The Inner Critic

Everyone has an inner critic to some extent, of course, but some of us–many of us–have much harsher inner critics than others. To know the difference between the milder and nastier kinds, we have to look at the family situation, at how our parents/primary caregivers/elder siblings were treating us when we were kids.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll start with the use of Freudian terminology, which is generally well-known. Everyone starts with the id, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” (Dickens, page 2) that resides in our minds, with drives that seek out pleasure. It’s like a demanding, impulsive, selfish little brat haunting our brains.

(This id is like the biting head of the ouroboros, a serpent coiled in a circle biting its tail, which I use as a symbol for a circular continuum with the opposite extremes meeting at the head biting the tail. The ouroboros thus represents the dialectical relationship [i.e., unity] of opposites.)

It doesn’t take long for a little child to get acquainted with reality and learn he can’t always have what he wants. Thus, he develops an ego, and his id gets pushed down into the unconscious. We move from the serpent’s head along the length of its body, towards the middle, from the primary process to the secondary one.

As reality gets harsher and harsher, and ‘morality’ is imposed on the child by–all too often–angry, judgemental parents, the child develops a superego, an internalized object relation representing not only his parents, but ultimately all authority figures: teachers, religious leaders, police, politicians, etc. Now we move along the serpent’s body to its bitten tail.

The superego is associated with morality (the “ego ideal“), but if anything, the superego is pure evil, a devil inside us, for it tends to be outright sadistic in its censure of all our faults, our inevitable failure to measure up to that ego ideal. This is the inner critic, and my use of the image of the bitten tail of the ouroboros captures the pain we all feel from our cruel, biting superego.

I believe we can cross-fertilize many later psychoanalytic concepts with Freud’s three-part personality structure, using the three significant sections of the ouroboros–biting head, length of the body, and bitten tail. In previous posts, I’ve shown how WRD Fairbairn‘s endopsychic structure replaces Freud’s by largely paralleling it: ego–Central Ego/Ideal Object–length of ouroboros’s body; id–Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object–biting head; and superegoAntilibidinal Ego/Rejecting Object–bitten tail.

Interestingly, Fairbairn originally called the “Antilibidinal Ego” the “Internal Saboteur,” which–as approximately corresponding to Freud’s superego–vividly captures how this part of our personalities is the inner critic, joined to a Rejecting Object (i.e., anyone we may imagine as hostile or otherwise repellant). As we are hateful to ourselves within, so are we adversarial without. What’s inside us is outside, too.

Similar post-Freudian parallels can be seen in Melanie Klein‘s paranoid-schizoid position, at the front lines of the conflict between Freud’s id and superego, where Fairbairn’s fantasied, internal Exciting and Rejecting Objects reside (as opposed to the Central Ego and its external Ideal Object), where the sadomasochistic relationship of the serpent’s head biting the tail is. Here is where splitting into absolute good and bad objects occurs, an unhealthy, black-and-white way to think about relationships. Klein’s far healthier depressive position, where objects (i.e., other people) are seen as both good and bad at the same time, along the length of the ouroboros’s body, restores us to the grey world of reality, Freud’s ego and Fairbairn’s focus on real, external object relationships, safely away from the inner critic.

Furthermore, Lacan‘s Imaginary Order, home to the mirror stage, is where the illusory Ideal-Ego is, at the biting head, where unfulfillable desire is, and also where Kohut‘s untamed grandiosity is (see here and scroll down to find more of Heinz Kohut’s ideas). Along the length of the ouroboros’s body, we find Lacan’s Symbolic Order, where the Ego-Ideal is in rapport with the Other, linked by language; this is also where Kohut’s restrained narcissism is, resulting from optimal frustrations and transmuting internalization, a healthy state. Finally, Lacan’s terrifying, impossible Real is where the superego is, and also Kohut’s toxic shame, the bitten tail, the inner critic, the realm of trauma.

The biting head is maximum, pathological egotism and selfishness, the quest for pleasure; the bitten tail is maximum pain, self-hatred, fragmentation, disintegration, and the inner critic; and the length of the ouroboros’s body is various median levels of health and illness, the front half the realm of the good enough parent and the resulting stable, coherent self, a kind of Atman, as it were, that can be linked with the Brahman of the rest of the world, and the hind half the realm of–towards the tail–increasingly bad parents, resulting in increasingly dysfunctional families and children.

So, how do we cure ourselves of the inner critic, that reservoir of bad inner objects we got from emotionally abusive parents and other family members? We need to replace them with good inner objects…but how?

We can start by establishing what we would consider to be ideal personality traits for one’s parents to have, the idealized parental imago of Kohut’s bipolar self. For my part, I consider such admirable traits to include patience (i.e., calmness in the face of stress), tolerance, generosity, kindness, and a wish to cultivate family harmony and good (but realistic) self-esteem.

I arrived at these through a sublation of their dialectical opposites, the vices my parents actually had. My father was an ill-tempered, bigoted, stingy old fool; my mother, as you can glean from these posts, was utterly lacking in empathy, and used gaslighting and triangulating to ensure an enduring family discord.

You now can re-pattern your internalized parental imago, that harsh superego with its unattainable ego ideal, by taking all the awful things your biological parents said and did to you, and going along the length of the ouroboros, an Aufhebung, to find the dialectical opposites of those parental vices, as I described in the preceding paragraph.

Granted, no parents can ever even approach perfection, but what we’re doing here is inner child work; and children’s naïve nature is to regard their parents as godlike role models. We need to go back to those early years, to the roots of our traumas, face them bravely, and work through them.

You have to feel the pain to heal it. Write out, as vividly as you can, a description of all those awful things that happened to you as a child. Give nuanced descriptions of each and every cruelty done by every perpetrator: your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, school bullies, etc. This is how trauma is processed. I did this in all my posts on emotional abuse.

Turn these cruelties into their dialectical opposites (through sublation), and in hypnotic trance, meditate on these good traits, as vividly as you can imagine them.

Make sure you’re alone, without any distractions. Sit or lie down in a relaxed state, and close your eyes. Slowly take in a deep breath, hold it, smile, and let the breath out slowly; continue to inhale and exhale slowly and deeply as you focus your attention on your body, starting with your toes, then slowly moving up to your feet, your ankles, calves, shins, knees, and upper legs. Imagine this rising focus as if it were water rising from your feet slowly up to your waist; thus, as if your body were half-submerged in water, so is your focus on all of your lower body, at this point.

Continue bringing the focus up to your belly, back, and chest, as if that water were now rising up to your neck. Your fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms, and shoulders are now ‘wet’ with your mind’s focus on them. Your whole body, from the neck down, should be gently vibrating with soothing relaxation.

Now bring the ‘watery’ focus up to your head. Feel gentle tingles all over your head, forehead, eyes, ears, nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin. This is a special ‘water’, though, for you can breathe it like a fish! With that ‘water’ inside you, now your insides are as soothed as your outsides. You should feel relaxed all over now.

In this peaceful state (if your mind wanders, just gently bring it back to what you’ve been focusing on), slowly count down from ten to one while continuing to breathe in and out, slowly and deeply. As each number goes by, make yourself loosen up more and more, relaxing more and more, limper and limper; so by the time you reach one…then zero, you’re at a maximum state of limp relaxation.

Now, in this state of perfect calm, you’ll be more suggestible and receptive to hypnotic autosuggestion. Imagine those ideal parents, with all those virtues that are the opposite of the vices and faults of your biological parents. Imagine how those good parents would treat children, any children, then imagine yourself as the child they’re loving, caring for, and protecting.

Realize that such good parents, whose virtues you’d admire, idealize, and look up to as a child, would naturally love you and cherish you as their little boy or girl. Visualize them taking turns picking you (a child of three or four) up, holding you, grinning at you, cuddling you, and kissing you. Of course they love you! They’re your parents, your new, good internalized parents, and good parents by definition always love their kids, no matter what faults a child may have, no matter how frustrating a child may be sometimes.

In this state of hypnotic trance, in which you should feel quite good now, let that love wash all over you like the purifying waters of the Ganges, healing all your emotional wounds, freeing you from past pain. Indeed, as you’re washing all that pain away, remember you’re in that peaceful ‘water’ I mentioned above. Now, as we continue this thought experiment, imagine your new cohesive self, healed of its former, internal fragmentation, your ‘Atman’, if you will, combining with the surrounding water. Your ‘Atman’, your very body, is water, and is at one with the surrounding water. This is the Unity of Space that I’ve written about before.

No longer do you feel separate from the world: you’re one with the world, and if there’s good inside you (from your new idealized parent imago), there’s good out there, too. Feel vibrations of inner…and outer…peace, in and all over and around you. You can begin to trust the world around you. Be mindful of this new feeling of peace–NOW. Stay in that mindful state, experiencing this unity of self and other, for as long as you can sustain it. Feel gentle, slow-moving waves of the infinite ocean flowing through your body, soothing you, uniting you with the world in perfect peace.

When you’re ready to come out of trance, slowly count from one to five: as the numbers go by, wiggle your fingers and toes, take a deep breath in, stretch your spine and arms, open your eyes, and feel great for the rest of your day.

Do this meditation/autohypnosis every day, as many times as you can fit it into your daily schedule, to get maximum benefits. Over time, you’ll feel your inner critic transform into your inner friend.

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