What Exactly Is the inner critic?
While you might not know it by name, you most certainly know the inner critic by reputation. It’s that voice that fills your head with shitty thoughts and says you’re a no good, stupid, arrogant, selfish, worthless, terrible human. The inner critic is like a loud, foul-mouthed, demeaning DJ using a playlist containing your worst hits of all time. Today we’re taking a look at how the inner critic and shame work and where they come from.
When humans first evolved about 180,000 years ago, we could only survive in tribes. To be kicked out of the tribe meant certain death from animal attack, starvation, or the elements. Thus, the goal was to stay in the tribe and to achieve this, humans had to develop two capabilities:
1. A way to keep track of actions that could result in tribe expulsion
2. An internal mechanism to force compliance.
Think of the first capability as a computer hard drive containing a database or electronic encyclopedia. When we’re born the database/encyclopedia is blank. The entries in it begin soon after our first breath outside the womb when we begin interacting with the world. The database is populated with the messages we received as children from parents, family, caregivers, teachers, institutions, and peers, that told us which actions were acceptable (by the tribe) and which were not (and could result in tribe expulsion). Essentially it functions as a list of societal rules, norms, ethics, and laws to be obeyed.
Think of the second capability, the inner compliance mechanism, as a playlist of shame messages. Shame is our most powerful human emotion. It says, ‘we are fundamentally a bad human because of an action we took.” It can shut us down, make us shrink and most importantly from an evolutionary perspective change behavior.
In real life it looks like:
· Person takes an action
· Inner critic checks the action against the database
· If action is acceptable, inner critic is quiet
· If action could result in tribe expulsion, inner critic presses play on shame playlist to force
The inner critic and shame messages are actually not all bad. They keep us from killing people, leaving the toilet seat up, and wearing plaid with stripes. However, they can become dysfunctional as we grow to adults and use a database that was designed for an 8-year-old; the messages that applied back then do not necessarily apply now.
Imagine wanting to hear a calming nature sounds playlist as you go to sleep and instead you get death metal because your Spotify playlist got corrupted; neither is wrong and it’s not what you wanted. If a computer becomes corrupted or stops working the way we need it to, we don’t have to throw it out; we can simply take it in a get it working correctly again.
Two key takeaways are that your inner critic database and shame playlist were given to you as a child, regardless if they were helpful/harmful or if you wanted them. And your parents or other humans are at fault; every human is imperfect, they did the best they could, and they can miss the mark.
The good news is that as an adult you can install a new playlist with messages you get to choose and we'll cover that in next week's post.
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Mike Coe. Transition, Creativity, and Leadership Coach