A client of mine recently described her experience applying for a new job. “I’m so frustrated with this job search. I see a job opportunity and I get all excited. I start targeting my resume, come up with ideas for my cover letter, and then somewhere in the middle of it all, I just give up. It’s like there’s this voice in my head that just says: why bother, you really aren’t qualified for it. It’s like one part of me really wants the job, and has all the confidence in the world, but then there’s this other part of me that says I can’t do it. Isn’t that crazy?”
Of course, it’s not “crazy” at all; and it’s not the sign of a serious mental health issue such as schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. We all have “voices” in our heads that seem to come from somewhere. But where do they come from? And why do they have so much power?
Buddhist scholars and practitioners call these states of mind habit patterns or mental formations. Depending on the type of psychology one studies or practices, they might be called schemas, archetypes, subpersonalities, or ego states. Perhaps they represent an ongoing interaction between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Dr. Richard Schwartz, the author of Internal Family Systems Therapy, simply calls them “parts.” Schwartz calls these different parts of our personality our “inner family system (IFS).” These parts emerged throughout our lives in response to various internal and external triggers and now they serve in various roles.
Don’t think you have “parts”? Just stop for a moment and notice how you’re reacting as you read this. A part of you might be interested or intrigued right now. Or a skeptical part might be reacting and criticizing this. And maybe you’re feeling both parts at the same time.
Psychotherapist Dr. Jay Early and licensed social worker Bonnie Weiss have written extensively about the most common “parts” which exist in us. A body of their work focuses on the parts they call the “inner critic.” In their book, Self-Therapy for Your Inner Critic, they describe the inner critic as causing unnecessary suffering, smothering initiative, wreaking havoc in relationships, and defeating efforts to change. The more important the situation; the more likely the inner critic will show up. (This is similar to Steven Pressfield’s definition of Resistance.)
Your part's voice can be self-hating, demeaning, and self-doubting. It is shame, guilt and fear-inducing. It can cause you to question anything about yourself—your appearance, your competence, your intelligence, etc. It can be a nagging background hum, or a full-blown attack shouting in your head. Sometimes it appears from nowhere to ruin a perfectly good experience. Sound familiar to anyone?
If you’re in the job search, the inner critic part may be showing up in various ways: by criticizing you for not having the right degree, the right education, or the right experience. You can feel shame or guilt from the inner critic's comments like, “Why didn’t you do better when you were in school? Now you’re paying for that.” Or “Why should YOUR work be any more meaningful than anyone else’s? Isn’t it irresponsible to your family not to select the highest-paying job?” Or “What were you thinking when you chose that outfit for your interview?” Or “You seriously think you will get this job when so many other qualified people are out there?” Or “You might as well stay in your current job. You really can’t do much better than what you have. Don’t even try.”
These comments spill out all the time in career counselors' offices. And the good people who say them honestly believe those statements—at least believe them enough to stop moving forward on their plans. And then clients often double-down on this negative voice by agreeing with it or getting angry, frustrated, or depressed about the voice-- thus adding to their suffering.
So how do you deal with these parts? A turning point in the process is when you recognize that this voice is just a part—it is not you. And it is not accurate.
Early and Weiss identify common responses to the inner critic that are not particularly helpful. One common response is to “ignore it and think positively.” While thinking positively is better than believing the critic, it is really just a cover-up that will fade. Another common response is to argue with the critic. To counter it by saying that it’s wrong and lying. But arguing gives the critic power and may cause an even stronger counter-argument. Finally, we often try to banish our inner critic: just “give it the old heave-ho” as Early and Weiss describe. But that’s actually not a good idea because you generally can’t make it disappear. It is part of you and will always be part of you.
So what do you do with this sometimes relentless inner critic part? To start, recognize it.
Take a few moments to jot down some signs of your inner critic. When does it appear? In what situations are you most likely to encounter it? What does it cause you to change in your behavior? What might you otherwise do that this inner critic keeps you from doing.
Then, turn your experience of the inner critic around. When I studied sociology, we learned a term, “structural functionalilsm.” Basically it meant that anything that existed had a purpose or it wouldn’t continue to exist. So the inner critic might be serving a function for you. Maybe (believe it or not) this voice has your best interest at heart. Maybe it wants to keep you from making a mistake. Or maybe it wants to make sure you don’t get out of your comfort zone. Or maybe it’s just afraid. So take a few minutes and ask yourself what might be the good intentions of this part of you? Why might it be saying what it says? What is the positive intent even if the voice used is harsh and not helpful?
Notice your inner critic's language: its “persona” so to speak. Maybe you can even picture it: some people describe their inner critics as everything from a mean old lady or man, to a courtroom judge angrily banging down a gavel, to a librarian with her hair in a bun saying “Shhh,” to a fire-breathing dragon just behind their shoulder. What form does your inner critic take? Can you describe or draw this inner critic?
Now that you’ve examined and maybe even put a face to your inner critic, want to find a better way to deal with it? IFS therapy techniques will help you recognize other internal parts that are more helpful and can be used to reduce the power of the inner critics: the “inner champions.” Read my next blog post to learn more about identifying and defeating your inner critic.
Photo Credits: Flickr Creative Commons Draconian Rain