A new, young 2019. We've hopefully taken a period of rest, a break, and also likely some reflection - looking back, looking forward. This can be lovely, but for some of us, this is an opportunity for our Critics to sneak up on us. To tell us we are not doing enough for ourselves, for others. That we are lazy, inadequate, don't have 'what it takes' to reach our dreams.
We all have internal Critics. Some are meaner and stronger than others. There are at least two kinds of Critics. One Shames us, tells us we are bad, don't meet up to its expectations. The other Scares us, tells us all kinds of scary stories about how we won't be ok, won't be able to cope, are just plain not strong enough. Sometimes, the Shaming and Scaring critic can yell at us at once, which is just plain overwhelming!
I was recently at a clinical peer supervision meeting and a colleague introduced me to a Netflix show - Big Mouth - that does a great job personifying the Shame Critic. It does this with its character the Shame Wizard - a scary, slimy, intimidating character that oozes out of the shadows and attacks people when they are already feeling badly about themselves.
Here is a clip of Jessi, a teenage girl who has made a mistake and already feels terrible, and the Shame Wizard comes and, well, SHAMES her!
What is especially hard about being attacked by a Critic is that it can feel like the Critic is ALL of us, that we have no other parts left. Like our entire being is the Shame Wizard and there is nothing left. In fact, however, Critics are always just one part of ourselves attacking the rest of us - but because they can be so strong and loud, we forget that the rest of us exists!
So, in the spirit of Big Mouth and its Shame Wizard, what can help as a first step in working with Self-Criticism is to externalize the voices that shame or scare us. Most often, we are not aware of these voices, they are more unconscious, and instead we are more aware of the change of feeling - from wellness to shame, anxiety, overwhelm, helplessness, hopelessness, etc. See if you can give voice to the Shaming or Scaring parts of you when they are active. Say what it is saying, out loud, to yourself!
This may seem counterintuitive. In fact, our natural instinct when we are being attacked by Shaming or Scaring voices is to push them away, distract, try to get away from them - NOT hear them out! But in fact, when we can give voice to these parts of ourselves, we begin to experience them as only one part of us, not our entire being. Only the Critic part believes us to be inadequate, incapable, lazy, fat, bad, whatever. There are other parts, perhaps less developed parts, but they are still there, that do not hold these beliefs.
When we give voice to the parts that Scare or Shame us, that can sometimes be enough to defuse them. When we actually hear the mean or catastrophic things we are saying to ourselves, that it sometimes enough to recognize how ridiculous it sounds. That can sometimes be enough to make space for other parts of ourselves, parts that are more compassionate, that can get Angry at this attack, or that can say - Ouch! It hurts so much when you attack me! I need your support, your encouragement, your acceptance - NOT this attacking!
Fortunately for the character Jessi in the above video, she has another strong part of her that gets very angry at the Shame Wizard. That rises up and says - "Get the Fuck out of here" - and proceeds to load her very sizeable shot gun. If only we could all have this character by our sides when our Shame Critics rise up against us!
So, to recap, when you have a Critic rising up against you, Step 1 is to give it voice! What is my Critic actually saying?! Say what it is saying out loud. To yourself.
Once you can get these explicit messages, Step 2 is to ask yourself - How does this Critic make me feel - right now? This will definitely seem counterintuitive - the Critic makes us feel bad or scared - and we try so hard not to feel this way. However, as Emotion Focused Therapy philosophy teaches, we need to feel it to heal it. See if you can go inside, name the feelings you feel as a result of the Critic's attacking. Maybe you feel defeated, scared, overwhelmed, helpless. Maybe you are deeply sad and hurt at the way your critic is treating you. Or maybe, like Jessi - you get Pissed!
Step 3 is to Ask yourself what you need from the Critic part of you. If you feel angry, you might need your Critic to, in Jessi's words, "Get the Fuck out of here!" If you feel ashamed and defeated, you might need your critic to encourage you, to accept you, rather than crush you. If you feel scared, you might need your Critic to comfort you.
In stating a need from the Critic, your feeling state can shift. Maybe you begin to feel entitled to your Anger at the Critic; Maybe you go into sadness and pain at how badly it hurts to be attacked in this way - and then find yourself feeling entitled to comfort and care.
Feeling Angry or Sad is very different than feeling Weak or Bad - would you not agree? Anger and Sadness in this case are very healing emotions that help us get our needs met - i.e., space from the critic, comfort in our pain.
Perhaps I will write a follow-up post to get more into why our Critics can be so mean, and more about how to soften them. For now, if you take nothing else from this post - Give Voice to your Critic! Experiment with giving it mean, harsh, scary, demeaning voices. This helps to separate the Critic Voices from the rest of us - and this in itself can help take the edge off of the impact of its attacks.
Happy (belated) New Year. May you make room for your more gentle parts via giving voice to the Critic - and seeing what else is there!