It is an interesting fact that from birth to four, babies’ brains operate in the delta state with brain waves running below four cycles per second and with zero number of repetitions to require new behavior. In adults, that would be equivalent to a very deep sleep state. From the age of four to the age of seven, children operate in theta state, with brain waves running between four and seven cycles per second. In an adult brain, that would be a state of light sleep and the state of fear elicited during a fight-or-flight response. In this state, we only need one or two experiences of learning to affect behavior. From the ages seven to fourteen, the brain is in the alpha state of seven to fourteen cycles per second and learning occurs after about 21 repetitions. After age 14, the brain operates in the beta state, which is 14 – 21 cycles per second. This state is equivalent to our normal waking and alert state of consciousness, and it can take many thousands of repetitions to learn a new behavior. Collectively, what this means is until the age of 14 the brain is highly malleable and suggestible to information and ideas. In other words, children are highly receptive to absorbing the messages they receive. Then, through a process called introjection, a child’s growing psyche internalizes the messages and instructions they have received, and it becomes their own thoughts, their own inner voice and their own inner citric. Instead of being wary of other’s disapproval, they become wary of their own.
Parenting expert Peggy O’Mara says,
Be careful what you say to your child because it becomes their inner voice.
This is absolutely true. Even the most well-meaning parents pass on their own definitions of success, love, creativity and self-expression. Even the most conscious parents have their own expectations and imperatives that are passed along to their children. We all want and need connection and acceptance. There is no family system; there is no system, that doesn’t have a “right” or “wrong” way of doing things. Thus the inner critic is born.
The biggest obstacle to change is the voice that tells you it’s impossible
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Like Jiminy Cricket in the story Pinocchio, the inner critic has value as a moral compass, but it can also have a darker side.
- Old programming does not lead to change. As stated previously, the inner critic wants to keep us safe, contained and restricted. It wants to control as much as possible in an attempt to find security. So it rears its head anytime we get out of our comfort zone and shouts, often rather rudely, “Stop. Go back to what you know.” In this way, the inner critic can keep us from moving forward.
- Authenticity is not about conforming. We were taught that certain behavior was “unacceptable”, and our inner critic reminds us of that. These messages may be helpful in the context of a child who’s taught not to run into the street without looking, but is something else entirely when we want to express ourselves in authentic ways that might have been deemed unacceptable. Thus, the inner critic has the capacity to annihilate authenticity.
- Perfection as a destination doesn’t exist, but the inner critic seeks it. The inner critic is about self-improvement, but it is as if it gets stuck on replay and repeat. Perfection is not the same as striving to be the best because perfection is about never being satisfied. This demand for perfection can keep us in endless cycles of always seeking more, competition, feelings of unworthiness and frustrating patterns of never enough.
- Self-worth cannot be determined and defined by external things, but the inner critic often focuses on the outside rather than the inside to find it. Thus, it targets what we have and what we do rather than who we really are. Externalized criteria of our inadequacies can then create inner holes; holes we seek to fill with outside sources in an attempt to feel better about ourselves. This can lead to addictions, obsessions and the perpetual need to search for, but never really find, what we are seeking.
- Our beliefs shape our view of the world. The conditioning we receive; the messages, experiences and events that happen to us, shape our beliefs, and our beliefs create our perception of reality. Thus, we do not experience what we “want” but what we believe about ourselves and what we deserve. Thus, the inner critic’s fusion with certain beliefs can keep us stuck in perpetual disempowering cycles of perception.
- It’s just not nice. Much like its name describes, the inner critic is not necessarily the voice of compassion and loving direction. It often uses judgment, criticism, shame and punishment as a tactic to get our attention. This is especially true if our early teachers used the same to keep us in check. This kind of inner chatter can lead to stress, fear, depression, anxiety and feeling downright bad.
- Feelings are important. One of the main jobs of the inner critic is to keep us from feeling anything “bad”. Yet, in the attempt to numb our pain, it numbs our joy because we cannot numb indiscriminately. Additionally, our feelings have vital information about our lives and hold immense wisdom to help us move effectively through the world. Without direct access to them, it is as if we are sailing a ship with half a compass.
- Confusion is a state of immobility. The inner critic is often not very clear, and it gives us mixed messages. We may hear the inner messages, “Don’t make people uncomfortable, but be honest”; “Don’t upset anyone, but say what is on your mind” and “Sound informed and educated, but do not be a know it all”. These confusing messages can be frustrating and cause a feeling of perplexity where no clear direction is seen.
We live our lives following instructions from people in our history that we wouldn’t ask for street directions today. Geneen Roth
The inner critic was founded with the intention of creating a sense of safety and security, and it certainly does this. Over time, however, it has the ability to keep us from expressing who we really are. The instructions we got when we were 4, 7 or 11 are not likely the instructions we require at 20, 30 or 45. Ironically, the connection and acceptance the inner critic was founded on actually keeps us from truly finding it. Critical thoughts like, “What’s wrong with you?” or “You’re not good enough,” have the capacity to paralyze us in our tracks. Intense feelings of shame keep us hidden and alone with the message, “I am so flawed I cannot, should not, or do not deserve connection with others, myself or life”. Shame and its ragtag posse of criticism, blame and denial make us want to withdraw or isolate and can trigger avoidance or necessitate coping behaviors like codependency. The inner critic’s intention is to keep us in the status quo – the familiar- even if that is familiar pain. It can often keep us from moving forward, from making changes, from really connecting with others, from speaking up, from receiving help and from embracing authenticity.