Oxford Dictionaries, the British publisher that has been defining language for over 150 years, has this month chosen the word ‘toxic’ as its annual Word of the Year. It argues that the sheer scope of the word’s application to describe a vast array of things, situations, concerns and events from workplaces, schools, cultures, relationships, workplaces means that ‘toxic’ sums up the mood and attitude of our times.
‘Toxic’ also sums up our relationship with ourselves. Too many of us hold ourselves to ransom, heaping loathing, fear, hopelessness, disgust and shame on parts of ourselves. We can find ourselves utterly intolerable. Why is this an issue? When we see one or more part of us as abject and disgusting, it is hard, but not hopeless, to be and feel whole. What 'whole' looks and feels like to you, will be an individual thing.
When it comes to the toxic self, the inner critic has a lot to answer for. It weaves shame and self-hate through us, encouraging us with great cunning to accept self-hate and self-disgust as an inevitable consequence of being us and being alive. Changing the toxic relationship with our own inner-critic, and shutting down it’s negative chat is a profoundly important part of a lot of therapeutic work.
What is the inner critic and where does it come from? Its genesis goes back to childhood and the quality of our early attachments. When a child doesn’t experience a safe enough bonding and attachment to a significant carer, it flounders in abandonment fear. The unconscious work of survival begins, what do I need to do or be in order to secure the love and safety I need? Children adapt to survive and when they feel abandoned, perfectionism and endangerment co-join and create a space for the inner critic to grow into. The inner critic becomes increasingly hypervigilant and hostile in its striving to root out the shortcomings that seemingly alienate the parents/carers.
The critic can become so entangled with the child that it switches to the first person. “I’m such a waste of space. I’m so pathetic… bad... ugly…worthless…stupid...defective”. In extremely rejecting families, the child eventually comes to believe that even her normal needs, feelings and boundaries are dangerous imperfections and justifiable reasons for punishment and/or abandonment. Even when the child grows up, the inner critic never learns to stand down. The inner critic driven adult moves through its world as a devaluing child in an adult body, on high alert for all of the ways in which she is too much or not enough.
A toxic inner critic can also form a toxic outer critic. So overwhelming and relentless is the inner dialogue that we can become that biting person, and fling emotional bile out, projecting our worst and most toxic feelings about ourselves onto others, who are similarly seen as defective. An inner critic that has dominated since childhood does not give up the fight easily, but it can, with work, be turned around and trained to stand down.
I grew up with a powerful and bruising inner critic who held me to impossible standards of perfection. In my relentless striving to use my cleverness to adapt, survive and ‘make something better of my life’ I was on the one hand saved from giving up, and on the other hand locked for years in chasing unattainable success. However much I achieved it was never enough because I was fundamentally not enough. I could/can still be savagely biting and critical of others, holding them to similarly impossible standards. It has taken a lot of work, practice and encouragement to shift this toxic relationship to something healthier and kinder.
There are effective inner critic shrinking tools. I list a few below. Any one of these, or any combination can halt the attacks. I don’t pretend it’s easy, it’s not, but nor is it impossible, it just takes a commitment to yourself and it takes practice. If you are ready to feel better about yourself, then it’s doable, as long as you refuse to shame yourself for how hard it is to kick the self-critcism habit! Some will feel more 'you' than others. Go with your guts.
1. Give the inner critic its proper name. Disentangle and separate yourself from the critic. It doesn’t own you. In the separation you can see it for what it is, internalised thought forms and beliefs about yourself. They are not who you are, but who came to believe you are. Give it a form, give it a name, give it a character. My bruising inner-critic became ‘Brusey’ and took the shape of a primary school teacher who was cruel, biting and critical. In separating me and ‘Brusey’ I could start to heal from the core, throw the negative thoughts out and build some healthy boundaries to keep ‘Brusey’ out. “Pipe down Brusey, you chat shit” became my living mantra, and it still is.
2. Repeat, Challenge, Repeat. Negative self-thoughts are just thoughts that over time have made your brain user unfriendly. Build some new brain muscle that is more user friendly by changing your relationship with the thoughts. Tell yourself over and over, and accept that it might take you 100,000 goes or more, “these are just thoughts, no more than that, they are not part of me, and they don’t relate to me, its brain junk”. Let them bob on by like clouds in the sky, or the passing landscape in a car or train journey. Suck the power out of them.
3. Reframe. Peter Walker has some tried and tested linguistic ways of flipping the toxic inner critic attack. I have rolled some of them into this 'Personal Manifesto to Kindnesses.
I have a right to make mistakes. Mistakes do not make me a mistake.
I have a right to grey thinking. All-or-nothing descriptions of myself as stuck in “always” or “never” this or that, are typically grossly inaccurate. I can be “sometimes” this that or the other, just like anybody else.
I have a right to normal feelings. As long as I am not hurting anyone, I refuse to be shamed for normal emotional responses like anger, sadness, fear and depression.
I have a right to ‘fail’. I will work in a way that is “good enough”, and I will accept the fact that my efforts sometimes bring desired results and sometimes they do not. It doesn’t make me a failure.
I have a right to feel rubbish. I will not judge myself for not being at peak performance all the time. In a society that pressures us into acting happy, I will not get down on myself for feeling bad or having a bad day.
I have a right to let go of guilt. Just because I feel guilty it doesn’t mean that I am guilty. I won’t always do right by people. Instead of hitting myself with guilt, I will apologize, and make amends where necessary.
I have a right to vacillate and procrastinate. I am a human being not a human doing. I will not try to perform at 100% all the time. I will enjoy where that takes me.
I have a right to be on my own side. I will learn to accept constructive criticism as a chance to grow and I will defend myself from any unfair criticism, even when I’m afraid.