The Inner Critic

“Shame on Me” by Salvador Dali

“Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” –Carl Jung

I recently needed to miss a few days of work because I was down and voiceless with strep throat.  Since my bread-and-butter workaday life involves interacting with lots of people, I had to remain alone and sequestered to not get other folks sick, or sicker than they already are.  Even though I knew I was right where I’m supposed to be, it didn’t feel good.  I’m not really talking about being physically down and uncomfortable; I’m referring to an old insidious inner voice that took the opportunity to chime-in with my inability to speak.

I grew up on a stoic German heritage family farm.  Our values (mostly unstated, but you always knew they were there) revolved largely around hard work, independence, and getting things done.  Part of the unwritten creed was that you don’t get sick.  Illness is weakness.  Oh, not so much for other people.  For the neighbors that was fine.  It was okay and encouraged to help and support them if there was illness.

My dormant inner-critic (apparently lurking in the shadows just looking for the opportunity to be thoroughly revived and imbibed with the tonic of can-do’ism) starts-up with the old creed: “You’re not that sick.  You’re just lazy.  Get off your butt and quit making other people do your job for you!”

I’m not proud of my inner critic.  In fact, he’s downright annoying.  I don’t much like him.  Yet, by now in life I have come to learn that when the inner critic is having a voice it can only mean one thing: there’s some sort of anxious shame belief fueling him.

Shame researcher (yep, there is such a thing) Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”  As my native Wisconsinite friends would say: “Oofda.”

inner critic

Shame is as old as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  It goes beyond the sense of guilt of having done something we regret, to interpreting that sense of wrongness as having to do with our very personhood.  Some folks with shame try to work to get their honor restored through being a peacock – a kind of arrogant posturing and preening to put up the appearance that they are valuable and worthy of acknowledgment and love.  Others go the opposite direction and thoroughly denigrate themselves, withdrawing into an abyss of self-loathing.  This, of course, down deep in the slimy pit, is where the inner critic lives as some sort of large man-child who sits in the basement eating stale potato chips and drinking warm beer, having convinced himself that the world is too dangerous a place to dwell.

Whether a peacock or a man-child, both persons have the common problem of using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with (or avoid) the awful sense of shame.  Alcoholism and addictions, and thoughts and plans of suicide are just a few of the ways shame is dealt with.  These ways are devised to run as far away from the feelings of shame as one can get.  The inner critic, the judgmental voice within, seems to always paint the worst picture of no-win scenarios.  If we seek to become vulnerable and speak of what is truly inside us to others, the inner critic chimes-in with what a terrible idea this is – putting yourself at risk for more hurt.  Yet, if we clam-up and go back to unhealthy ways of coping, the inner critic berates us with a cascade of expletives that we would never dream of saying to another person.

As you can see, the inner critic is really us.  Therefore, he’s not going anywhere.  Oh, we could try to ignore him.  However, like a four-year-old kid wanting attention, ignoring him won’t make it go away.  Just the opposite, the critic will just talk louder and yell.  Instead, we need to confront the inner critic – have an inner dialogue and hear him out.  After all, the critic is us.  In a weird twisted sort of way, the critic wants to protect us.  So, like some helicopter mother, she hovers and barks at us.  This is really our anxiety talking – the worrisome mother within us that is fearful that harm will come.

You and I already know that we can’t get out of this earthly life without facing some hardship, difficulty, and pain.  Unfortunately, many people have endured terrible trauma and their inner critics try desperately to shield them from any further hurt.  And no amount of positive thinking and playing spin doctor will take away the memories and the deep pain.  As desperately as we might try to run from our emotions and keep our feelings at bay, they aren’t going away.  They must be squarely faced.

Feeling Wheel

In the biblical New Testament, we are told that Jesus endured the cross, “scorning its shame,” and sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 12:2).  Christ was subjected to severe public shame – beaten, cursed, stripped naked, and lifted-up to ridicule, even death.  He did not shy away from facing the full brunt of shame in all its humiliation and degradation.  He did it through not allowing shame’s power to have a hold on him.  Even the extreme shame brought upon him did not stop Jesus from setting his sights on the salvation of others.  Shame cannot survive where vulnerability exists; Christ became vulnerable, and, so, shame slithered away like the coward it is.

The inner critic’s mechanism is shame – the constant message that if I am exposed or vulnerable that everyone will see how weak, inept, stupid, or inadequate I am.  It is this barrage of internal judgment that keeps a person imprisoned and leads to unhealthy practices such as getting drunk alone in their room; having the inability to stop and rest; and, scheming to hide the true self through exaggeration and putting up a false face that we are just fine.

Awareness is power.  The reason I didn’t stay in the shame lounge smoking cheap cigars with only a lava lamp as light when I was sick is because of awareness – that my judgmental critic was speaking and that I could then interact with him.  We cannot face and deal with something or someone we don’t know is even there.  If I’m not aware, I am a victim of my own internal machinations, not realizing the inner voice of shame-speak.  However, with awareness, I have choices and can choose to acknowledge the inner critic, scorn shame, and voice out loud what is going on inside me.

To scorn shame does not mean to ignore it.  Rather, we bring shame into the light and expose it through a dedication to knowing what we are really feeling; making the distinction between our actions and our personhood; becoming aware of what things trigger our inner critic; and, perhaps most important of all, reach out and connect with a trusted person and tell your story of shame.

Our fears need neither to keep us locked in shame nor isolated from genuine human connection.  For when a warm relationship opens the way of grace and love to another, shame begins to melt away and a new season of life and growth can happen.  What’s more, through Jesus, radical acceptance and compassionate help is continually available.  “So, let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:16, NLT)