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Second, inner criticism can prevent growth because it uses judgments and threats to enforce its rules. Such methods of enforcement are not only counterproductive in the sense that they undermine your capacity to question and develop the rules and make them remain relevant to your present life circumstances, as mentioned in the previous section. Enforcing rules through judgements and threats is also counterproductive in the sense that it undermines your capacity to follow these rules. Thus, inner criticism is self-defeating.
Inner criticism develops when you internalise your experience of being corrected by your parents as a child. Therefore, when inner criticism is active, you will often feel as if you are a child and something external to you is the grown-up that is telling you off. In this situation, you will often lose or forget your adult capacities – the very capacities you would need to comply with the demands of your inner criticism. For example, if you are giving a presentation, and you experience inner criticism, the audience may feel like the grown-up you have to impress or please. You may feel that the audience thinks you are boring or incompetent (judgment) and that they will give you bad reviews that will damage your future career (threat). When your inner criticism tells you that the audience thinks you are boring and incompetent, its aim is to make you try harder to deliver a good presentation. However, using judgments and threats to achieve this is often counterproductive, since it creates feelings such as fear, anxiety, and shame in you and, this can interfere with your presentation skills and your expertise – the very things you would need to deliver a good presentation. Similarly, if you do your tax return, and you experience inner criticism telling you that you are doing it wrong and that you will get charged with fraud, you may feel your accountant or the tax office as the adult you have to impress or please, and the fear created by the inner criticism may lead you to make mistakes or render you unable to do the calculations you otherwise know how to do. If you are talking to your partner and you experience inner criticism telling you that he or she thinks you are too selfish, you may feel your partner as the adult and yourself as a child with a child’s level of capacity in dealing with relationship issues. If you have a child and you experience inner criticism telling you how bad you are at raising your child and that as a consequence your child will never respect you, even your own children can feel like the adult you wish to impress and please and whose approval you seek. And in such moments, you may feel incapable of raising your child – even if at other times you have proven that you are fully capable of doing so.
There is nothing wrong with the intention behind inner criticism, i.e. the desire for you to deliver an excellent presentation that captivates the audience, to do your tax returns right, to have a harmonious relationship with your partner and to do a good job raising your child. But because inner criticism uses judgments and threats as a means of getting you to do these things, it will often cut you off from the very capacities you need to succeed.
Furthermore, the judgments of inner criticism will often target the very aspect of your psyche you need to succeed. To deliver the excellent presentation, you need to be calm – but inner criticism tells you that this is boring and that you need to get rid of the calmness because that is not entertaining. To preserve a good relationship with your partner, you need to be honest about your desires – but inner criticism tells you that this is selfish and the very cause of the problems. Thus, we need to disengage from inner criticism to stay connected with the full range of our adult capacities to deal with the situations we meet in life.
Exercise: Briefly describe a situation where you have experienced inner criticism and notice the following three things. 1) Are there someone in this situation who feels like the adult you need to impress or please (e.g. your boss, your partner, your child, a stranger, an audience)? 2) Do you, in this situation, seem to have lost capacities you usually possess (do you forget facts, are you unable to think clearly, are you more awkward in how you relate to others)? 3) Can you imagine any way in which the parts of you your inner criticism is targeting might have been an asset to you in the situation?