sheriffDo you know the feeling when you’ve outgrown something…some part of yourself that may have been needed or of use ‘back when’ but is now no longer helpful? There may be no better example of this than our relationship with our own Inner Critic. Who is this disgruntled Voice in us? Where did it come from? Why is it so powerful? How can we get out from under its blanketing control? What does it want? What’s it afraid of? Can we put it at ease? One thing seems accurate. This high-­‐opinionated inner judge needs to be dealt with. Nothing is more of a joy-­‐killer than our Critic.
So yes, it’s good news that, as mature adults, we don’t need that overseeing, meddling busybody anymore. What may have been a useful internal guide for keeping us in line in our younger days is definitely outdated now. Like an old coat from years past, we’ve simply outgrown it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s outgrown us! That Voice has a deep and well-­‐established root structure in our minds and it isn’t planning on vacating anytime soon. It will never willingly give up its position of power in our psyche. The cold fact is that the Critic truly believes that we’d be lost without it.
So, what’s a ‘Critic attack’?
The Critic can launch an attack in many different situations, depending on what specific “triggers” it has. This can range from a subtle sense of displeasure (“Oh, for chrissake… are you doing that again?”) all the way to a full-­‐blown variation of “You #*@!! idiot!”
Check it out for yourself. Next time you make a ‘mistake’ or do something ‘embarrassing’, listen for that specific Voice that expresses its irritated disapproval. Notice that it may go beyond a simple mental scolding and it often has the power to really make you pay for your ‘transgression.’ You might suddenly feel your heart flooded with shame. Or you may notice you’re contracted in fear. In whatever form it’s delivered, a Critic Attack is rarely gentle. There tends to be no compassion in it, often with a harsh and punishing edge. We’re usually so paralyzed during a strong ‘attack’ that we aren’t even aware of the source of this Voice. All we know is that we immediately feel cut down, humiliated or diminished in some way…made smaller.
Who is that Voice?
I think of the Critic as an inner cauldron that’s been filled with all the important authority voices from childhood. At a certain early age, we have, in effect, taken those voices ‘in.’ Generally, the voices of our parents are in there, for sure. Maybe certain key school teachers or older siblings and other powerful figures, are collectively stirred in together. The sum total of all those impressionable voices from our early days get blended and brewed until we’ve internalized them. In time, what comes bubbling up to the surface of our mind is an overall set of values and beliefs. These values have now been fused into one controlling inner Voice which sets the standard for our lives regarding what’s bad, what’s good, right, wrong, important, a waste of time, etc. One thing the Critic rarely runs out of is opinions and it’s often a stern taskmaster who’s rarely satisfied. For many, it becomes The Sheriff within, having ‘laid down the law’ in our world and holding us to it. Stray outside of its well-­‐defined boundaries, challenge its established status quo, fail to meet an expected standard, and we do so at the risk of its wrath.
What’s The Sheriff afraid of?
First, in fairness, let’s give the Critic its due. At its very core, all it’s really trying to do is to get us through life as best it can, with the maximum security and the minimum risk. So, not surprisingly, it’s packed with fear, afraid of all kinds of things. The list of its anxieties is extensive. Being typically pessimistic in nature, a Critic can imagine worst-­‐case scenarios and the nastiest of consequences, which is why it tends to be so conservative in nature. What it’s specifically afraid of (and, perhaps, hyper-­‐vigilant about) varies for each of us as it depends on our history and the particular voices we’ve internalized. My Critic will have a different set of beliefs and standards than yours. Some might have an overriding ‘fear of failure’, therefore always driving you forward, “Do better, that wasn’t quite enough… Push harder!” Other Critics can have a fear of success, always undermining, sabotaging the development of any kind of growth. “Who do you think you are? Stop trying to be a ‘big shot.’ Well, aren’t WE special? The poppy that lifts its head the highest is the one that gets clipped.” Yada, yada… it’s got a million of ‘em! But regardless of its orientation, everyone’s Critic tends to have the same overall demand; tow the line in a defined, acceptable manner…or else!
So how do we get out from under the smothering sway of this powerful and misguided Judge, how to detach from its deeply embedded grip? For me, the first key step was in simply recognizing and clearly identifying that Voice, separating ‘me’ from ‘it’.  Once identified, it’s then a question of trial and error. Sometimes, when it’s making an appearance, a forceful burst of “Out!’, showing it the proverbial ‘door’ is effective, other situations may simply require a firm but genteel: ‘Shhhhhhhhhhh’.
But I’ve noticed this charming fact. This whole inquiry will tend to make the Critic very uncomfortable! It generally has operated all one’s life with impunity, no outside interference, never challenged. The Sheriff likes to be the one with badge, the one shining the flashlight around wherever it chooses. Having a light trained on it is not something it wants or will tolerate, if possible. Just something to be cognizant of.
Nonetheless, The Sheriff’s ways and means have far outlived their usefulness. The Inner Critic is not the way…it’s in the way; in the way of our growth, happiness and well-­‐being.