a triumphant bead on the runner, the ball went skipping unimpeded through my legs and all the way to the fence

I felt a crushing shame, and if I had a tail, it would have been between my legs as I partly ran and stumbled back to retrieve the ball that was now so paradoxically inert as it rested innocently on the outfield grass. That blunder stuck to my mind like Velcro for the rest of the game. I replayed it again and again, making myself bad each time. I thought the game, the rest of my season, and probably my life, were now ruined. I struck out at every turn at bat in subsequent innings, as a sub-conscious penance for my sin. Why couldn't I be Superman instead of Clark Kent?

That scenario is from my early high school baseball playing days. I think life can be compared to a sports event. Much of our time is spent critically analyzing instant replays of our performance rather than being fully in the game. It is a way of being stuck in the past rather than finding enjoyment in the present.

There is the expression that "everyone is a critic". More to the point, everyone has a critic. The critic is our internal creation. It develops early. Two-year-old children can already evaluate their behaviour as right or wrong, good or bad. It is part of the socialization process. In fact, if we interpret feedback from others as "scolding" we can easily regress briefly to feeling like a child again.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having an inner critic. So let us not be critical of our selves for that! What is important is the feedback or mirroring provided by our critic that is shaped largely by our socialization and our interpretations of those earlier experiences. The critic is a reservoir of what we think we have heard throughout our life that we have internalized.

The primary definition of a critic is one who provides a balanced view of a performance that includes both its merits and areas of improvement (American Heritage Dictionary). A secondary definition of a critic is one who makes harsh judgements and is a faultfinder. The latter can easily become our primary form of critic based on our pursuit of the "right" way. In that case, the critic is more like a garbage can than a reservoir, the contents of which we have swallowed.

There are two different outcomes based on the principles of Restorative Justice (H. Kushner: Living A Life That Matters). The faultfinder makes us bad or wrong and seeks retribution through punishment, often with vengeance, that imprisons us. The balanced critic holds us accountable for our actions and is also concerned with our healing and restoration so that we return to being full members of our community. In sports speak, we are either "benched" or we "get back in the game".

Two different perspectives result. Self-dislike and unworthiness are associated with the faultfinder. Self-compassion and acceptance are associated with the balanced critic. These perspectives have been referred to respectively, as the pessimistic and the optimistic view (J. Kabat-Zinn: Full Catastrophic Living).

Pessimists blame themselves for negative events or perceived failures. They are also catastrophists. They think the effects of the event will last a long time and generalize to all other aspects of life. Pessimists see the event as proof that they are unworthy and un-likeable. They will erase or dismiss any available evidence to the contrary and thus, they are resistant to assurance from others. Pessimists globalize the experience by assuming that they "can't do anything right". When the cell door is unlocked, they often don't leave.

Optimists do not blame themselves. They are self-responsible. They acknowledge how they contributed to the negative event. Optimists do not blow the situation out of proportion. They see the event as limited in time and specific to the context. Optimists accept that they sometimes "blow it" but hold themselves able to do it differently next time. They learn from any experience. There is a pony in every pile of manure.

So our inner critic provides feedback and also strongly influences our general outlook and approach to life. Barbara Coloroso (Kids Are Worth It) describes different family types and how they can impact on children's development. Her terminology is relevant here. The harsh critic is very restrictive and tells us what to think. It is a "brick wall". The balanced critic helps us learn how to think so that we can expand and grow as individuals. It provides support for us like a "backbone". A backbone is strong but flexible compared to a brick wall that is rigid. The balanced critic is a mentor. The faultfinder is a tyrant and maybe even a terrorist.

My reference to Coloroso is not intended to imply that our critic is always a direct reflection of our family and broader social environment. If we transform our experiences through our interpretation of them, as suggested earlier, then a discrepancy is very possible. The interpretation is, of course, always subject to change with further experience. However, as M. Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience) suggests, our attention is selective and the information we allow into our consciousness will be significantly influenced by what we have already interpreted to be our "social instruction". So once on the path, we are guided by it.

Our inner struggles are often the result of conflict between what we truly want for ourselves and what we are told we can have by our harsh critic. A North American tribal leader characterized that struggle by saying "There are two dogs inside of me. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all of the time". Someone asked him which dog usually won and after a moment's reflection he answered, "The one I feed the most" (H. Kushner: Living A Life That Matters).

So it all comes back to us. Breaking free of the tyranny of the harsh critic requires us to make a first small step on the path of self-responsibility so that we access our balanced critic or our "inner mentor". What do we want to hear from our critic? What messages would we use to replace those that are so restrictive? We can now give ourselves those messages to acknowledge that we are self-responsible adults. It is how we can "grow our selves up" and live more fully and enjoyably in the present.

Gary Holdgrafer is a creativity coach for writers.
Reprinted with permission.