It was my partner’s birthday on Saturday. He selected a recipe for Persian love cake, a long-time fave. The shopping, spice prepping, mixing, baking, cleaning up, cooling happened and the cake was ready to eat. It smelled delicious. I was delicious. The orange zest, freshly ground cinnamon and cardamom infused the cake perfectly. My partner complimented me on the cake.
As soon as he said it, a babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entered my ear and told me he hated it, he was only saying nice things to be polite, he didn’t mean any of it. The voice continued to deride me telling me I was an all-round failure for everything.
We gave some cake to the family next door. The 10-year old’s review was much easier to hear – Me and my sister didn’t like it.
A note about the inner voice.
My partner and I recently studied, reflected and meditated on Laura Bridgman and Gavin Milne's excellent course Beyond the Inner Critic available through the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. The inner critic, in case you didn’t have one, is a constant stream of complaints telling you you’re no good. The unease ranges from a vague subliminal discomfort right up to a deep sense of misery where you curl up in the fetal position in a dark room or are hospitalized with an autoimmune disease.
According to the Zen and Insight teacher, Subhana Barzaghi, the Inner Critic commonly has 3 flavors – the Perfectionist, the Comparer and the Judge. With clients and friends, I’ve reflected on the personality traits of these critics.
The Perfectionist often arises in people who focus on others to the detriment of their own well-being. It’s a voice wanting autonomy amidst the fear of rejection. Personal interactions with others tend to be one of placating the other person and the inner voice is terrified of failure so strives to never make a mistake. People who have a Perfectionist inner critic tend to work very long hours, have multiple commitments to avoid feeling guilty where possible – which is why they often end up hospitalized with an autoimmune disease.
The Comparer often arises in people with sensitive bodies highly attuned to social structures who modify their behavior to be invisible. The inner critic rationalizes or minimizes emotions, speaks about how unfair it is, and the person can often disengage from sensations fairly readily. Interactions with others are as seldom as possible. They are often socially withdrawn, specialists in their field at work and avoid feeling shame.
The Judge often arises in people who avoid merging with others and they take general comments as a personal slight. The voice tends to fight and argue and interactions with others are to avoid feeling dominated or submissive. They are often socially dominant themselves, competitive, may rub people up the wrong way and the inner critic focuses on avoiding feeling humiliated or ashamed.
These rough guides describe tendencies of dispositions. These ideas are a starting point to explore what the inner critic may sound like for you. They’re not hard and fast and although you may tend toward one inner critic style, the others also arise. Emotions come and go and not one style fits each person.
In the olden days, I took pretty much every conversation as a personal slight (you may have noticed it’s the Judge inner critic which is to take everyday comments as an affront). However, after 20 years of learning the dharma, meditation, psychotherapy and skilling up on listening, I’m a bit better. Nonetheless, I’m still surprised at how much the inner critic rules my mind. It’s less obvious now than in younger years, not because I’m enlightened, but because I’ve controlled my external environment to avoid the discomfort of the inner critic.
Until the Inner Critic course, I hadn't realized how much of my meditation practice was focused on changing the external circumstances and it's has opened a deep contemplation about the voice that drives my actions and thoughts. What became clear is it’s not only the tone of voice, the content, its intention and effect but the trigger for when it arises and in what context.
When I drilled down to the core of the inner critic voice, the emotional trigger and context was when there was a sense of not connecting to the other person. And the reason this is important. When we don't feel connected to others, we lose our sense of dignity.
That is, the reason for my inner critic babel fish about the cake compliment is because lately my partner has been slightly withdrawn due to work commitments and I’ve had a couple of tense interactions with other people. In other words, my body was primed with fear and my partner was slightly distracted so despite our good relationship, I nonetheless I felt slightly disconnected from him which lead to my sense of dignity to be in question.
It’s worth thinking about how we talk to ourselves and those around us - our subordinates and colleagues, parents, partners and especially children.
There’s an idea that we speak to ourselves more harshly than we speak to others. I’ve seldom found this to be the case. Although we might not criticize others as often, our silences, tone of voice, comments, what we react to in the news, the type of humor, what we compliment and when we’re self-righteous are the voice of our inner critic.
When you're going about your day, pause a moment to listen to the inner critic. Listen deeply.
And mind how you speak to young children, for that becomes their inner voice.
On the meditation page, there's a meditation on how to enquire into the Inner Critic