All of us think we have some idea of who we really are. We may be a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend. We may be a teacher, a doctor, an office worker, or a stay at home mom. We may have been told that we are fun, funny, a good listener, and kind. We may have been told that we are cold, selfish, controlling, judgmental. It runs the gamut. Where did our sense of self come from? Primarily from our thinking…a collection of thoughts about our selves. Our thoughts about ourselves include who we think we are, and what other people tell us. We have developed an identity from our childhood experiences, our ideas from our parents and siblings, and from our culture.
What we often fail to realize, is that who we think we are, actually begins when we are first figuring out the world around us, and how people in our world relate to us. As a child, we don’t have an understanding of how the world works. The beginnings of our sense of who we are, and who we are not, start to take shape when we are about three or four years old. That’s pretty scary when you think about it! Our three and four year-old selves are starting to form opinions about how important we are, how loved we are, whether we are smart enough, how much we think we matter to others. And not only are these beliefs becoming a solid part of our sense of self, but it is these early beliefs that will play a huge role in almost every aspect of our lives, from our self esteem, to the people we choose to be in relationships with. And it all starts around three years old. Yikes!
Our first sense of who we are is heavily influenced by parents’ attitudes and behavior. When you’re a child, you don’t realize your parents aren’t perfect. You think of your parents as gods—beings with all the authority and omniscience of a deity. And your mom is mad because you spilled the milk—so that must mean that you are bad. You don’t understand that your mom is mad because she has her own issues she is struggling with. Maybe she’s over reacting because she had a fight with dad. You think it’s all about you. By the time you are five or six, you’ve got some beliefs about yourself, and they start to influence how you see yourself. It is these childhood beliefs that are the strongest factors in determining who we think we are.
Something simple, like Susie choosing not to play with you on the playground, becomes proof of what you believe. A voice inside your head says, “I told you there was something wrong with you!” It is the safety instinct that kicks in and tries to protect you from that criticism by becoming highly self-critical, and therefore using harshness to make sure that you never get yourself into a situation whereby you could be hurt. The voice in your mind, that you believe to be you, says “You better figure out a way to make sure you are never criticized ever again!” Although this demand is completely unattainable, you don’t recognize that. Instead, you are convinced that there IS actually a way to achieve this! You try to find a way to keep yourself safe and protected from emotional pain. But sadly, life doesn’t work this way. It is unavoidable that we will have moments of failure, criticism, and rejection.
But who is really responsible for our interpretations? It is not actually YOU who is responsible for forming much of who you think you are, but rather it is your Inner Critic: the voice in your mind that speaks to you all day, every day, and tells you who you need to be, what you need to achieve, where you don’t measure up, what you need to fix, where you are failing, and where you are just not enough. It is our inner critic that ALWAYS has a judgment about something. She is always looking to answer the fundamental questions: “What’s wrong?” or “What’s missing?”
Whenever life doesn’t fit your inner critic’s picture, you are often convinced that the reason why is because of YOU! If you would just figure out how to be better, smarter, prettier, funnier, a better person, you won’t be hurt. Every time you experience pain, this is evidence that YOU really ARE not good enough. By the time you’re an adult, you’ve gathered enough evidence to make you believe that in some way, you are inadequate or not enough. What’s wrong with my body? What’s wrong with my looks? What’s wrong with the way I am in the world? Am I smart enough? Am I accomplished enough? Am I a good enough wife, mother, daughter, friend?
In case you haven’t noticed, our Inner Critic ALWAYS has a problem with something. If you stop and look, you can recognize that there’s always something that’s bothering you. Today’s judgment may be different from yesterday’s, but once today’s inadequacy is gone, there will always be another inadequacy waiting to take its place. But rather than understanding that this habitual way of thinking is actually our inner critic talking, we think that’s US talking. What we don’t realize is that our inner critic is contaminating who we think we are. The habitual thinking of the inner critic is always looking at a question, What’s wrong here? What’s wrong with me, or What’s wrong with it? She is always waiting to try to change or fix things, because she thinks that something is always broken or needs perfecting.
In her book “Playing Big”, Tara Mohr describes the Inner Critic by saying, “The inner critic may take inspiration from people in your life who played the role of outer critic. It adapts and expands on their behavior and often exists as a version of their voices inside your head. Listen for echoes of a parent, a sibling, a boss, or the voice of societal institutions or major cultural forces such as your religion, company, or country.”
Who does your Inner Critic sound like? You’ve been listening to a story for your whole life, and you don’t even know it. You have a seven year-old version of the story, a sixteen year-old version, a twenty five year-old version, and you have the version you have now. You don’t need to have experienced difficult experiences or dysfunction in your childhood to develop a harsh inner critic. Her voice sounds a lot like your own. Listen: “You forgot to pick up the dry cleaning again! You’re an idiot,” she scolds as you walk up to your front door without your clean clothes.
It is this Inner Critic that we have put, without realizing it, in the position of governing our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs, and virtually all of who we think we are. It is this Inner Critic that we have symbolically put on the throne. Dethroning your Inner Critic (the Center hosts a workshop program by the same name) starts with recognizing the that the voice in your mind is not really you. Learn to pay attention to how she speaks to you and exactly what she is saying. Feel what it feels like in your body when she is speaking to you.
When you hear your inner critic talking, ask yourself:
- Is she making up worse-case scenarios?
- Does she repeat the same story over and over again?
- Does she hold you back from making changes in your life?
- Does she keep you stuck in fear?
- Does listening to this voice make you feel the way you want to feel in your life?
- Does it help you reach your goals? And if so, at what cost?
Learning the difference between YOU and your Inner Critic has the potential to change your whole life.
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BIO: Joanna Kleinman is a psychotherapist and founder of The Center For Extraordinary Relationships In Cherry Hill, NJ. She has been in private practice for over 20 years, inspiring individuals across the country to live lives they love. The philosophy of her work is that the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships with ourselves and others. Through in person counseling, online virtual counseling with people across the country, and her nationally acclaimed workshop series “Dethroning Your Inner Critic”, Joanna has helped thousands of people to transform the quality of their relationships, the confidence by which they live their lives, and to create a permanent shift in how they experience themselves. These shifts are the result of an innovative and transformational approach in which stress, overwhelm and dissatisfaction can be altered, by learning to separate oneself from what she calls the “Inner Critic”; the voice in the mind that has been speaking to all of us all day, every day, for most of our lives. In understanding how this voice keeps people stuck in old identities, beliefs, patterns and behaviors, she has helped countless individuals, couples, and families let go of the past, redefine the future, and create breakthroughs in the quality of their relationships and their lives. Joanna has been a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, Women’s Health Magazine, Courier Post, South Jersey Mom Magazine, Parent.co, and Parents.com. She has been sought out as an expert motivational speaker for companies including Campowerment, Virtua Hospital’s Annual Women’s Conference, and the National Association of Women Business Owners. Joanna also served as a crisis intervention specialist and has worked with major corporations including Cigna Behavioral Health, Kantor Fitzgerald, Commerce Bank, Fleet Securities, and the U.S Navy. Joanna lives in Cherry Hill, NJ with her husband of twenty years, and her 3 children.