Eckhart Tolle, in his modern classic, The Power of Now, writes: “You have probably come across ‘mad’ people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, that’s not much different from what you and all other ‘normal’ people do, except that you don’t do it out loud. The voice comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes, dislikes, and so on…It is not uncommon for the voice to be a person’s own worst enemy. Many people live with a tormentor in their head that continuously attacks and punishes them and drains them of vital energy. It is the cause of untold misery and unhappiness, as well as of disease.”
I wonder if anyone reading can’t recognize this critical, sometimes tormenting voice in their personal experience. Virtually everybody in our culture seems to have an “inner critic” which relentlessly evaluates their performance in the tasks of life, and consistently finds it deficient. In my experience, the attacks of this inner critic, or, as one of my clients referred to it recently, “my butt kicking machine”, contribute to a myriad of problems – anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, addictions and compulsions, and on and on.
Is harsh self judgment more of a problem for gay than straight people? My own impression is no – intense self-criticism is ubiquitous in American culture – but it may be that there is a recognizable gay “flavor” to our inner critics. My impression is that, for us, the inner critic often speaks in the language of internalized homophobia. Even for those of us who have long ago come to terms with our sexual orientation, for instance, the voice often tells us that we’re unlovable or unworthy of respect because we’re “less than” or “out of step” with others.
What do we do about it? The first step in getting free of the inner critic is to decide unequivocally that you’d be better off without it. A surprising number of people, when push comes to shove, really believe that they need their butt kicking machine in order to keep them on their toes. They believe that, without it, they’d be an undisciplined mess, without values, goals, or direction. They don’t start to make progress until they can entertain the possibility, even if only provisionally, that there are more effective motivations for personal success than self-directed contempt.
But once that is clear, the next step is to learn to treat the inner critic as just one of the many voices in our heads, having no privileged authority. Most people are so afraid of their butt kicking machine that they cringe every time it issues one of its parental pronouncements, and are completely unable to be skeptical about what it says. One way to overcome this awe of the critic is to sit down with pen and paper and make an inventory of your critic’s “top ten tunes” – its most common accusations (e.g. “You’re a loser,” “You’re lazy,” “People don’t like you,” etc.) People who do this exercise often find that it enables them, sometimes for the first time in their lives, to look critically at the critic. They begin to see how sweeping its judgments are; how often they’re based on childhood misperceptions rather than mature thinking; and how unforgiving and lacking in compassion the inner critic can be. They begin to understand that, even when it does identify real shortcomings, these can be dealt with in a far more effective way than through the critic’s assaults.
Once we’ve become more skeptical about the inner critic, it becomes possible to begin to talk back to it. You’ll probably find that, no matter how unreasonable your inventory has revealed the critic to be, it will continue to play its top ten tunes anyway, because one of its chief characteristics is its relentless irrationality. That’s why trying to reason with it generally has limited value.
But it can be very helpful to have a few responses, preferably humorous, ironic, or sarcastic, which you can use whenever it begins a tormenting tirade. (“I’m sorry; all our operators are busy right now. Please call back in a year or two.”) You can have fun creating these responses; the point is to be constantly giving yourself the message that you don’t need to fear your inner critic, or to take its pronouncements as the voice of truth. Another helpful strategy is to practice deliberately sending yourself thoughts of compassion and kind wishes whenever the critic speaks up. (“May I be happy and peaceful. May I live in love. May I be successful,” etc.) Compassionate self regard is like a muscle. It strengthens with frequent use. For that reason, deliberately sending messages of loving kindness to yourself is helpful even if you don’t immediately “feel” them. What matters is the intention to treat yourself with kindness and positive regard. When you deliberately act on that intention frequently, the feelings of self regard gradually grow.
It isn’t necessary for us to feel at the mercy of our inner lives. Your butt kicking machine can feel fierce and formidable, but it’s really composed of nothing more substantial than thoughts, and none of us needs to feel helpless in relation to our thoughts.