Silence Your Inner Critic

You have a saboteur and a victim living inside your head. Don’t listen to a word they say.

This time last year I was compiling a long list of things that needed to be changed rather urgently as part of my impending New Year’s resolution. Serious things that I had neglected. For the record, I’m one of life’s greatest procrastinators. I know we all do it, but I do it until there’s green mould growing on the never-ending to-do list.

But as 2016 drew to a close I resolved to finally and unwaveringly do 10 things that were manageable and doable. I  was going to get fit and healthier (carried over for three years); I was going to do that big spring clean I’d been planning (carried over for eight years); I was going to fix a variety of things around the house; take a host of small but valuable career steps that would drive me forward financially; and fix outstanding physical issues (finally get that tooth replaced). Good, solid, intelligent resolutions. I’d also vowed to put more fun into my life by doing creative activities — dancing, painting, writing.

So how many of those had I achieved by December 1, 2017? One. And guess which one? What a surprise. I devoted time to making sure I got to have more fun. Having talked to a lot of people for this story I know I’m not alone in abandoned vows.

And so the big question to be answered at this time of year: Why don’t we do the things on our resolution list and how can we change that? Why do we walk around feeling guilty and incomplete all year rather than get that tooth capped, or go to the gym or create more space in our homes and offices? Why don’t we surrender our bad habits and addictions? Are we lazy? Are we childish? Avoidant? Hedonistic?

I’ve found a plausible answer and it has empowered me to the point that during the last four weeks of December I’ve done or made arrangements to do 75 per cent of the list.

What brought about the change? I was introduced to my inner saboteur. In August, I did the helpful self-development course Path of Love, which I wrote about, and I left with the best intentions. But even though I’d fulfilled some of my commitments I was struggling with many others. There was a follow-up course to help participants explore exactly why this is true for most people, and how to stay on track. And last month I went along.

As the adage goes: “Knowing you have cancer doesn’t cure the disease.” You have to take action.

Based on US bestselling author Caroline Myss’s work on archetypes, we explored “the saboteur” as a curious facet of the human psyche, and how this aspect of ourselves defeats the healthy side — it procrastinates and reneges on resolutions, not just around New Year’s but the whole year through.

Myss believes this archetype — along with “the victim” — relates to our inability to feel worthy enough. We develop the saboteur to manage anxiety about our own potential.

As American author and lecturer Marianne Williamson says: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Not liking change, the saboteur constantly berates us, and will do everything in its power to stop us getting ahead. It tells us we are frauds, unattractive, not worthy of love, and it throws obstacles in our path. Often these are the tiny things that really count, such as not responding to an email that may lead to a better job; continuing to smoke or pig out; or act out in an addictive relationship that keeps one depressed; or live in disorganised chaos, like me. All the while the healthy part of ourselves is struggling so hard to make us happy.

Drilling down, we find the pattern is simple. It’s all about fear. Sally is secretly scared of success at a deep unconscious level. While believing she wants to be a top lawyer, she fears that if she rises higher there will be demands and responsibilities she can’t cope with. She’s scared she will be exposed as a fraud. She doesn’t think she can manage the time commitments. By allowing herself to remain unfit, she unwittingly ensures she is often sick or doesn’t have the energy to push too hard.

Bob desperately may want a relationship, but the unhappiness in his parents’ marriage frightened him. He’s scared of emotional pain. So he may find unconscious ways to push his partner away like drinking recklessly, despite a New Year’s resolution to cut down. The saboteur is often a stealthy assassin — death by 1000 small cuts.

Eric Berne has developed another model of psychotherapy known as transactional analysis, which involves personality subtypes. Under this model, the saboteur/victim is called “the wounded child” with its accompanying “critical parent” in tow. It’s petulant and rebellious, it has developed the defence structure of a five-year-old, and the critical voice of a cruel, sadistic schoolmaster. This duo battles continually in our heads. Whatever name you put to this part of our psychological makeup, including Carl Jung’s “shadow” side, it drags us down and disempowers us. It sets us up to fail.

But what is this creature and where does it come from? Why do we stand in the way of our own happiness?

The irony is that our saboteur is not there to harm us. It’s actually trying to protect us from imminent failure or humiliation. It’s a misguided defence mechanism. It’s not “bad”, just irrational by being self-destructive to stop us self destructing.

It’s part of a fear-based system arising out of the brain driven by our “fight or flight” instincts, and it will do anything — be it aggressive, cunning or repressive — to survive, as opposed to the higher brain functions that allow us to act in a more positive, creative, courageous fashion.

It usually has been fed by childhood teachings and “mantras” — chants about life from parents, family or school, as in: “Don’t get your hopes up”, “No one cares about you”, “Life is hard”, “Prepare for battle”, “Keep your head down”, “You can’t trust anyone”.

Then there are the personal mantras: “You are not talented, good enough” and the like. Because we take them on as true, even when our grown self rebels against those beliefs our head still whispers them to us persistently.

So how do we fix the saboteur? Experts advise us to shine a light and become aware of the negative self-talk, then yell loudly to it: “Back off!”

One very powerful exercise we did at Path of Love was to write a list of all the things the saboteur says. Then another person followed us around reading out our self-abuses: “You are a fraud, nobody likes you. You’re unattractive. You’re too old to do that.” We’d never let someone speak to us the way we speak to ourselves. No wonder we can’t stick to our resolutions, so bogged down are we with punishing and doubting ourselves.

Simpler to ask: What do I fear? What is the real pay-off in not doing this chore or task? Do I secretly want to avoid rejection? Do I fear not being good enough? Or the obligations that come with success? Am I fazed by the vast unknown? Could I trust happiness? Why can’t I lose weight or start that job? There’s a host of anxieties that comes with leaving the old self and starting the new. Can I push beyond this anxiety and do what needs to be done, knowing the pay-off will be greatness?

Fessing up to the real feelings is a life changer. It gives us a choice to do the small resolutions that will lead to larger successes. Perhaps we need only one resolution for 2018. To keep the saboteur at bay, and demand: “Back off dude, and take a holiday!”

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