The Critic in Disguise

Chapter 6c of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult

Photo by ContentAl from PxHere

An Inner Critic will sometimes disguise itself as someone else to give more authority to the things it says. That happened to me once at the grocery store. I was happily browsing in the coffee aisle when a woman came near, choosing some expensive beans for herself. She moved with the poise of a dancer, dressed in elegant clothes, tastefully perfumed, and meticulously groomed. I had the sense she thought I was not worthy of inhabiting the same aisle as her. Not that she said so, for her manners were far too refined. One part of me agreed I was inferior. This part of me seemed to say, hail to the queen and, if it had its way, I would have bowed and paid homage. Another part of me resented her and proclaimed that, although I come from a humble background and have relatively crude ways, I’m as good a person as she; even better, if you factor in my lack of pretense.

Various Inner Critics were behind all those thoughts in the coffee aisle. One took on the disguise of this fancy woman in her fancy clothes. The critic seemed to say, through her, that I’m crude, clumsy, ill-mannered, poorly dressed, and smell. None of that’s true, but there’s no convincing it otherwise. This maneuver of putting my own thought into the minds of others is what we shrinks call projection. All the denunciations coming from that Inner Critic were projected onto the woman, as light casts an image from film onto a screen.

A second Inner Critic was on hand to criticize these criticisms, coming out in a felt indignation I towards the fine lady, who did nothing to deserve it. We both went our ways, she with a pound of fair-trade arabica, me with my Dunkin-Donuts, without saying a word. I gave no indication of what she had stirred in me, whether admiration or class hatred, but I was torn up inside.

Image my surprise, when, after getting to the office later that day, she was my very first client, come for an initial consultation. It didn’t take long for me to learn that her inner critics were far more cruel to her than mine have ever been to me. The composure, the impeccable taste, the fine manners, the careful grooming were her way of compensating for the lack of confidence she felt within. Yes, she did come from money, so she could afford ballet lessons, fine perfume, expensive clothes, careful hair styling, and therapy, but her critics accused her of being an impersonator, who deserved to live in a trailer park.

Guilt and Shame: Good and Bad Ways to Feel Bad

Inner Critics have two knives by which they carve me up. One of them is like a pruning knife; it hurts but cultivates. The other is a dagger in the back. The first is Guilt, the second is Shame.

It’s easy to confuse Guilt and Shame. People refer to them interchangeably, like twins who are often mistaken. They pop up whenever we do something wrong. They’re really very different, and they account for the different kinds of Inner Critics. The Inner Critic that is giving you constructive feedback is using Guilt; the one calling you names has got a bloody dagger called Shame. You can tell the difference by what they say. Guilt talks about something you did. Shame says the problem is who you are.Guilt makes you sorry that you lied, stole, cheated, or betrayed. Shame calls you liar, thief, cheater, and traitor. Guilt never rebukes you for how you feel, it’s only concerned with what you do; but Shame scolds you for your feelings.

I was not ten minutes into my session with the fine lady from the grocery store, before Shame spoke up inside my head. Shame said I was wrong to have jumped to conclusions about her when we were at the grocery store. I was wrong to suppose she had it together better than she did, and I was wrong to be envious of her. Guilt identified erroneous thoughts but was just happy I didn’t put my foot in my mouth. Shame said I was a bad, bad therapist. I should tell her I can’t work with her because I have so much of my own crap blocking my view, that I couldn’t see hers. Guilt said, no harm, no foul, I can use the story to illustrate something someday.

Here’s how we tell the difference between criticism that is helpful and not helpful. Inner Critics that use Guilt give us a way to move forward. They identify errors we made and guide us on how to move forward. Inner Critics that use Shame indict who we are. Guilt says we’re better than that, we can do things differently. Guilt points to the future; shame keeps us stuck in the past.

Shame is such an uncomfortable emotion; a host of defenses rise up and protect us from it. You could drug your Shame away, engage in denial, get angry instead, look for someone else to blame, hide the evidence, and go on making the same mistake in secret. None of them work, but they do succeed in compounding the problem. They all bring you back to Shame.

It is entirely possible to ditch Shame without losing your scruples, but most people can’t do it. How do you ditch Shame? By answering to Guilt and doing what it wants you to do. Namely, by acknowledging the mistake and its consequences, be willing to make amends, and follow through with the amends you said you’d make. You think Shame will stick around while you do all that? No, Shame, that big, dumb galoot, will try to manage Guilt by making you ashamed. It would be better to follow Guilt and allow Shame to get lost, but most people try it a different way, me included. In adolescence, I developed a critic of Shame. I saw the emergence of yet another character in my mind, which will be the subject of the next chapter, the Rebel.

Next: The Rebel

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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