Working with Your Inner (and Outer) Critic

One of the best ways to avoid experience is to project material out onto others. Let’s take being critical as an example. Criticism is often a family disease, passed from generation to generation, which is why it can come up pretty sharply at this time of year.

In my case, I learned to be very sharply critical in a number of ways, including nagging, nasty jokes, “straightening people out”, and so on. When I nag my husband or kids, I sometimes have strange moments of clarity wherein I hear my mother’s rhythms and tones in my own voice. A sobering experience!

So I look inside, very carefully, when I experience the impulse to criticize. I find that internally I have a critical voice that is talking almost all the time, telling me things I should be doing to improve myself or the world. Under that, discomfort…an anxiety, a sense of things being out of control, of having the responsibility to sharply put things back into “order”. Under that, there is anger. Anger that the world is not cooperating with my need for things to be “in order”. Under that, there is fear. Fear that if things are not all “in control” I will “lose everything” and “be abandoned”. And under all of that, a sense of being vulnerable and alone.

So it is the energy of this fear that cascades upwards through my mind and finds an outlet in criticism. By allowing it to do so, I’m missing the opportunity to simply experience the fear in its true state: simply as energy. I am cultivating the habit of nagging (when has nagging ever helped?). I’m causing suffering for those around me. I am teaching my sons the habit of nagging as well, just as my own mother taught me. But worst of all I’m falling deeper asleep, even as I feel so clear and “right” about my judgments.

When people are critical, they are generally feeling that internal critical voice. This, ironically, makes them hypersensitive to criticism themselves, because anything anybody says that could be seen as criticism is amplified many times by their internal critic, and the only way to silence it is to fight back, defend ourselves and prove them wrong. None of it works. None of it relieves our suffering, it simply distracts us from the pain of feeling what is really there.

When we have a meditation practice, it’s typical to start to see all kinds of futile and hypocritical qualities in the behaviour of our friends and family. But observing the foibles of others without recognizing their resonance within ourselves can turn us cruel. So if you experience criticism, or notice the impulse in yourself to criticize, hooray! Here’s an opportunity to practice. Try to look at the pain beneath the interaction: their pain, and your own. You don’t need to fix it, or transform it, or figure it out, or do anything at all. Just acknowledge that it is there, and observe it. Feel it resonate in mind. Let it come, and then let it go, because it will. Things always come and go, that’s their nature.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen