1.2 Why disengage from the inner critic?
As we saw above, during childhood, you pick up a whole set of rules for living and a set of methods for enforcing these rules. This is what we here call the inner critic. At a certain stage in your development, the inner critic is very useful. It helps you get along with your parents, and it gives you some means of navigating and thriving in the world.
However, in adult life, the inner critic can become very problematic and will increasingly hamper growth rather than support it. Below, I go over four important ways inner criticism becomes an obstacle to growth. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should suffice to illustrate the kind of problems inner criticism can cause in adults.
1.2.1 Rule following can prevent the development of more refined forms of thinking and acting
First, the inner critic can prevent growth by focusing your attention on questions of whether or not certain thoughts, emotions, and actions adhere to the rules enforced by the inner critic. This focus severely limits your possibility to develop these rules by questioning them and adjusting or discarding them when appropriate. You may, for example, have learned the rule that you should be a kind person. In this case, the inner critic will direct your attention towards determining whether your actions, emotions, and thoughts are kind or unkind as a way of making sure you do not do anything (intentionally or inadvertently) that could be categorised as unkind. Being kind is a good rule of thumb, but any such rule is merely like a seed. It needs to be challenged and contemplated on to develop into more mature forms of knowing.
As children, both our life experience and our capacities to observe, make distinctions, and reason are limited. Consequently, our ideas about what kind and unkind means are crude. As adults, we can potentially increase our life experience and develop our capacities to observe, make distinctions, and reason. Therefore, it does not serve us to live our lives being guided by the same kind of rules that are fit for guiding children. We are much more able to see each new situation we are faced with as unique and with more nuance. We have the potential to learn to evaluate our actions, emotions, and thoughts using far more nuanced ways. We may see that kind intentions can result in unkind actions – and the reverse. We may see that what is perceived as kind by one person or in one culture can be perceived as unkind by another person or another culture. We may see that in some situations, whether an action is kind or unkind may not be the most important criteria for choosing an appropriate course of action. We may see that an action can be both kind and unkind at the same time and that there are many distinct positions on the spectrum from kind to unkind. We may see that statements about the importance of being kind are always made in a particular context and that rules cannot be completely separated from the context in which they are conceived.
As adults, we can use our increased life experience together with our increased capacity to observe, make distinctions, and reason to develop the simple rules we learn in childhood into rich and complex tools for engaging with life situations in a much more nuanced, adaptive, flexible, and sensitive manner. It is by engaging in reflections like those mentioned above, that the crude childhood rule can mature and blossom. From the rich soil of well-examined life experience, the seeds sown in childhood can grow into rich, alive, and constantly evolving guiding forces in our life.
When the inner criticism restricts our reflections to questions of whether our actions, emotions, and thoughts fall within the narrow boundaries of crude and naïve categories of right and wrong, it inhibits this process of growth and maturation. It prevents us from expanding beyond the confinements of the rules we picked up from our family environment and culture. Thus, we need the courage to disengage from inner criticism to allow our childhood understanding to develop and mature.
Q1: What are some examples of categories you use to distinguish between good and bad thoughts, emotions, and actions? Are you concerned with whether your thoughts, emotions, and actions are kind rather than unkind, confident rather than insecure, intelligent rather than stupid, or something else?
Q2: How might the use of these categories limit your possibilities of developing simple black and white ways of thinking, feeling, and acting into more refined and nuanced ways of thinking, feeling, and acting?