Battling the Inner Critic

I’m sitting in my favorite morning spot: facing the office desk with the window to the park on my right. It’s early, and I’m the only one awake. Steam is slowly drifting off my coffee mug. I’m about to write.

I hear a loud pop of gum and turn my head. Cassandra is sitting in a chair to my left, tan legs crossed, twirly a piece of glossy blonde hair around her manicured finger, looking at me with distain. “Why do you even bother writing? You have nothing new to say. Might as well give up and read the talented writers who are already published” she says venomously. My shoulders curl in and down. “Also, you’ve gained a lot of weight” she adds.

Do you have one of these? That voice in your head that vocalizes your deepest fears and insecurities. That asshole who always appears at a vulnerable moment — for me, when I’m beginning to write, looking in the mirror, or sharing deeply in a close relationship.

(Why the inner critic exists is a whole other newsletter topic and a great thing to explore in therapy/spiritual direction/etc. But it seems like most people have a critic, and many of us have a real mean one.)

Mine is named Cassandra. Also known as my inner critic (aka the inner judge, the superego, or Big Mouth’s Shame Wizard). In this recent season of writing more and growing my spiritual direction practice, I began to realize how loud my inner critic truly was in my day-to-day life. I felt paralyzed, followed by self-hatred assuming that I was my inner critic.

I knew I needed help, so I took a two-day intensive class on thwarting the inner critic. The biggest discovery from that workshop was how helpful it was to separate who I was from my critic. We each named and described what our inner critic looked and sounded like. For me, it came so easily, her name was Cassandra and she looked like many of the women I had grown up around in my Southern California hometown:

In the class I had to speak out loud the horrible things she would say to me, in what situations she would appear, and exactly where she would be in the room in relation to me. In front of a mirror, she was always over my right shoulder, looking at my frazzled hair, dark eye circles, and imperfect waist line.

After getting specific about who, what, where, how she spoke and sounded, the class then practiced yelling or responding with force to each of our critics. Our teacher taught us the inner critic doesn’t respond to meek — we had to match the critic’s strong energy with our own strength — this was not a moment to be polite. We were encouraged to be dismissive, to make fun of the critic (think that scene in Harry Potter with the boggart), to do whatever we needed to do to not take that asshole seriously. I found saying firmly “Fuck off, Cassandra” or comically booping her on the nose with my pointer finger were the responses that worked for me to feel free from her.

So on this quiet morning of sitting and writing, I glance over at Cassandra one last time and firmly say “FUCK OFF, CASSANDRA.” I say it a few more times, and I’m alone once again, free to start writing.

Do you have a Cassandra/Inner Critic that is holding you back? If so, consider reflecting on what your Inner Critic looks like, is named, what the critic says and how they speak it, etc. Perhaps share this discovery with a trusted confidant or counselor — someone who can listen without trying to fix it. Then practice responding to your critic — with force, humor, or whatever works for you.

Enneagram Inner Critic Messages and Realities

Don’t know your Enneagram type? Then head over to the Enneagram Institute and read through the 9 type descriptions to see which resonates for you (for some, it may be the one that makes you flinch).

Before you dive into the Enneagram-specific messages below: first use the reflection at the start of this newsletter to figure out how YOU best dismiss your inner critic, and then follow up with the enneagram-specific realities of your personality type below.

1: Your inner critic tends to show up when you feel like you need to justify your actions: when perhaps you make a decision not completely inline with your ideal values. It will say something like, “You’re a fraud.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “I exist within a broken system, and I am doing the best I can. The fate of the world does not rest on me.”

2: Your inner critic tends to show up when you are caring for yourself: by taking time away, drawing a boundary with someone, or simply saying “no”. It will say something like, “You’re being selfish.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “I take care of myself because I am worthy of care, just like everyone else.”

3: Your inner critic tends to show up when you do not succeed at a project and others see (the f-word that 3s fear: failure). It will say something like, “You’re worthless.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “I am learning and growing, and failure is apart of that process. My value is not determined by this moment, I am worthwhile just as I am.”

4: Your inner critic tends to show up when you feel misunderstood or not seen by others. It will say something like, “You’re insignificant.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “The gift of my personality is that I feel things deeply, not everyone will understand that, and it’s ok that I feel hurt right now. But my honesty with my feelings is a strength.”

5: Your inner critic tends to show up when you put an idea or product out into the world that you’re not sure is complete or correct. It will say something like, “You’re incompetent.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “Taking this from my head and out into the world means I will learn and grow in my abilities. I am not starting from zero, I am bringing what I already know to the table, and this will bring me further.”

6: Your inner critic tends to show up when you lose a structure of security (a relationship, job, belief, etc.) or have to make a big decision. It will say something like, “You’re ill-equipped on your own.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “I weigh all aspects of everything I do, deep down I know what needs to happen and that I have what I need in order to do it.”

7: Your inner critic tends to show up when you have to experience pain: whether a confrontation or acknowledging a wound. It will say something like, “You’re trapped in this pain.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “I cannot skip this pain and move onto the next thing. The pain won’t be forever and in order for me to be truly free of this wound or to repair this relationship, I have to face this now.”

8: Your inner critic tends to show up when you feel overextended and/or need people. It will say something like, “You’re weak.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “My needs do not make me weak, opening myself up to others (and the possibility they’ll disappoint me) makes me human. My strength is my fierce honesty and vulnerability in sharing what it means to be human and belong to people.”

9: Your inner critic tends to show up when you are in a situation where you can assert yourself and/or make a decision. It will say something like, “Your opinion doesn’t matter or your opinion is going to upset someone.” After you say your version of the inner critic response, you can remind yourself, “My opinion matters and my trusted relationships will remain secure even if my opinion is contrary to theirs.”

Recommended Resources

Two books I’m so glad I read:

  1. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. This book has been the most spiritually relieving and challenging content this year. It’s not a manifesto for deleting social media accounts, it’s about a rhythm of engagement, solitude, and being with people and nature beyond our curated circles. It’s political, spiritual, and grounded in art and literature.

  2. Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber. This is for readers of this newsletter who have grown up in Christian “purity” culture. This is an author who says “screw it, I’ll go first” and leads by sharing her own story with sex, harassment, shame, and spirituality (she’s a great example of a strength-through-vulnerability Enneagram 8). This book is a healing balm.

Come hang out with me!

  1. For women and nonbinary friends in the Bay Area, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to the Enneagram workshop at the Ruby in the Mission district of San Francisco on Wednesday, June 5, 6:30-8pmSign up for the workshop here!

  2. I am taking more spiritual direction clients (includes via Skype/video chat)! Want to learn more about my practice? Visit my website for more details.

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