Taking wing

Perhaps it’s no surprise that our endless and often invisible self-judgement is quickly projected out into to the world and onto others.

We build family cultures and organisation cultures around our wish to find, and correct, the faults we find in everyone. And we can easily make the central project of our lives comparing people to standards and finding all the ways they (and we) fall short.

So how about a different project?

What if you were to see and show people the possibility inherent in them that they barely know themselves? Not platitudes, not untruths, not clichés, not making-them-feel-better. Instead, the difficult and important work of noticing and naming what is waiting to come into the world through them.

Who could you be if you dedicated yourself to finding the as yet unborn goodness in others – that which is struggling to free itself – and naming it for them so that it can take wing?

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With thanks to both Parker Palmer and
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg for the ideas that inspired this post.

Defending against the critic

I write here often about the inner critic because it has been the cause of so much struggle and difficulty since I was very small. In writing I discover new angles and new waysof responding. I hope it will be of help also to some of you who are reading.

For years I did not want to hear anything that others had to say about me, whether praise or criticism, loving or ill-intended. It was all pretty much the same to me – a wounding reminder of my own constant self-judgement. Such harshness in my inner world led me to take on inner self-numbing as a serious project. The comments of others, however offered, simply reconnected me with what I was working so strenuously to avoid.

I extended this project into the outer world too, of course, trying not to draw too much attention to myself. I’d stay out of the limelight when I could. And I developed a reputation for shyness and quietness, for not being too much trouble to anyone, for looking ok, for being humble and self-effacing: all powerful supports for the inner numbing to which I was so committed.

At the time, I doubt I would have understood any of this as something I was actively doing. But such is the power of the critic, it can shape a life from the inside out, and for that reason I think it’s a topic of enormous importance.

It was only in my mid-thirties, when a teacher of mine was generous enough to tell me how self-critical he found me, that I began to see that I had a critic at all. Until then I’d thought it self-evident that the world was made up of exactingly high standards that I could never reach and populated by others who knew my many failings even before I discovered them myself. It had never occurred to me that my hyper-vigilance for criticism, inside and outside, was just one possible way to live an adult life.

The foundational, liberating move was to identify the critic as an entity in its own right – a part of me – and to see that the harshness it generated was not life itself. In this way the critic became something I have rather than something that invisibly has me. And having it opened up the possibility of cultivating a new relationship with it.

I learned how to see the critic as an attacking force and, gradually, how necessary it is to defend against its attack. Reasoning with it (a familiar habit for me) or otherwise engaging with it does not help, because the critic is insatiable. It has higher standards in all domains of life than I can ever reach. Whatever I do it’s on the immediate lookout for what else is undone or not perfect. It cannot be placated by persuasion, by argument or by giving in, and it is not at all interested in the evidence of my eyes and ears and heart. Living with the critic is like living with a rabid dog.

Defending requires meeting the critic with equal and opposite energy to its attacks, pushing them away with considerable force. Expletives help – the more evocative the better. What does not help is passivity: quietly waiting, staying small, until it goes away. This strategy, familiar to me from my childhood, just invites the critic to keep going.

When I remember to defend myself adequately I gain a measure of freedom, some space, into which the longings of my heart and conscience can step forward. It turns out that the critic – though it will defend itself by telling me it is my conscience – is interested neither in what I long for nor in what is right. It cares only about maintaining a vanishingly small world in which nobody can ever be disappointed and no shame can occur. And it’s willing to use the very disappointment and shame it so fears from others in order to keep me in line.

And so I have to remember to defend, every day. As time goes on the attacks become more disguised, more wily. It’s a lifetime’s work. And necessary, if I am to live fully, and if I am to take up the freedom and capacity to contribute that is my – and everyone’s – birthright.

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Please, tell me

Please, tell me – why is it that you are so sure that your inner voice is telling you the truth about you?

Do you believe everything that others tell you in this way?

Do you give your inner conversations credence simply because they are so close in (so close that only you can hear them)?

Is distance reason enough to give up your questioning? your capacity to seek truth?

What would you do, do you think, if you found out how many inner inaccuracies about yourself you were in the midst of believing – and acting upon – every day?

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What your judgements reflect

When you find yourself filled with judgements about other people, don’t be so sure that what you’re experiencing is really anything much to do with them.

It may well be a simple projection of the harsh judgments of your own inner critic.

The critic covers its tracks like that. Wily enough to disguise itself in many ways, it would love to have you believe that everyone else is out to get you or disappoint you. And it would rather you blame what’s outside you than turn your attention inwards, where you might discover its role in keeping your world so small and contained.

For this reason, the first place to look when you’re judgemental of others is towards yourself. You might just find it’s there that your difficulty with them can be most skilfully resolved.

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Basic Failings or Basic Goodness

So many of us, going through life with such interior harshness, gnawing inner-criticism and attendant shame, fear, resentment, and anger.

So many of us, blind to this force within us, unaware that this is the water in which we’re swimming, the air which we are breathing.

And because of this, so many of us projecting our own inner-criticism towards others as  judgement, shaming, name-calling.

Perhaps we don’t even understand we’re doing it, but it settles us to have the outer world reflect our inner world. That way we can say “it’s the world that is this way”, rather than anything to do with us.

And how it spreads, our inner acidity evoking and provoking the acidity of others.

Could today be the day to call a moratorium on this inner battle we’re fighting? To discover how much more there is to ourselves, and to others, than a constant barrage of comparison, belittling, and ‘not-good-enough’.

And to find out that there is another kind of contribution we can make – wiser, kinder, more transformative and not a jot less powerful – if we start by searching for and bringing out basic goodness rather than the basic failings we are convinced are the heart everyone, including ourselves.

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Back to front

When you find yourself in genuine difficulty, which path you do choose?

The path of self-harshness? This is the way of criticism, loathing, comparison. And the way of pushing harder and harder.

Self-harshness, so familiar to so many of us that we don’t even see that it is what we are doing, has the surprising effect of increasing harshness everywhere in our lives.

Or the path of self-kindness? This is the way of taking exquisite care of yourself, asking for what you need, stepping into the deep bonds of support that are so often available to us, turning the loving attention of your own heart towards yourself in the midst of your difficulty.

Self-kindness, so unfamiliar to so many of us that we do not even consider it an option, has the surprising effect of making kindness possible towards many others, even in the darkest, most frightening, most disorientating of times.

Most of us are confused about this. We equate self-harshness with righteousness (perhaps we think we’ll redeem ourselves if we add to our suffering) and self-kindness with a moral softness (perhaps because we’re so convinced we’re broken and at fault already that kindness would be an act of irresponsibility).

But the more I look at the results of my own self-harshness, and that of others, the more convinced I am that we’ve got it all, precisely, back to front.

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Dusting off

When you consciously take up an ongoing practice – running, saying no (or yes), meditating, delegating, gratitude, kindness, speaking up for yourself, writing – and you fall out of your rhythm, out of your commitment for a while… when you find that it’s just not happening, what else is there to do but stand up, smile, and jump back in again?

Excuses, justification, apologetics – none of these do much, in my experience, other than produce a momentary boost of self-esteem.

Even harsh self-criticism and shame are rather wonderfully twisted ways of producing self-esteem by showing you that you care and are not indifferent.

After a rather interrupted August, here I am, standing up, dusting myself off, writing again.

I’m pleased to be back.

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Nothing of the sort

A mistake your inner critic most probably makes is projecting your own inner self-criticism onto what others say to you. Or, in other words, adding criticism to what’s being said.

Under these circumstances even genuine, heartfelt expressions of interest and curiosity from another can feel like attack.

So can love.

Could it be that you’ve misunderstood?

The first and necessary step in finding out is distinguishing your own inner dialogue from what others are saying to you, so that you can find out what’s yours and what’s theirs.

It’s not easy, as the critic is often committed to hiding its involvement in things.

But pay this enough attention, over sufficient time, and you might well find out that what you’ve understood as their attack, or their criticism,

perhaps for years,

is indeed nothing of the sort.

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Not your circumstance

You’re not the failure of your most recent project. You’re not the loss of your job. You’re not the disappointment at not having come first. You’re not that mistake you made, or your company results.

You’re not your success, your fame, your glowing reputation, either. You’re not the letters after your name, your job title, your exam results, your place in the hierarchy.

You’re not your bank balance, your debt, your smart suit, your car, your house, your muscles, your illness. You’re not even your happiness, your sadness, your rage, your shame, your hope.

How could you be any of these, given that any of them – any of them – are liable to change at any time?

It’s a huge misunderstanding of what humans being are, and one that your inner critic can go wild upon, demanding that you fix, or change, or that you hold on ever so tight to what you’ve got for fear of losing it.

You are not your circumstance.

Perhaps there is a new kind of freedom you can find from knowing this. A new kind of acceptance of the transience of the world, and of your own strength and constancy.

And a new kind of hope.

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Book Week Day 2 – Soul Without Shame

Soul Without Shame is Byron Brown’s deep, broad and practical guide to first knowing and ultimately freeing ourselves from the grip of the inner critic.

It’s the critic that has us hold back our contribution, doubt ourselves when there is no cause to do so, and also has us holding back others. Perhaps most importantly it’s the critic that keeps us tightly bound by the norms which surround us, necessary to begin with but ultimately a huge restraint on our capacity to bring what’s most needed. If we are ever to develop the capacity to speak up, to create, to make art, to lead compassionately and wisely, working with the inner critic is a vital step.

This is a book to be savoured, taken slowly. I suggest spreading your reading out over a year or so, studying each chapter and taking up the various exercises and practices as you go. It’s from these – coupled with what you’ll learn from Brown’s clear explanations – that the most powerful possibilities for your own learning will come.

As you read, you’ll see how the critic is a necessary part of our early development, how we keep it going in adulthood long after it’s served its purpose, how to recognise it in action, and how sneaky it can be, disguising itself as conscience or simply hiding itself away while it’s at work. You’ll also see how you can create some space and start to step out of its shadow.

A wonderful companion piece to Stephen Pressfield’s Do the Work
which takes on the same topic from the point of view of creativity and art – surely the activities at the heart of all leadership and principled human action.

An encounter with the inner critic

Sitting in a park, sheltering from the drizzle, I spot a cluster of beautiful, elegant thistles. And I’m immediately called away by a part of myself so familiar I can hardly see it. Knotted in my chest, this part clings, desperately, trying hard to get things right all the time. It is pained, caught up in harsh self-judgement. And it says to the rest of me, with some insistence,

“You are not entitled to this”.

“You are not entitled to stop and look in awe and wonder. You are supposed to be trying, doing, proving. You are supposed to be being hard on yourself.”

And on seeing it – perhaps on its feeling seen – it relaxes its grip a little. I am flooded with joy and gratitude at the beauty before me, and at being alive to witness it.

And, for a moment, I am here, at last.

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Love and loathing

It is work of the utmost importance that each of us become aware of, and then find ways of working with, our self-loathing.

Does that seem too strong a way to say it?

This is not an easy subject to write about or speak about. You may find that the merest suggestion that you experience self-loathing stirs up strong feelings that would have you stop reading right away. Anger, ridicule, judgement at what’s being proposed here – all of these have been my stirred within me as I’ve studied this subject, and my own relationship to it, in the past.

But many of us do walk around with an almost perpetual background of quite intense self-dislike. You might be familiar with its more accessible surface manifestation, self-judgement, or the inner-critic which I’ve written about here previously. If you’re prepared to examine further you might well discover that behind the critic lurks a much bigger and deeper phenomenon, a continual assessment that you’re out of place in the world, not welcome, and that it’s all deserved.

In my case it occurs most readily as a continual gnawing sense that I’ve done something wrong already that I don’t know about, but which everyone else does. It can lead readily to shame (even in the most innocuous of situations) and holding myself back, or sometimes an angry, resentful self-righteousness. I’m absolutely sure I’m not alone in this. I’ll wager, moreover, that most people live under the shadow of this for much of their adult lives.

Babies, when newborn, don’t have any kind of self-loathing as far as I can tell, and nor do very young children. Just watch as they express themselves freely without inhibition, far removed from any sense that they may be judged by others or that it is proper and fitting to judge themselves. But if you watch children you know and love acquire language and then start to make their first halting attempts to fit into the social world with its niceties and manners and particular-way-things-are-done you might spot its beginnings.

By the time we’re young adults we’ve mostly fully taken on, and applied to ourselves, the widely shared narrative of our culture, not often spoken about, that people are essentially faulty and need some kind of constant correction. Even if we can’t see it in ourselves we can maybe see it in our interactions with others. It’s present every time we find ourselves judging them for, in some essential way, falling short of our high expectations. We can be sure that the unreachable expectations we’re projecting on other people are really just a version of what some part of us is demanding of ourselves.

And while it may be unavoidable that we get some measure of self-loathing by growing up in the particular culture of these times, I think its continuation into adulthood is in a sense quite egotistical. We may not even know that we’re doing it, but our private insistence that we are in some way uniquely broken, uniquely in need of repair, uniquely suffering puts us in the centre of the world in a way that doesn’t at all match how things are. It has us feeling different, special, alone, separated from each other, in some kind of special privileged place of difficulty. And then it has us engage in all kinds of tactics to deal with how all of it feels – getting really busy, pushing ourselves and others very hard, trying to stay in control, becoming cynical, overextending ourselves to gain the love of other people, jumping from one project to another, martyring ourselves to causes (a corporation, tidiness, social recognition, a religion, fame) that we never chose for ourselves.

Our culture has been deeply influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, who many have understood to say that at heart human beings really are broken, a roiling cauldron of barely repressible urges, and the most we can hope for is to find a way to get along with all that in play. This kind of interpretation of human beings would give self-loathing a home, telling us that we must first face it and then learn to live with it. Perhaps it’s the fear that this is all that’s available to us that has us deny its existence at all. We’d rather pretend we don’t feel this way than find out we’re stuck with it.

But I think there’s a different orientation available to us, one that’s hard to talk about without reverting to the imagery and symbolism of spiritual traditions. In Judaism, for example, there’s a strong commitment that human beings are made ‘in the image of the divine’, which is really the claim that at heart we’re not something broken at all but something sacred. In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s the notion of ‘basic goodness’ – the soft, tender centre of each of us that can respond with love and care to the suffering of others, and from which all right action flows.

Both traditions have a strong sense that it’s our responsibility is to find and cultivate our basic goodness, learn to trust it, and thereby bring something of value to the world. By abandoning such poetic and appreciative terms for human beings in our hyper-rational contemporary culture, we’ve made it very hard for ourselves to find ways to work with our self-loathing at all, which is why we’d rather pretend it’s not there, even while we’re suffering from its harshness and projecting it onto others.

But work on it we must, because it’s only when we’ve found a way of uprooting our constant comparisons and judgements of ourselves – and replacing them with love – that we have a chance of really addressing our own suffering. And a chance to make the full, true, and wholeheartedly generous contribution to life and other people that is so much needed from each of us.

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Not holding back

To those of us known for quietness, consideration, measured responses; and to those who speak up only when everyone else has said their piece:

What if, friends, we give up having it all together before we speak?

If we allow ourselves to say things when they’re half-formed, incomplete?

When we’re not sure?

If we let others in on our thinking?

What might we bring to those around us?

And how might we surprise ourselves, discovering the incomplete ideas we’re so used to holding back until they’re just-so are themselves seeds just waiting to grow in the imagination of others?

She said, he said


[Sincere, interested. I wonder how he’s getting on. Perhaps I can offer him some support]

“I’d like to arrange a chat with you about that project you’re running”


[Feeling anxious, hurt. People have been talking about me. I’m sure this is part of it. She’s going to accuse me of something, I can feel it]

(aggressively) “Why? What do you want to know?”


[Surprised. Wow, he seems very defensive. Can’t he see I’m trying to help him? Feeling hurt now. I’m not sure I can count on his support. And I wonder if there’s something he’s hiding from me]

“I’m starting to worry about whether everything’s going ok.”


[Suspicious, wary. See, I was right. I’m going to have to watch my back. I won’t tell her about the difficulties I’ve been having getting this all done in time]

“Everything’s fine. And I’m really busy. Let’s wait a couple of weeks and I’ll speak with you then.”


[Feeling anxious. I’m really going to have to keep an eye on him]


[Feeling anxious. I’m really going to have to find a way to stay out of her way]

Can you see where the trouble starts? How quickly both are swept up in it? The silent part each person’s inner critic plays behind the surface of the conversation? And how each person’s certainty about what’s happening quickly spins this conversation from sincerity to distrust? From contact to distance?

Stepping out of a cycle of mutual suspicion and hurt requires that we learn to spot our own inner critic at work so we project it less often onto others. That we remember that trust is created precisely by extending trust, and not by setting up constant tests that others must pass.

And it requires we hold our certainties very lightly indeed. Then we give ourselves a chance of finding out what’s actually happening when we’re in the complex, possibility filled dance of conversation with another person.

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Ordinary heroics

It’s very easy – easier than you might notice – to slip into an almost constant background of self-criticism:

All the ways you should be doing better, being more diligent, pushing harder, being more reliable. All the standards and measures – formally identified or not – for you to meet. All the people you imagine are watching you, judging you.

Yes. Because you care about what you’re doing, and how things are going.

But how about, for today, declaring the inner-criticism committee free from their duties? They’re more interested in keeping you in line and protecting you from shame than they are in helping you with what really matters to you.

In the quiet their absence creates you might get to marvel at the ordinary heroics of your life. The strength and persistence you’re bringing. Your capacity to keep going even at your most uncertain, day in, day out. Your ability to feel so much, whether joy or determination or sadness. The creativity and ingenuity you have to bring to even the most simple of actions. The relationships you’re sustaining at work, at home.

There’s much to be said for recognising, with gratitude and humility, the enormous capacity and skilfulness and dignity you’re mustering, minute by minute, that supports you in engaging with life in the way that you already are.

Just living each day requires a set of super-powers we rarely stop to appreciate. And what you are sure are your failings are also marvels of this one human life you are in the midst of living.

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Naming the Daemon

When you’re caught up in a something that’s pulling you away from life, distracting you, narrowing your horizons, or having you act in ways that don’t seem to match your intentions, you could try to give the something a name.

Is it anger, shame, resentment? Frustration, boredom, cynicism? Fear? Resignation? Your inner critic?

Names have power.

Moods, and our own inner critic, are often transparent to us. They recede into the background of our lives – shaping the world without us knowing, but shaping the world nevertheless.

But a phenomenon, once named accurately, starts to come forward from the background. It becomes possible to point at it and to have some kind of handle on it. The something you’re in takes a step from having you to being had by you, just as in the naming of daemons in the old myths – once named the daemon’s mysterious power begins to dissolve.

So, when you’re in some kind of difficulty, you could try to see what name fits best.

Anger? Fear? Frustration? Shame?

If you pay attention you’ll know when you’re on to something, particularly if you pay attention to the felt sense you’re experiencing in your body. An accurate name, something that’s true enough, will feel different, almost as if the phenomenon you’re naming turns towards you in recognition, becomes willing at last to make itself known.

And once named, first to yourself, perhaps later to others, see what new purchase you have on your situation. You may find that the invisible grip of the invisible something that has enveloped you will start to soften so that something new – a possibility or course of action – comes into view.

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On Comparison

Comparison – the key to so much suffering.

Obvious comparisons that cause us difficulty – comparing ourselves with others (what they have, what they do, how they look), and with standards (I should be able to do better than this, I’m useless, my efforts are not good enough).

These comparisons keep us in perpetual dissatisfaction and self-criticism, a state of never being sufficient.

Less obvious, our comparisons of life now to life in the past or in the future – everything was so much better when I was younger, before I had children, before I had to work; or will only be ok when I’m more grown up, when I’m promoted, when I’m famous, when I have time to myself again, when I retire, when I live in a different town, when I’m not confused or scared any more.

These comparisons keep us in stasis, unable to live now because of a life lost or a life as yet unrealised.

Both kinds of comparisons absent us from the life we’re already in, telling us always that life is not to be lived here, or now, but elsewhere, always elsewhere.

Can you see how deeply much of the marketing that surrounds us is invested in keeping us comparingamplifying our dissatisfaction, our restlessness and our rootlessness, rather than turning into the fullness of what’s already here?

Giving up comparison does not mean giving up hope, or giving up aspiration. And most significantly it does not mean giving up commitment to improving things.

But it does mean giving up our disowning of this moment, this place, this ground upon which we stand – the only moment, place or ground we ever really have.

Photo with thanks to Kate Atkinson

All the same

Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.


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The cycle of ennui and distraction

Here’s a self-perpetuating cycle that may be familiar to you:


The way out? Through the body.

Give up trying to distract and numb yourself. It only lands you deeper in.

Instead turn towards the experience. Understand that your anxiety, fear, shame are teaching you about the world. You cannot finish everything. You cannot know everything. This is the way of life, and you cannot change it.

There is nothing wrong with you.

And so instead turn into life. Step away from the screen, the to-do list. Run. Walk. Dance. Or sit quietly for a while feeling the simple presence of your body, your breathing, your aliveness.

And then, only when life has taken hold of you, return to your work and your commitments.

They – and what’s important – may look very different to you from here.

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Tight spirals

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

We lead this way. We relate this way.

This is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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We don’t do introspection

“We don’t do introspection”, they said to me. “None of this fluffy, self-indulgent, navel-gazing here”, they continued. “We do action.”

Of course. If you’re going to lead as they were, in a global organisation, then right action is critical. But what they meant by “we don’t do introspection” was “we aren’t prepared to look at ourselves”.

If they had an inkling, and most of us do not, of how much their actions were being shaped, out of their view, by

their personal preferences,
by their fears,
by years of habit,
by their avoidance of reminders of childhood experiences (mostly shame),
by the expectations their parents handed them,
by their inner critic,
by their longing to be appreciated, liked, respected, feared, in control

then they would perhaps have taken introspection or some rigorous self-observation more seriously. They would have been brave enough not just to look at their actions, but to look upstream at what was giving rise to them.

But they didn’t.

They had asked for help because they’d been amazingly effective in taking action – action that had landed them and their organisation in deep trouble.

And now they were trying to get out, with the same excuses, and by doing more of what had got them into difficulty in the first place.

Crazy, and sadly all too common.

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Approval School

We spend most of the first part of our lives in approval training.

For good reason, the people around us – perhaps especially those who care for us most – do their best to ensure we fit in to the particular family or culture into which we’re born. It can be an act of love to do this, because without the capacity to get along with others in socially acceptable ways we’d quickly find ourselves friendless, and perhaps unable to support ourselves in the world.

But the consequence of this necessary kind of care is that we quickly find ourselves in a kind of approval school. Some parts of us are welcomed, applauded and cherished by others. Other parts of us are not seen, unappreciated, or actively and forcibly denied to us. We learn that seeking approval of one kind or another from other people is one of life’s central tasks if we are to survive and thrive.

And then we take our approval training into adulthood, long after it’s stopped supporting us.

How much we hold back from the world because of it. How much art, creativity, insight and mischief is denied because of our ongoing attempts to look good in the eyes of others.

And then how much we build our organisations and institutions to perpetuate, reward and encourage approval rather than the genuine, brave, unsettling, surprising, life-giving contribution all human beings are capable of making to one another when we give up faking.

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Not Broken

We’d better catch on to the harshness of our inner worlds – the suffering at the hands of our own inner critic in particular.

If not for ourselves, then we must do this for all the people around us. Because our being convinced we’re broken – as so many of us are – is not only our difficulty. It affects everyone.

Every time we take our inner criticism to be real, we diminish ourselves and our capacity to contribute. We close off wide avenues of generosity and creativity.

And can we really believe we can accept the relentless attack of our own critic without it convincing us that everyone else is broken too?

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Next time you’re super-irritated by someone else, consider this: perhaps it’s something in yourself that you can’t stand, rather than them.

The inner critic can play games like this, disguising self-judgement and turning it into judgement of others.

And then what you’re really doing is projecting a part of you onto them, where it’s more comfortable and where you can pretend it’s nothing to do with you.

Your irritation won’t resolve by insisting they change. But it might when you start to welcome all the shadow parts of you that, in the end, make you human.

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When you find yourself filled with judgements about other people, don’t be so sure that what you’re experiencing is really anything much to do with them.

It may well be a simple projection of the harsh judgments of your own inner critic.

The critic covers its tracks like that. Wily enough to disguise itself in many ways, it would love to have you believe that everyone else is out to get you or disappoint you. And it would rather you blame what’s outside you than turn your attention inwards, where you might discover its role in keeping your world so small and contained.

For this reason, the first place to look when you’re judgemental of others is towards yourself. You might just find it’s there that your difficulty with them can be most skilfully resolved.

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Because we won’t talk about it

We’ve made emotions, the inner critic, and what we feel in our bodies undiscussable in most organisations, perhaps especially for those with the most power and hence the most to lose (see this post for more).

And the effects are far-reaching.

Because without an honest conversation about our fear and vulnerability, and in the midst of the myth of the heroic, independently capable leader, we’ve rendered ourselves mute on one of the most important conversations we could be having: our first-hand account of what makes it so difficult, so often, to tell the truth. And what could help us.

We become united in our silence.

The consequences go far beyond momentary inconvenience, or the conversation you’re avoiding about a colleague’s performance. Because when we’re unable to tell truth, and tolerate doing so however it feels, we turn away from each other and from our capacity to act.

In the spaces left by our silence, the seeds of great difficulty can grow, unrestrained – the seeds of organisational malpractice, self-interest, and denial. And soon, they grow in our society too, even though many of us have forgotten that our work and society are not separate from one another.

How many more economic, ethical, and environmental crises are we willing to have our organisations be part of? How long before we discover our urgent need to turn to one another about all this, and speak up about what we see in ourselves that has us hold back?

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The four of you


When you’re talking with another person, remember that there are always more than two of you present.

At the very least there’s you, and them, and your inner-critic and their inner-critic.

Whatever the two of you are visibly up to, there’s an often hidden dynamic between the two inner-critics (who work hard to keep themselves invisible) as they jostle to keep you in line, watch out for attacks or supposed attacks from the other, spur you into defending yourself (often times when no defence is called for), have you be insistent or rigid or judging or withdrawn.

And each critic spurs the other on, inventing slights and hurts, and anticipating what’s it imagines is yet to come.

All of this is one reason why you can sometimes look back on a conversation with bemusement and confusion. ‘What on earth happened there?’ you ask yourself. ‘I thought we were only talking about this morning’s meeting, but now I feel hurt and uncertain, and so does she’.

One way to help yourself and others is to spot all of this and give name to it, at first to yourself. Learn the ways it shows up and what it gets up to when your attention is elsewhere.

And then, over time, bring the existence of the critic and all its manifestations into conversation. This takes courage and openness. But bringing the inner critic out of its hiding place allows it to be seen and talked about, and responded to, and lessens its power to manipulate behind the scenes.

Your inner world is always making itself known in the outer world, whether you like it or not, and it’s true for everyone else too. The more you can give name to, and the more you can bring it forward from its otherwise invisible background, the more chance you’ll have of working with it in service of you and everyone around you.

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One thing to know about the inner critic is that it cannot be appeased.


It doesn’t help to reason. Whatever the facts you produce, however tight your reasoning, the critic can always come back with a question, or a doubt, an objection, or a demand for more evidence.

It doesn’t help to collapse, imagining the inner-critic will settle down once it sees you’re beaten. Because the moment you rouse yourself from your fall, it will be back, baying for more.

It doesn’t help to join in the fight, trading blows, getting into battle. The critic has more energy and more persistence than you know – it’s been around as part of humanity for much longer than you have.

Two ways to go that might support you:

The first is to understand that having an inner-critic is human, and that it’s being stirred is a sign that you’re up to something stirring. All art, all creativity, all speaking wholehearted truth, all genuine self-expression, all standing out, all taking the risk of saying what needs to be said, all stirs the critic into its defensive action. Reinterpret the critic – not as a sign of your failure and your brokenness, but of your aliveness. The very aliveness it wants to have you keep in check.

The second is to give it lots of space. Yes, let it rage, let it complain, let it hurl accusations at you. But, instead of having your face pressed up against the bars of your cage while it takes chunks out of you… instead if you can feel your enormity, your spaciousness, it’s less like being trapped in a small space with a tiger and more like being the whole zoo, or the whole city. How much can it hurt you when you’ve that room within you? How much can it eat you, or throttle you, or force your collapse?

And, each time it gets to you, please remember to be kind to yourself. Being caught in an attack by the critic is not proof that you deserve the attack – just that, this time, you didn’t find a way to separate yourself from it.

There will be a next time, and a time after, and a time after that. And over time, in no rush, perhaps a tiny bit more space will open, and a bit more, and a bit more – with many steps back along the way.

And each step, forward or back, is part of the necessary and life-giving work of becoming free to speak, act, lead and contribute with your whole heart.

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To blame just for having one

One of the sneakiest ways your inner-critic might keep itself in play is to mount an attack on you for having an inner-critic in the first place.

‘You must really have messed up if you’ve got me‘ it says. ‘Now, buckle down and get yourself in line, because you certainly deserve to be stuck with me now’.

But the critic – the internalised and often distorted voice of all those who cared for you when you were young and needed to teach you how to stay in line – is common to all human beings. It is most certainly did not come from anything you did wrong. It is not proof of your brokenness.

As you find out that you are not your inner-critic, and it is not you, it will mount more and more wily and desperate schemes to keep you listening.

This is where great kindness to yourself is called for, as you weather what are, after all, attacks on your self-hood, attacks on your wholeheartedness, attacks on your growing capacity to express what is true.

Kindness, and persistence, and faith, and love.

Hang on in there. We’re all rooting for you.

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Working with the critic

When you’re apparently under attack from others, a large part of your difficulty might be coming from your own inner critic. So there’s much to be gained by studying all the ways it’s in play.

You could start simply by noticing what the critic has to say: the endless stream of criticism and judgement in your thoughts, and its absolute commitment to your unworthiness.

Write it down, verbatim, and just look at all the exaggeration, wild fantasy, fearfulness, and overblown certainty. Read it back to yourself. Then it back to yourself or someone else again, this time in a comedy voice (which can do a great job of showing you all that is crazy about the claims it’s making).

And then, understand this:

  • this voice is not you, but just a part of you
  • you did nothing wrong (or right) to get it – it’s part of the human heritage
  • nobody who is human, no matter how successful or powerful, escaped having this
  • most of us are very good at hiding it from others
  • it’s not helping you – even though it claims you need it
  • you don’t have to listen

This, the last point, is the one to work on most rigorously. Because when you stop listening to the voice of your inner critic as if it were the truth you’ll discover that you can start to listen to the actual voice of others at last.

And instead of collapsing or raging or tuning out, you’ll have the opportunity to deepen your connection and to learn together about this strange, crazy, necessary and life-giving phenomenon we call human relating.

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