As promised in Part 4 in this series this instalment of the Inner Critic Expose’ is all about critics with a benevolent, protective function.
For most people, the dynamics of inner criticism have an underlying benevolent function, although there is one exception (more about that in Part 6).
One common process underneath protective inner criticism is as a response to cultural messages that are against success, leadership, prominence, achievement etc. This is the classic tall-poppy syndrome that characterises Australian culture (and several other Anglosphere countries, although not the United States). We imbibe the cultural messages against success and repeat them within our own psyche. Our inner critics remind us how dangerous it is to do anything special, and strongly promote the lay-low-and-fit-in approach to staying safe.
Although the strategy might not be the best in the long term, we need to realise that the threat it is responding to is very real. In cultures with tall-poppy syndromes, there is a real and painful backlash toward people who are successful. We can’t just enjoy their success, their skill, their courage, their shininess; we have to take them down a peg or two, perhaps even punish them for being so ‘full of themselves’, ‘upstarts’, ‘power-hungry’ etc. This inner critic alerts us to this danger, but its strategy to protect us by doing nothing special will probably lead to existential boredom and depression!
I think of it as a Risk Manager stuck in the old ways of risk management (avoid all risks by doing nothing risky). These days a good risk manager identifies risks and develops strategies to minimise the risks, creates contingency plans, and accepts a reasonable level of risk – all without halting the project. Instead of letting this inner critic stop us in our tracks, let’s get them to work as a modern-day risk manager. Get them to be more specific about the risks, write down their list of what could go wrong, then reality-check the list in terms of probability and what’s actually in your control. Then ask the critic (rebadged as the Risk Manager) for ideas of how to mitigate the risks that you can influence or control. Doing this not only works towards transforming this pattern of inner dialogue but as a bonus, we also now have the first part of a plan to achieve our goal. We know the prep work we need to do, the things to plan for, what controls we might need to put in place, how we will get the help we need etc. Brilliant!!
Going even one step further though, in this super high-speed, information dense era, great risk management is now all about building risk agility and adaptability. Instead of trying to anticipate and plan for every foreseeable risk, build a range of transferable skills and abilities that will serve you across many difficult situations. Psychologically, this is things like self-awareness and self-esteem, healthy detachment, capacity for empathy, curiosity, relationship and conflict skills, a problem-solving attitude, a good relationship with our personal power, knowing our purpose in life, and working on the situations we find triggering. All of these capacities will serve us well in almost any challenging situation.
Protective critics are not just cultural though, they are also very personal. They can emerge when we are trying to do something that our everyday identity perceives as a threat to how we see ourselves. Just say you thought of yourself as just an average person, nothing special etc. If/when a goal or a dream for your life pops into your head, even just for a moment, protective inner critics will spring up like greased lightening to remind you of the futility and impossibility of your longing, because you are average, not special (only special people dream big, achieve big). This has a similar flavour and some definite cross-over with the cultural protective response, but here it is also trying to protect our current identity from threats of…CHANGE! But not just any change, change that might lead us to notice that we are in fact uniquely talented, powerful, intelligent, useful, creative etc. It sounds absurd, because surely feeling talented, powerful, intelligent, creative etc would feel good and not something we need protection from? But as Marian Williamson said “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
Why? There isn’t just one answer but it can be a range of things. Chronic low self-esteem, the responsibilities of power and talent, fear of failure, hard-wired habitual self-image, guilt etc (check out page 14 in The Little Book of Power for more on this).
So what to do with all this? These kind of dynamics/issues don’t change overnight and there is probably not just one thing you can do to change them, but two of the most powerful tools I have found are:
Changing the dialogue – get into relationship with these inner critics (see Part 4 for some ideas). One way to do this is to write down what they say then challenge, respond, reframe etc; anything different to agreeing with insults and suffering from them is heading in the right direction;
Action, action, action! Take small, small steps in the direction of your goals, celebrate those steps, and let them slowly rewrite the story of who you think you are. The importance of taking action cannot be understated, most significantly because of its impact on our attitude and self-esteem. But small steps are the key – set yourself up to succeed by setting the bar for success really low! I tried this a little while ago when I wanted to include meditation in my morning routine. Upon waking every morning my goal was to sit and meditate for three minutes just trying to notice my breathing. I didn’t have to be good at it, nothing amazing had to happen, I just had to sit for that three minutes. It worked amazingly well because no matter how distracted by thoughts I get it doesn’t matter because that is not my measure of success, just sitting and trying is all have to do to succeed and feel good about my efforts. I am now up to 12 minutes and the quality hasn’t improved greatly, but it still doesn’t matter, I still feel good just for trying.
So that’s a little about protective inner critic processes – we can’t push them out of the moving vehicle that is our life, but we can manage their ‘back-seat driving’ and fear-mongering.
Next in the series will be about what I call killer critics…it’s all about duels and deaths!!
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