Critical voices are associated with what Freud called the Superego, known to the rest of us as conscience. Sometimes in cartoons conscience is portrayed as a little man or woman sitting on someone’s shoulder. For many Ones this isn’t very far from the truth.
Like all voices, critical voices have locations. Some Ones keep their voice on their shoulder, a few inches away from their right or left ear. Others hear their inner critic in their head or in their face, almost like a talking mask. Other Ones locate their voices are located above them or behind their head.
Inner voices also have volumes and tones. Sometimes a critical voice is loud, as though played through an inner amplifier. An inner voice could have an angry tone, a hard or unpleasant edge. Sometimes a critical voice is relentless; it talks endlessly, barely pausing for breath, wearing you down with injunctions and cautions and suggestions for improvement.
If you’re a One, it is often helpful to begin to identify the sensory characteristics of your critical voice and experiment with changing them. Finding a different distance, tone and constancy for your voice will produce a different physical and emotional experience.
Most Ones do not want to completely silence their critical voice as it keeps them honest and motivated to improve. A better goal is to give your voice different qualities. Then you can get any good information coming from this part of you but avoid the tense result when it goes too far.
I’ve had good luck with asking Ones to move their critical voice down into one if their shoes. Although an ostensibly absurd request I always act as though it’s quite possible, and usually a client will concentrate and begin to do it. Once the voice is relocated in their shoe I explain that they choose to listen to it any time but if it talks too much or too loud “you can put your foot down.”
I once demonstrated this approach in a workshop with a very proper, nicely dressed One. For the rest of the weekend, her shoe would appear in odd places around the workshop room. We would return from a break and see one of her shoes over by the coffee maker; after lunch the same shoe sat on the air conditioner. The woman spent the entire weekend experimenting, trying to discover the most comfortable distance and location for her inner critic.
While removing your shoes in daily life is impractical, the goal is to partially dissociate from the voice, to get some distance from its negative effects. A nice thing about having the voice talk out of your shoe is that you can stay socially appropriate. You can be at a business meeting and lift your foot to listen and nobody will be the wiser. And when your critical voice talks too much, you can “put your foot down.”
In addition to moving a critical voice, you can also experiment with some of its other qualities. If it talks loudly, turn the volume down. If it has an angry tone, have it sing its criticism, put cartoon music behind, speed up the voice or drastically slow it down. Make the voice high pitched or low and slow.
A further step is to look for a visual image to accompany the voice, to see who is speaking. Getting a good look at a critical voice is helpful because part of its emotional power comes from being unseen. One woman struggled with a rather harsh internal critic that she called her “bullying prophet-of-doom” It sat behind her, near her right shoulder. She both heard and felt the voice; its force and authority was in its tone – the meaner the voice sounded the more she believed it.
When I asked her to look around and see the voice she hesitated and said she felt nervous. But when she looked she said, “Wait a minute, that’s Uncle Harry. He had problems of his own. He was a preachy alcoholic. I thought I was listening to the voice of God!”
Another tact is to discover if your critical voice can be persuaded to offer only helpful advice and positive solutions. This is helped by focusing on the voice’s intention: When you’re critical towards yourself what are you trying to do for yourself? How are you trying to help yourself or protect yourself? What specifically does the critical voice protect you from? What would be three good reasons to keep being critical?
As you try to sympathize with the protective intention behind the voice, the voice can sometimes become a friendly ally, and what useful information it offers can be received more easily by you. Critical voices are often very creative; it is not easy to turn everything that happens into a criticism. A further goal is to discover what your voice would rather be doing besides harping on your faults. Sometimes a critical voice is a bored poet with nothing to do.
Critical voices also quiet down when you get in touch with how you feel and what you need. You then get in touch with the self the voice has been blotting out.
Copyright 2020 by Tom Condon