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Self-Knowledge • Mood
Taming a Pitiless Inner Critic
One of the tedious aspects of having problems with our minds is that we need to take more of an interest in how they work than untroubled people do: we have to become mind mechanics because something is hurting inside.
A particularly noxious problem that afflicts many of us is that we are almost permanently anxious, self-critical, self-hating and afflicted by a sense that we don’t deserve to exist. We are definitely not good enough. Ever.
Psychology points us to a part of the mind termed our conscience, a faculty that keeps an eye on how well we are doing in relation to duty, to the demands of the world and to the regulation of our desires and appetites. Our conscience monitors how much effort we are putting into our work, our ratio of relaxed rest to anxious labour and our degree of sensuous indulgence. It’s our conscience that tells us when we’ve probably done enough gaming, dating or eating.
However useful this function may sound, for many of us, our conscience has grown very unbalanced. Rather than occasionally gently nudging us towards virtue, it is permanently screaming, denigrating and attacking us for perceived failings: it tells us that nothing we do is ever good enough, that we have no right to take a holiday let alone an afternoon off, that we have no business relaxing or enjoying ourselves – and that the worst is coming to us because of our sinful nature. Anxiety and self-contempt are our default states.
It was Freud’s simple but brilliant insight that our conscience is formed out of the residue of the voices of our parents, in particular (usually) of our fathers. Freud called the conscience the ‘superego’, and proposed that it continues to speak within our minds as our father figures once spoke to us.
For the lucky ones among us, we had reasonable father figures and therefore our consciences are broadly benign. If we fail today, we can try again next time. If we’re unpopular, we can be valuable anyway. We deserve a rest. Sex is allowed. Treats are part of life. We can do nothing for a while. We’re OK as we are.
But for others among us, our conscience rehearses the worst lines of punitive parental archetypes. When things go wrong, we swiftly conclude that it might be better if we killed ourselves.
One of the steps we can take towards greater mental health is to realise, properly realise, that this drama is going on inside us. It sounds strange to say, given the significance, but usually, we have no clue; the self-criticism has become too familiar to be noticeable, it’s just how things are and who we are. We can’t draw a distinction between the fierce inner critic and any other part of us.
A crucial first move is therefore to learn to put some distance between ourselves and our conscience. We should see our conscience as a character. We should tell ourselves: I have a punishing inner critic and it’s very unfair to me, it’s even trying to kill me. It is speaking to me, within me, but it isn’t all I am: it’s someone I sucked in from childhood and might learn to expel from my mind in time.
We can then start to question the critic. Is it really fair to say that our lives are wholly worthless? We’ve messed up for sure, but do we really deserve no compassion and no forgiveness? Is nothing about us in any way good? Would we ever think of treating a friend (or even an enemy) the way we’re treating ourselves?
We had no choice about who we had to listen to when we were little, but we do now have agency. We can retrain our minds, by getting better spotting how they were indoctrinated in the first place. We have picked up some extremely cruel and questionable habits. No one needs to be hounded by a sense that they are excrement; this feeling has a past and it doesn’t have to be the future.
To retrain ourselves, we need other people: people who can love us and fill our minds with other kinder perspectives. We need to dare to lean on them (not an easy move for people who feel undeserving in the first place) and ask for their help in taming the nasty sound-track inside. We should stop trying to be brave about the inner attacks we host. We might explicitly say to others: ‘you are here to help me with my inner critic, and to give me new perspectives on my self-punishment and despair.’ We should at times get incensed that we have to live with such a critic, and question why our first impulse is so often to forgive the critic and the parental figure who inspired it and blame ourselves for our stupidity.
We need to feel sorry for ourselves and annoyed with those who didn’t know how to show us tenderness. Of course we occasionally need to upbraid ourselves and try harder; but the real achievement is to know how to remain gently and generously on our own side.