First, inner criticism can prevent growth by focusing your attention on questions of whether or not certain thoughts, emotions and actions adhere to the rules enforced by inner criticism. This kind of 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, inner criticism 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 a child, both your life experience and your capacities to observe, make distinctions and reason are limited. Consequently, your ideas about what kind and unkind means are crude. As you grow older, you can potentially increase your life experience and develop your capacities to observe, make distinctions and reason. Therefore, it does not serve you to live your life being guided by the same sorts of rules that are fit for guiding children. Your increased capacities allow you to better understand the underlying purpose of various rules and to find new and better ways of fulfilling this purpose. You can become much better able to see each new situation, you are faced with, as unique – and see it with more nuance. You have the potential to learn to evaluate your actions, emotions and thoughts in far more nuanced ways. You may, for example, see that kind intentions can result in unkind actions – and the reverse. You 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. You 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. You 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. You 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 an adult, you can use your increased life experience together with your increased capacity to observe, make distinctions and reason to develop the simple rules you learned 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, any seed sown in childhood can grow into a rich, alive and constantly evolving guiding force in your life.
When inner criticism restricts your reflections to questions of whether your thoughts, emotions and behaviours fall within the narrow boundaries of crude and naïve categories of right and wrong, it inhibits this process of growth and maturation. It prevents you from expanding beyond the confinements of the rules you picked up from your family environment and native culture. Thus, you need the courage to disengage from inner criticism to allow your childhood understanding to develop and mature – so it can guide you better in life.
Exercise 1: What are some examples of categories you use to distinguish between good and bad thoughts, emotions and actions? Are you, for example, concerned with whether your thoughts, emotions and actions are kind rather than unkind, confident rather than insecure, intelligent rather than stupid, or something else? What appears to be particularly important to you?
Exercise 2: 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?