Posted 11/24/15 | Updated 11/10/20
YOU HAVE A constant stream of thoughts running through your mind, and we use the term “inner critics” to describe the thoughts that criticize you or tell you that you should be ashamed or feel guilty if you do what you want to do.
SARK: I first learned about inner critics over 20 years ago from Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone’s book, Embracing Your Inner Critic. At the time, my inner critics were so strong that I could only read a few paragraphs before taking a nap for several hours to try to digest the information.
I learned that I was basically running my life with my inner critics in charge. I wasn’t as aware of my Inner Wise Self at that point, and didn’t know about the power of that aspect and what it would mean to have my Inner Wise Self and my Aware Self (what I call my adult self) in charge.
Over the years, I learned how to stop inner critics when necessary, redirect them, communicate with them, and transform my relationships with them and their messages. I later developed a transformational care system that works really well. This has opened my life up tremendously to feeling more love, and new ways of working and living, and it works for anyone who wants to practice it.
When you were growing up, basically well-meaning people taught you when to feel shame and guilt, and criticized you to get you to do what they wanted. Part of the information you took in about how to function in the world included these beliefs about who you “should” be and how you “should” behave.
After a while, these external voices became inner voices. And in many ways they were helpful. They reminded you what the rules were so you could avoid getting punished. They motivated you to achieve things so the people with authority would reward you. They protected you in a world where everyone was much bigger.
Now that you’re older, you have the ability to evaluate what is genuinely best for you and no longer need to rely on others to do that for you. But these clusters of beliefs are still in your head and often demand that you listen to them and do what they say.
They aren’t as useful to you now as they were when you were small. In fact, they can block you from taking actions that would truly nourish you. They were given to you by the authorities in your life based on their view of the world, one that isn’t necessarily best for you, especially the adult you.
Listening to these voices without questioning them, the same way you did when you were small, leads to unnecessary guilt and shame, and decisions that don’t serve who you are now. Additionally, in a relationship, if your partner echoes what your inner critics are saying, those criticisms can have tremendous power to affect you.
For example, if your partner says you should become a mountain climber to get more exercise, chances are this would not echo an inner critic. Few of us have been told that we need to climb mountains to be better people. If you had an interest in climbing, you might look into it. If not, you would simply ignore the suggestion, though you might wonder why your partner would encourage you to do this.
But if your partner says you should do something that echoes what an inner critic has told you — for example, that you should lose weight or get a better job or stop playing video games or eat differently, just to name a few common inner-critic beliefs — your response would likely be much more emotional.
You might be upset with your partner for saying that. You might feel defensive or down on yourself and pressured to do what they said. It would look and feel like your partner evoked those feelings, when in reality it was your inner critics. Sometimes even mild disappointment from someone whose opinion you value can be experienced as severe criticism because it empowers your inner critics.
Using the Inner Critic Care System, you will be able to identify the thoughts in your head that speak critically to you or evoke guilt and shame, so when others echo them you can address your inner voices directly rather than trying to change the other person or having them dictate what you should do.
It doesn’t work to deny, repress, or ignore inner critics — if you do, their messages will only get louder and larger inside your head and project outward. Self-critical dialogue is extremely debilitating, not only in love relationships but at work and as you go about living your life.
Once you are able to deal with your inner critics effectively, you can look into others’ suggestions if they appeal to you, ignore them if not, and realize that their opinions and desires have more to do with them than you. You will be less affected by others’ judgments about you and be able to respond to them more harmoniously.
It isn’t that you might not want to make changes or improvements in your life, it’s that you don’t need to be bullied or criticized into doing so. Knowing how to manage inner critics and care for yourself at the same time will give you tremendous advantages in every area of your life.
SARK: In my years of studying and experiencing the effects of inner critics, I’ve encountered a great deal of inner critic energy, especially in regard to love and relationships. As I transformed my relationships with my inner critics, all my external relationships began to positively shift also. It feels so liberating now to know when and how my inner critics get activated and know what to do about it, so that I rarely blame the people I love or project my inner critics onto them. Often I still try to, but I quickly realize it doesn’t work.
Dr John Waddell: For years I experienced abuse in my relationships, because I felt guilty and believed I should allow myself to be treated in ways that weren’t good for me. I didn’t know about inner critics at that time. Only as I became more self-aware was I able to be joyfully in a partnership.
Your inner critics don’t just criticize you, they also criticize everyone around you. Not only do you need to live up to their standards, often so does everyone else. So you might find yourself speaking for your inner critics and making judgments about your partner. And if their inner critics match yours, your partner is likely to respond defensively. You might even get into a big fight, when in reality it’s the inner critics in each of you fighting with the other’s.
SARK: One time at the airport, John made a comment about how heavy my suitcase was, and when I questioned him and said that I was big enough to carry my own bag, it somehow turned into a discussion about my weight and size, and I started getting really vehement about my choices to be the size that I am and carry whatever size suitcase I want to.
In the middle of my emotional outburst, John just looked at me and said, “Who are you fighting with right now?” And I immediately realized that it was an inner critic who thought that I should be slim and trim, with only the smallest carry-on bag. I had projected that all onto John! We were able to laugh and be together lovingly and continue on our journey. I know from this and other experiences that having an awareness of inner critics and an Inner Critic Care System in place is pivotal to loving and being loved.
The idea is for your adult self — we call it your Aware Self — to be in charge of your decisions, not your inner critics. Most of us start out so merged with our inner critics that we can’t see them. We might say things like, “That’s just the way I am, I’ve always been that way,” or, “I know I have flaws and should do better,” or, “Loving just isn’t easy for me — I always find faults and flaws in whomever I’m with.”
If the idea of inner critics is brand new to you, your first opportunity is to become aware of them. Begin to notice your inner dialogue. Is it critical of you or anyone else? Anything that implies that you or someone around you “should” be doing something different, or that you (or they) are bad, wrong, flawed, or unlovable as you are, is the voice of an inner critic.
Often, our thoughts move so quickly that we miss them. The easiest way to know that an inner critic has turned on you is by how you feel. If you’re angry at someone for criticizing you, if you feel that you should be different, if you feel down on yourself, and especially if you’re defending yourself — these are all signs of inner critics.
You can work from the feelings back to the thoughts. Allow yourself to be aware of the uncomfortable feelings and see if you can connect thoughts to them. They could be something like, “You’ll never find love,” or, “You should be better,” or, “You always _____.” The words “should,” “never,” and “always” are particular favorites of inner critics.
Here are descriptions of the most common inner critics that have likely come up as you’ve lived your life:
Lurking beneath all the other inner critics and giving them their power is the Good Person. This inner critic comes in many variations. It can be the good girlfriend or the good wife, the good student, or the good husband. In each case it represents an idealized standard, one that can be met only by hurting yourself and denying who you really are.
No amount of anything is ever enough. This critic pushes you to do more — no matter what — in its attempt to get you to live up to an impossible standard. You are always behind or not producing or experiencing what you’d hoped or expected. Even when you succeed, you see mostly flaws in yourself or ways that you didn’t live up to the standard and should have done more.
With regard to love and relationships, this part will push you to date multiple people to look for the best relationship ever in the history of all relationships — and it will still not be enough.
When you realize you will never attain the idealized standard of the Good Person, in yourself or in a partner, the Overachiever takes over and pushes you to continue trying. You know you can’t succeed, but you don’t have permission to go off and do what would genuinely bring you joy.
Everything is constantly being polished and assessed for being “better,” and nothing or no one is ever quite good enough. “Never good enough” is the mantra. New activities, things to try, or people to meet are measured by this critic, and often you don’t do or try new things because you fear failing or not being good enough. In love, the Perfectionist will assure you that you — and anyone else — are certainly never good enough.
Everyone else’s life, output, process, success, or relationship is better than yours — every time. And every comparison finds you lacking in some way, often in excruciating detail. You often think that your life is harder or that others’ lives are easier, luckier, more blessed. In love and relationships, everyone else has it all figured out — brilliantly. You are acutely aware of how they meet the idealized standard and you don’t.
If you do or try anything — especially love or relationships — it can be judged. Better not to start or to start later. Later rarely, if ever, arrives. Rehearsing, planning, incessantly thinking — without ever moving — are the hallmarks of this critic. You often feel tired or as if you’re not doing what you say you’d like to. It feels familiar and like an old pattern.
This inner critic is often a front for the Good Person. You will make an agreement, such as, “I’ll mow the lawn.” But the agreement is really made by the idealized person you want to be — the Good Person — not who you really are. You can’t give yourself permission to admit, “I really don’t want to mow the lawn,” so you agree to it. Then the Procrastinator takes over. You don’t mow the lawn but feel guilty about it.
What’s the point? Why begin anything at all? Why try love? I tried before and failed. Nothing will ever work. It’s all pointless....This critic collapses before beginning, doesn’t begin at all, feels sad about not beginning, immediately undoes the slightest movement forward.
See which of these inner critics seem to be the most familiar to you or active in your mind. You may also notice other negative messages, and if you hear them again and again, it helps to give them names.
Remember, anything that evokes feelings of being less than or not enough, of lack, or that you “should” be different, is an inner critic.
Excerpted from Succulent Wild Love: Six Powerful Habits for Feeling More Love More Often by SARK and Dr. John Waddell. Printed with permission of NewWorldLibrary.com.
Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (SARK) is a best-selling author and artist, with sixteen titles in print and well over two million books sold. more