Who is your inner critical voice? The voice we hear in our heads that often speaks to us in a way that we wouldn’t dream of using to another person. The part of us that criticises and drives us, sets unrealistic expectations and is then down on us when we don’t meet those expectations. The part of us that can demoralise, demotivate and derail us sometimes. Having an understanding of this part of ourselves and then some alternatives to listening to this voice can help defuse the power of this part of us. This is where I go to theory to explain something that is very common for people and which I suspect most people will experience in their lives.
As well as being a creativity coach I am a transactional analyst. Transactional analysis (TA) is a set of theories developed by Eric Berne in the 1950’s and 60’s that today are widely used in coaching, psychotherapy, education and organisations around the world. I am going to look at some straightforward theory from TA to understand the inner critic.
Structure of Personality.
Berne wrote about personality structure as having three parts or ego states. An ego state is described as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”. Another way to think about this is that our experience is organised into three parts. Each of these parts has a recognisable pattern of thinking and feeling with corresponding behaviour. The three ego states are named Parent, Adult and Child.
I began this post by talking about the inner critic, that inner voice which so often has unrealistic expectations and criticism. I identify this part of us with the Parent ego state. Before I go on to look at this in more depth I will summarise Adult and Child.
Child Ego State
The Child ego state, can be described as thoughts, feelings and behaviours replayed from childhood. Experiences organised from when we were children. Here’s a simple example.
You are at school maybe 4 or 5 years old. The teacher asks a question, you think you know the answer so you put up your hand. The teacher asks for your response, which, when you give your answer, is wrong. As you get it wrong someone at the back of the class sniggers, and you feel really embarrassed at not knowing the correct answer. You think and maybe decide “it’s not a good idea to answer questions in case you get it wrong.”
Thirty years later you are attending a one day training course as part of your job. The trainer asks a question, you answer and get it wrong and in that moment you revisit the experience you had when you were 4 and answered incorrectly in class, you feel the same embarrassment and again think, “it’s not good idea to answer questions. ”
Adult Ego State
When we are in our Adult ego state we are using thinking, feeling and behaviour in response to the “here and now”. Being in my Adult ego state means that I am in the present, fully aware and contact with myself so able to respond to a situations using my capacity as an adult for solving problems, reality testing situations, being honest, direct and open about what I am thinking and feeling and being spontaneous, creative and vulnerable.
I am going to use the example I gave to illustrate Child ego state as a way of demonstrating what I mean by a here and now response in Adult ego state. In the example of getting an answer wrong in a training course, the Adult response might be to feel ok about not knowing an answer and then to reflect on what you have not understood and what additional information might needed to give the correct answer. So I am engaging my problem-solving skills as an adult to solve the “problem” of not knowing an answer.
Parent Ego State
The Parent ego state is a collection of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are “taken in” or copied from significant adults during childhood and with the perception of a child. Significant adults can mean our parents, or primary caregivers. It can also mean aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters, teachers and even society at large. It is an external experience where we have observed someone else’s responses to a situation – their thinking, feeling and behaviour and we have “taken that experience in” so it then becomes part of how we respond in a similar situation.
Here’s an example of how this might work. You are five years old going away on a family holiday. As you are driving down the motorway someone cuts in front of your Dad, who is driving. He swears and shouts, gesturing fiercely at the driver responsible. Thirty years later you are driving on the motorway and someone cuts in front of you. You swear, shout and gesture fiercely. Over time as we grow we internalise a whole host of experiences, some positive and some negative and together these form the Parent ego state. So, the our critical inner voice is the expression internally of the negative parts of the Parent ego state.
Here are some of the reasons why is this part of ourselves so critical and harsh.
Firstly experiences are taken in when we are young and with the perception of a young child. For example, as a child we don’t fully understand the nuances of adult communication.
We also simplify and generalise from individual experiences. Here’s an example. A parent or caregiver is having an important conversation on the telephone. You are 6 years old and jumping down the stairs singing a nursery rhyme. The parent or caregiver turns to you, saying crossly “don’t shout and jump while I’m on the phone” But you hear this as “Shouting is bad.”
The Parent ego state is actually a mixture of many experiences with parental figures and messages from the environment.
Finally a large part of Parent is about protecting us when we feel vulnerable in some way or another. For example the critical inner voice that sets high expectations may be protecting against the possibility of criticism or rejection from others.
So, how does this help us with our inner critic?
Well what this says to me is that when I am in my Parent ego state I am likely to be responding to a situation or stimulus using thoughts, feelings and behaviours from the past and that I have taken in from someone else as I perceived them at that time. Therefore this response may not be relevant or appropriate to the present. I may want to revisit some of the messages and experiences I have taken in and up date them with how I think, feel and want to behave. One way you might like to do this is to make a list of some of the sayings and slogans that were common in your family and that you find yourself saying to yourself. An example might be when something bad happens “you’ve just got to get on with haven’t you.” Write them all out and then see if you think they are true for you today. If not update them with something more relevant and supportive. So in the example given above I would update that to ” when bad things happen in life it’s good to seek support.” Take what is useful and helpful ignore the rest.
If I am in my Parent ego state I’m not using all of my Adult to problem solve and reality test. I may not be seeing the situation as it really is. Recognising this is the first step to moving into a more Adult place and regaining all of our Adult resources to problem solve and support ourselves.
Another way to deal with the inner critic is to thank that part of self for it’s positive intention – even though impact is different from intention. Then turn the volume down on the voice, you might even want to visualise a large volume dial and imagine it being turned to reduce the sound.
These are few suggestions how to deal with you inner critic – have you any more? I’d love to hear from you.