Third, inner criticism comments on, corrects, and punishes, not only behaviour, but also emotions, thoughts, and intentions. This interferes with one of the most powerful avenues of learning available to humans, namely, by using our creative imagination.
Sigmund Freud wrote extensively about the internalization of the parents’ corrective energies. He referred to it as the super-ego. In his writings, he points to an important difference between being corrected by the external parents and by the internalized parents: When the correction is done by the external parents, the child will only be punished for “bad” behaviour if the external parent finds out what the child has done. In contrast, when the correction is done by the internalised parent (the super-ego or the inner critic), the child will be punished even for having the intention to act in a “bad” way. Freud writes:
“It makes little difference whether one has already committed the bad deed or only intends to do so; in either case the danger begins only when the authority has found it out, and the latter would behave in the same way in both cases. We call this state of mind a ‘ bad conscience; but actually it does not deserve this name, for at this stage the sense of guilt is obviously only the dread of losing love, ‘ social ‘ anxiety. In a little child it can never be anything else, but in many adults too it has only changed in so far as the larger human community takes the place of the father or of both parents. Consequently, such people habitually permit themselves to do any bad deed that procures them something they want, if only they are sure that no authority will discover it or make them suffer for it; their anxiety relates only to the possibility of detection. Present-day society has to take into account the prevalence of this state of mind. A great change takes place as soon as the authority has been internalized by the development of a super-ego. The manifestations of conscience are then raised to a new level; to be accurate, one should not call them conscience and sense of guilt before this. At this point the dread of discovery ceases to operate and also once for all any difference between doing evil and wishing to do it, since nothing is hidden from the super-ego, not even thoughts. The real seriousness of the situation has vanished, it is true; for the new authority, the super-ego, has no motive, as far as we know, for illtreating the ego with which it is itself closely bound up. But the influence of the genetic derivation of these things, which causes what has been outlived and surmounted to be re-lived, manifests itself so that on the whole things remain as they were at the beginning. The super-ego torments the sinful ego with the same feelings of dread and watches for opportunities whereby the outer world can be made to punish it.” (Freud 1930 Civilization and its discontent, page 107-8)
All humans have tabooed desires, impulses, and emotions they repress or only act out in secrecy because they fear punishment from the environment. Freud, in his work, is mainly concerned with repression of aggression and sexual desire. But the list of taboos is long and varied and depends greatly on the specific culture and family environment in which the child grows up. Children may experience being punished for showing a range of different aspects of their psychic life, including anger, hate, sadness, joy, vulnerability, curiosity, vitality, pride, ambition or lack thereof, admiration or disapproval, intelligence or slow wittedness, neutrality, indifference, etc. It may be surprising for some to see aspects they consider to be positive on this list, such as joy, vitality, or ambition. However, whereas you may think it is great when someone displays joy, in some cultures, showing (or even feeling) joy is considered offensive and insensitive to the hardship of others. Similarly, whereas you may think it is wonderful when someone displays vitality and ambition and pursue their goals with vigour, in some cultures showing vitality and ambition is frowned upon because it is seen as a sign that the individual thinks he or she is better than others. In such cultures, it is not good to think that you are special. In fact, none of the tabooed human aspects that are repressed in different cultures is inherently bad. The so-called negative aspects on the list above are only negative because inner criticism makes the individual disconnect from them, and they, therefore, operate in isolation from the rest of the psyche. For example, if you have inner criticism that tells you that your vitality is too much for others and you should disconnect from it, your vitality starts operating in isolation and starts manifesting in problematic forms, such as anger and hatred. Thus, all humans have tabooed desires, impulses, and emotions they repress or only act out in secrecy or in unconscious ways. What you specifically repress, depends on the environment in which you grew up. I will return to this theme several times, in particular, in section 4.2.10 Path 10: Embracing the felt sense of parts you dislike in yourself (and in others).
As long as the punishment for having certain tabooed impulses, desires and emotions come from external sources, such as parents, it is still safe to inwardly acknowledge them, think about them, and feel them. It is still safe to imagine in the privacy of your own mind that you act on them and use imagination to discover what it would feel like to act them out if there were no taboo around them. Carrying out such creative experiments in your imagination can teach you a lot about yourself. For example, you may be aware that your anger brings the desire to physically hurt another person. If hurting others is taboo for you, you may stop your inquiry at this point and conclude that anger is something to repress. However, if you imagine that you do hurt the other, you may discover that this is not the end goal of the anger. It is merely a means to a more important goal. You may discover that when you imagine hurting the other, you feel strong and free and that it is this inner sense of being strong and free that you really want. Furthermore, you may discover that carrying out the creative experiment took you to the feeling of strength and freedom and that once you feel the inner strength and freedom, which was your true desire, you no longer care about hurting the other person because you already have what you really wanted. Thus, allowing desires, impulses, and emotions to play out in the privacy of your own imagination is a very potent tool for growth.
However, when the corrective energies of your parents (and culture in general) are internalised, and inner criticism is formed, you will not only fear acting on the tabooed desires, impulses, and emotions, you will fear even acknowledging their presence in you. Thus, once inner criticism has been formed, severe bonds are placed on how you can use your creative imagination. You will have to repress the tabooed aspects of yourself, not only outwardly but also in your own imagination. If you have been punished for being angry, you may hesitate not only to vent your anger in real life – but also to imagine yourself venting your anger. If you have been punished for being weak, you may resist not only acting in ways that can be considered weak; you may also resist merely imagining allowing yourself a moment of weakness or vulnerability. In this way, inner criticism takes away the possibility of safely exploring tabooed desires, impulses, and emotions in your imagination.
Your anger and vulnerability and other tabooed aspects of your psyche contain important knowledge about how to thrive in life. They are guides that can lead you to hidden treasures. But to get the treasure, you will have to follow these guides in spite of the judgments placed on them. You will have to allow yourself to engage in skilful and uninhibited exploration of these aspects within your creative imagination. However, this is very difficult to do without disengaging from inner criticism.
Exercise 1: Make a list of some of the emotions, desires, and thoughts you find it difficult even to imagine yourself engage in.
Exercise 2: How might your unwillingness to imagine these emotions, desires, and thoughts limit your possibility for growth and maturation?