Self-talk is usually so automatic that you don’t notice it or the effect it has on your moods and feelings. You react without noticing what you told yourself before your reaction. Self-talk often appears as a form of short-hand. One short word or brief image contains a whole series of thoughts, memories or associations.
What is the inner critic?
The inner critic is part of you that is constantly judging and evaluating your behaviours. It tends to point out your flaws and limitations whenever possible. It highlights your mistakes and tells you that you are a failure. The inner critic generates anxiety by putting you down for not being able to handle certain situations, not being able to go places you would like to frequent, being unable to perform your best or being dependent on others. It tends to ignore your positive qualities and emphasizes your weaknesses and inadequacies. This critical and judgemental voice about ourselves or others can seem the voice of truth but it isn’t. In reality it is our conditioning from our adult figures, such as parents, teachers, grandparents, who wounded us in the past with their criticism.
How the inner critic affects us
We are often told as a child “Don’t be selfish” and we have interpreted this as “don’t look after yourself” and that to place yourself as a priority is selfish. Clearly, if we take this literally about not looking after ourselves and that others are more important than we are, we can become burnt out, depressed and too tired to enjoy life. Women and mothers in particular often struggle with this, believing that they are bad if they sometimes put themselves first above the wants of their children.
A critical voice within you is one which keeps you from feeling good about yourself. It can keep up a commentary throughout the whole day and throughout your life from when you wake up to when you go to sleep. It tells you what you like, how you are feeling and it defines, judges and interprets your every action. For example, “You are stupid,” “You should not have done/said that”or “if only you had said or done differently.” The critic within puts a strain on relationships, causes anxiety and makes you feel unworthy, inadequate and depressed.
The judgements need to be separated out from the grain of truth. When the superego is attacking us we can feel devoid of energy, miserable, depressed, feel apathetic and lose our interest, vitality, curiosity and enthusiasm for life.
The real YOU is much more than the roles you play, more than your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. The real YOU is a pure life force unlimited by ideas and thoughts about who you are. The critic within stops you realising how beautiful you are, and stops you acknowledging how capable, powerful and enjoyable you are. It can be responsible for undermining your beliefs in yourself.
Wise living with the superego is first to recognise when we are judging and attacking ourselves or others and then to understand and know the hurt that this is causing us. This voice is like a radio band and it can be turned down and eventually re-tuned to another station. Our inner critic is usually trying to take care of us and wise living is knowing this.
Most, if not all of us, have a critic inside us. Some of us may be aware of these critical judgemental thoughts and others may not. Freud called this critic the Superego or the Overseeing Eye. It is the last part of the personality structure to be formed and does not get fully formed until about the age of 7-8 years old. The superego is the inner voice that tells us what is right or wrong, telling us how we should be and that we should meet certain standards.
The inner critic within can also be very negative towards and about other people, criticising their appearance, weight, behaviour, attitude etc, Instead of reserving this criticism and judgement for ourselves the inner critic transfers it to other people.
The superego may lash out on us if we, for example, make a mistake and we think “how stupid I am”, “I shouldn’t have done this”, “if only I had done . . . “, and this voice may be unrelenting in its bullying of us. We can end up feeling miserable lacking in energy, not believing in ourselves, our worth or value or competence or loveability. Judging and criticising ourselves for a “failed” marriage or friendship believing it is our fault and that we should have done more is another example of a superego attack. Criticising ourselves for our appearance, we are too fat, too thin, we are ugly, horrible and no-one is attracted to us are other ways that the superego can lash out.
Many people who suffer from depression experience strong superego attacks which can feel unrelenting and vicious. Some people cope with these attacks by taking drugs, alcohol, over-eating or gambling believing that this inner critic is telling the truth the whole truth which in fact it is not.
Disengaging from our superego
Starting to be aware of our superego attacks is the first stage of dealing with them. For many of us the critical voice within can be subtle and devious so we have to be alert and be in contact with ourselves on an on-going basis. Exploring the grain of truth in the superego attack is also an important aspect and then letting go of the judgements and criticism. If you are doing all this and still not reducing the volume and frequency of the inner critic within, then you probably need some professional support to help you take further steps. This is challenging work and one of the most complicated aspects of our personality structure. We cannot get rid of the superego but we can reduce the impact it has on our moment to moment life so that other parts of our personality structure can be given priority. To achieve wisdom in our daily living is learning to understand this.