Don’t we all have one: the internal voice that judges our actions and behaviours against a moral compass to keep us on the right path? Or do you also have a more persecutory and pernicious version that tells you that you are stupid or talentless or embarrassing or a big head or ugly or unloveable or…….? (You may add your own particular self-punishment here!)
When people come to therapy they eventually get to the point where they acknowledge their internal self-loathing, as this is the aspect of self that has driven them to therapy in the first place. Sometimes they hear the voice. Sometimes it is a little more hidden.
I think it is essential to differentiate between the different voices, as we usually have at least two internal critics: the grown-up version that monitors our behaviour in a functional and useful way, and the ‘little’ version that represents our insecurities and fear of rejection. The grown-up version is much easier to negotiate with, as it is primarily a thinking process that comes relatively late in our psychological development. We can adapt our moral compass, and frequently do so, through a process of thinking, discussion and engagement with others.
The ‘little’ version is the one that gets under our skin, and is less easy to understand or engage with. This persecutory voice represents one of our early defences.
As human beings we have a motivational drive to be in relationship, as well as our natural survival predisposition to stay safe. As we start to separate from our primary care-taker and move out into the world of relating – round about the time that our language starts to develop – we learn very quickly to adapt our behaviour to make ourselves acceptable to others, or at least to get the strokes that we need for our psychological survival. And we learn about ourselves: which bits of us are acceptable and which bits of us we need to keep to ourselves.
We internalise the judgements of others in order to ensure that our behaviour elicits the strokes that we require. (Sometimes we will deliberately elicit negative strokes, but that is a bit of a tangent not to be covered here…) And so develops the little critic, which keeps us in check in order to keep us safe.
If we experience a harsh, critical or punitive environment we make sense of that in reference to ourselves – it must be my fault – and the little critic develops a belief system accordingly. But we don’t need a harsh environment to develop such a voice. We all have a little critic, as it is an inevitable part of moving out into a world that doesn’t always understand us or respond to our needs. (So let’s not necessarily blame the parents, in other words.)
The little critic will often be harsher on us than anything we experience from the outside world.
Firstly, it seeks to protect us from imagined criticism by inflicting the harshness first. Secondly – and this is a more complex process – it seeks to maintain our relationship with the outside world by re-enacting previous patterns of judgement and hurt. In short, it keeps us feeling ourselves by repeating a familiar dynamic and set of experiences.
Imagine it as a desperate child, eager to protect us from hurt but not really having a clue how to do it because it is too young and too unskilled to know.
That is the voice that persecutes you. Not quite so scary now, is it?
We will never absolutely rid ourselves of this aspect of self: it is an integral part of our psyche and it’s not possible to exorcise it, despite the miracle claims of many therapies. But what we can do is develop other aspects of self that have a more mature care-taking function, and in doing so we kind of put the little critic into retirement.
If we argue with it, tell it to go away, it becomes more entrenched and more firm in its mission to protect us from the big bad world. We must negotiate with it, understand its motivation, be respectful of the way it has taken care of us and quietly sit it in a chair when it wants to jump up and down and grab our attention.
So don’t shout at it or scold it. It is only a small child doing its best for you. But you don’t always have to listen to it either. Give it a chocolate hob-nob and tell it you will chat later.