Putting the Inner Critic in its rightful place

How boundaries and journaling have worked for me

Do you ever get the feeling that you are not in the driving seat of your own life?

Up until recently, I often had that feeling. It was as if a maniac had shoved me aside, grabbed the wheel and was driving us both at high speed towards a cliff edge, beyond which was overwhelm, paralysis and despair.

That maniac was the Inner Critic.

For some years, I was regularly falling prey to its harsh onslaught of insult and critique. No matter how much I intended to be gentle with myself or treat myself with compassion, I would end up crushed, belittled and bereft of my power, sometimes taking days or weeks to recover from an attack by the noxious voice inside my head.

It took me a while to understand that the sneering voice that insisted that I was not good enough was a part of my psyche that did not have the right to be in charge.

According to Wikipedia, “the inner critic is usually experienced as an inner voice attacking a person, saying that they are bad, wrong, inadequate, worthless, guilty, and so on… Jay Earley and Bonnie Weiss have labeled seven types of inner critics—the perfectionist, the taskmaster, the inner controller, the guilt tripper, the destroyer, the underminer, and the molder.”

It surfaced in my home, family and work life, casting aspersions on my self-worth, condemning me for always doing this that or the other, catching me in the deadly trap of comparing myself to others and hissing in my ear that I was forever an imposter.

The first positive shift came when I began to recognise that this voice, with its characteristic blanket statements that essentially centred on how crap I was, was a particular expression of my psyche that seemed to be in opposition to my normal healthy functioning mind. Once I had identified my Critic’s familiar rhetoric, I started to realise when it was becoming active. However, even armed with this knowledge, I was still falling victim to its venom.

The real turning point came when I listened to a podcast on the Inner Critic featuring Red School founders, Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo-Wurlitzer, whose work centres on the transformative power of the menstrual cycle awareness and conscious menopause. In the interview, they stated in no uncertain terms that, for a menstruating woman, such as myself, the only appropriate time to engage with the inner critic is during the premenstruum (the days leading up to the menstrual bleed) and when doing so, one needs to be feeling fully empowered and grounded in oneself.

I followed their advice. As I was tracking my cycle day by day at this stage, I was closely observing my physical, mental and emotional patterns, so it was easier to detect when the voice of the Inner Critic was awakening. If it started to attack me at other points in my cycle, I would firmly tell it to go away and that I would deal with it during my premenstrual phase. If it persisted, I would simply tell it to F*** off.

It quite quickly got the message.

Once I had asserted this clear boundary with my Inner Critic, I decided to reach into my journaling toolbox to find techniques that would enable me to gain a deeper understanding of its persona and engage with it in a constructive way.

On the first of these ‘journal dates’ with my Inner Critic, I sat down with my notebook during one of the days of my premenstruum and explored the imagined qualities, characteristics and life story of this elusive aspect of myself. As I did so, I developed empathy and sometimes pity for this otherwise unlovable character. I gave her a name, Ray, tough as old nails but who shines a light on things.

Having understood her better, I was ready to start a journal dialogue with her.

Dialogue is one of the techniques I share in the Journal to the Self course. It was originated by Ira Progoff in the Intensive Journal Method and further developed by Kathleen Adams, creator of Journal to the Self. It is, for me, one of the most insightful writing techniques. You can write a dialogue with any aspect of yourself, another person, an object, a place, an institution, the possibilities are endless.

Now that I have a clear, boundaried relationship with my Inner Critic, I dialogue with her almost every month during my premenstrual phase. Because, although she comes across as a heartless bitch, she often has something useful to say.

The Fierce Kindness website tells us “Your inner critic is an inner guardian your brain developed to keep you safe, alive and in the loving bubble of your parents, tribe or community. Its role is to continuously check and warn you of potential dangers. These dangers include avoiding doing things that upset other people and keeping you from making costly mistakes.”

While my Inner Critic has a tendency to express its ideas in tactless and downright unhelpful ways, if I ask her to be specific, I am often able to dig to the gold beneath the insults.

Here is an extract from a recent journal dialogue about a creative project I was embarking on:

Ray: Just don’t get too big for your boots. You’re small fry and you’re not going to be famous.

Me: Can you be more specific. Those are not helpful comments.

Ray: Just keep your expectations low – that way you won’t be disappointed.

Me: So you don’t want me to get too carried away with the big vision?

As you can see, once I got past the negative spewing that is so typical of how the Critic shows up for me, the underlying motivation to keep me safe from disappointment was revealed and we were able to continue to have a constructive conversation about next steps. I don’t always go with Ray’s suggestions but I am able to receive them and integrate what is useful and important.

Such a turnaround.

Since taking this two-pronged approach of inner boundaries and journal dialogue, I am living as a much fuller, freer expression of myself. And, I am even making space to hear the quieter but refreshing voice of my Inner Champion, who celebrates who I am and my achievements. Imagine that!

If you would like to try out these journaling techniques for yourself to reframe your relationship with your Inner Critic and reclaim your power, come along to the next edition of the 2.5 hour workshop, Face & Embrace: A Journal Date with your Inner Critic.

You might also be interested in the 12 hour Journal to the Self course to learn more about journal dialogue and many more approaches to enrich your journaling toolbox.

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