We all have this instinctive impulse to worry about how others are judging us, but actually, we are often our own harshest critics. In other words, whatever someone else may say about me, it won’t be worse than what my own inner critic, Milly, has to say.
Sometimes I call her my gremlin, my inner demon, the madwoman in the attic. So where does this inner bullying voice come from? Does it serve a purpose? Is it helpful or harmful?
Our inner critic
We tend to be our own harshest critics because we’ve learned to internalize judgments and criticisms that we heard growing up.
We commonly think of socialization as the process whereby children learn how to behave in families, in the classroom and the world. But from the child’s perspective, it’s learning how to survive. Because when you are a child, you are reliant on adults to take care of you and your needs. We have an evolutionary biological need to belong, because being rejected from the tribe means being vulnerable to predators and starvation.
We learn from an early age which behaviors earn approval, and more importantly - which result in disapproval. We learn how disapproval engenders painful feelings like rejection and shame. We learn how acting out on feelings like frustration and anger with tantrums is not acceptable. We learn how approval earns us feelings of belonging and pride. Whether we are eating nicely or toilet training, these lessons are internalized before we are even old enough to lay down permanent memory.
Depending on the capacity of the adults caring for us, we may or may not have received the kind of love and support we needed to process or understand our feelings. And even with the best parenting, we are then exposed to peers at school or in the playground, from whom we learn another set of arbitrary judgments.
Socialization is how children how to survive
Bullying, cliques and othering are ways that we get socialized as children. Even when we are not the targets of cruelty, we see how others are mistreated, and begin to internalize what behaviors are safe, and which are not. We learn which things we don’t have control of - like where we live and what our names are. And which we can try to control, like what we wear, our makeup or hair, and how we speak. We survive childhood by learning how to “fit in.”
Our inner critics are shaped by what we observed about approval and worthiness from our parents, families, teachers, coaches and peers. Our childhood brains absorbed these experiences, along with their attendant emotions, like fear, shame, guilt, anger, rebelliousness.
My inner critic was harsh and unforgiving in so many respects, and yet I fully accepted that she was the only reason that I was able to survive. Like a drill sargeant, she would whip me into shape when I wanted to goof off instead of studying. I could trust her to beat me up when I rebelled against her rigid rules, which was quite often.
My name is Em, and I’m a recovering perfectionist
I believed that I needed her to bully me when I wasn’t working hard enough, to push me to achieve the necessary grades to get through medical training. I relied on Milly to push me through triathlon and marathon training. I credited Milly for my scholastic achievements and success in climbing the academic ladder.
But no matter what I did right, Milly would always find ways to beat me up for where I was wrong. My body, my Chinese, my mothering. Especially my mothering. She was all over how bad a mother I was. I wouldn’t let her push me to be that tiger mom that beats up on their kids to achieve and perform. I had read enough parenting books to know that this was not the way I wanted to raise my kids.
And it was through my kids that I began to see where Milly was causing more harm than good. Because our kids learn from what they see us do, and not what we say. I realized that my daughter Erin had internalized my perfectionism at the age of 7, when she was having an emotional meltdown before a piano recital. She was so fearful of making a mistake while playing her piece, and I was trying to convince her that no-one would know. “But I’ll know!” she wailed, “It has to be perfect, or it won’t be good enough.”
And in that moment, I saw how ridiculous and impossible my perfectionism had become. I began to see the pathology for what it was, and I felt remorseful that my little girl had internalized that kind of self judgment. My inner critic was forever finding fault, I was never good enough, and never would be. Milly was always pushing me to strive for the next higher prize, to prove my worthiness - but it was a hamster wheel with no relief in sight.
My name is Em, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Yes - there is an addictive quality to the dopamine hits you get when you achieve the external validation of a grade, a promotion, a raise or a prize. You get to bask in the glow of the approval you earned, but only for a brief moment, before Milly starts in again with her painful attacks and criticism.
Awareness was certainly the first step. It’s taken a couple of decades and a lot of self coaching to learn what really matters. Turns out it’s not about delivering a perfect performance every time. What matters is having the courage to show up, even if you know you may not be perfectly prepared, or that you may make mistakes. It’s about trusting that you’ll figure it out, whatever happens.
I cared more about being with my kids, than I did about what they achieved
It was through parenting both my kids that I learned that I had the capacity to love unconditionally. I learned that I cared more about being there with them through their most painful moments, than I did about what they achieved. I wanted them to see themselves with acceptance and compassion, as I did, when they inevitably stumbled and fell. I believe that they are better human beings for having the humility to experience their own self-disapproval, the capacity to forgive themselves and the love to embrace the support of friends and family, no matter what.
And it was through this healing that I learned to reparent myself. Milly is still with me, and always will be, but I see her for what she is now. Milly represents the kind of childhood parenting and programming that served me well into my adult life. But instead of allowing her voice and image to play on giant Times Square sized screens all day now, she is shrunken down to a cell phone sized monitor on low volume.
My parents did the best they could in raising me, as did my childhood brain. But I had many more tools and so much more capacity to choose, when it came time for me to parent. And yet I wish that I had known then, what I know now about parenting. I wish that I had known that parenting was more about role modeling than teaching or guiding. That it was about loving and caring, about showing up, and about being fully present, no matter what.
Momming Your Brain
I’m very much looking forward to grandparenting, but meanwhile I get to reparent myself and my own brain. Reparenting is about figuring out what old thoughts or programming work for me moving forward, and what doesn’t.
For example, instead of buying into Milly’s drill sargeant approach to exercise, I get to decide what works for me through a series of small experiments. I’ve learned that I enjoy a variety of different options, like Essentrics, yoga, Peloton, and functional weight training. It’s been helpful for me to see how self-judgment can sometimes serve as guardrails, but at other times Milly just seems to be stressing me out for no good reason.
I get to access my best aspirational mom self when I consider how I love my children unconditionally
In fact, I’ve come to see that this kind of self-judgment stress can actually cause harm. I learned through my friend and teacher Dr Barry Kerzin, that His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to emotions as being either destructive or constructive. Destructive emotions may include anger, jealousy or pride. I would also add in the feelings engendered by Milly: fear, shame, guilt, rebelliousness.
These are the kinds of emotions that are associated with the body’s physiological fight-flight-freeze-fawn response, releasing cortisol, adrenaline, and other defensive, inflammatory neurochemicals. In his classic book Taming Your Gremlin. author Rick Carlson says, “There is indeed a gremlin in your head and he’s out to make you miserable. Left to do his thing, he’ll zap your health, foul up your relationships, ruin your creativity, hamper your productivity, drive you into low-down funks and wind you up into fits of anxiety.”
So how do we shift these stressful habits of thinking and responding to more helpful and productive approaches? I’ve learned that I’m better at accessing my best aspirational mom self when I think about how I love my children unconditionally despite their flaws and imperfections, I’ve come to see that I’m capable of offering that love to myself too. That I can have compassion for my own flaws and that it’s okay to be proud of incremental progress.
It’s taken a long while, but my best aspirational mommy self has finally befriended Milly. She knows that Milly is often negative and sometimes downright mean, but she also appreciates that Milly has been trying to keep me safe all along.
Whether you’ve been a mom, had a mom, or know a mom. We all know what it is to be taken care of and how to take care of others. It’s when we can channel our best mom selves to take care of our brains and minds, that we can be sure that we will be healthy of mind and body at our 100th birthday parties!!
Dr Em’s coaching tips
Start this exercise with a blank sheet or page and something to write with. It’s something best done on paper, rather than on a computer. Because you’ll be doing some drawing too.
Consider a problem or decision that you’ve been struggling with - it could be about work, finances, home or family. Write that down at the top of the sheet - it could be one word or in the form of a sentence. .
What is your inner critic voice saying about how you are dealing with it? Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Don’t be surprised at how nasty or vehement it can get. No one else has to see - you can destroy this paper later.
Now consider how you feel when you see what your inner critic has to say about you. These could be words that convey emotion - like anger, fear, shame. Or they could be words that describe what you feel physically inside - like dark, heavy, hot.
What are you noticing now? Are this inner voice and/or feelings helping you or hurting you in this situation?
Next, try drawing your inner critic. It could be a stick figure or whatever conveys your feelings, like a dark messy scribble.
Now draw what you’d like to do to your inner critic. Maybe you’d like to erase it, or cross it out. Poke it full of needles, stab it, or shoot it dead. Have fun with this!
Now write down how you feel. Silly? Liberated? Sad?
Congratulations - you have just creatively shifted your habitual response to your inner critic.
Notice that nothing has changed in terms of the situation or problem at the top of the page, but it’s important to recognize that you have managed to shift your perspective by focusing on your inner critic voice. You’ve created some awareness and distance. Name her if you like.
Taming Your Gremlin: A surprisingly simple method for getting out of your own way. Author: Rick Carson. Revised. Published July 8th 2003 by William Morrow Paperbacks.
A super quick read - very thin paperback and lots of illustrations. Classic psychology concepts are presented in a fun and informative way with exercises to help you visualize and do the work.