The Inner Meerkat
You know those cute little animals that stand up on their hind legs, eyes wide open, head cocked – listening for signs of danger, on permanent sentry duty, protecting their clan?
Well, that’s how I’ve come to think of the pesky voice in my head. The one I used to call my ‘inner critic’. You’ve probably got your own name for it.
The voice in my head.
My relationship with this inner lecturing, scolding, nagging, warning voice has changed over the years.
At first I wasn’t really aware it existed. Too busy getting on with life!
Then, as I grew, I started to notice it. And be bothered by it. But I had the feeling that there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t choose my thoughts. I had to put up with whatever was there in my head. The worrying, the admonishing and the judging.
At that point it was definitely my enemy. The most I could do was try to ignore it. But, at best it was very insidious, and, at worst, loud and haranguing.
Working from the inside.
When I started to do what I call ‘Inner Work’ - techniques like meditation, writing exercises and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, which I talk about in my article 'The Whats, Whens and Hows of EFT') – then my perception of this ‘inner critic’ changed again.
Who is this voice and where does it come from?
First of all I had the quite startling realization that 1) this voice wasn’t ‘me’; 2) that it was also not telling the ‘truth’; and 3) that, although I might not be able to control just what popped into my head, I could control and choose what thoughts I allowed to continue in my head.
I also started to understand a little about the things this voice was saying and where they were coming from. That nasty comment sounded like a particular teacher who I’d had back at boarding school. That one was definitely my mother! That one was a kid at school who’d once told me I was ‘overwhelming’.
But, hang on a second. Who’s pressing the replay button here? Those people aren’t literally in my head. Or even in my face now. So how come they didn’t shut up years ago? Who is in my head?
Well, a part of me, I suppose.
But why should I want to continue to say such horrible things to myself, over and over again, especially in moments of difficulty or stress, when I’m already having a hard enough time?
Sound like an enemy, doesn’t it?
The seven ‘enemies’.
I looked up ‘inner critic’ and found a list of seven ‘types’, all of which were frequent visitors in my head:
The Perfectionist. The Taskmaster. The Inner Controller. The Guilt Tripper. The Destroyer. The Underminer. And The Molder.
Yup, these all hang around on a regular basis.
Take a typical situation (for me as a professional violinist) when this crew is hard at work. For example, when I’m playing a really difficult piece of music in the orchestra.
The Perfectionist: ‘That note was out of tune. You fudged that scale.’
The Taskmaster: ‘Play faster, faster, faster.’
The Controller: ‘Be careful! Watch the music! Look at the conductor! Listen, you idiot!’
The Guilt Tripper: ‘Noooo! You played in a rest. You’re ruining this performance.’
The Destroyer: ‘You are rubbish. Give up before they chuck you out. Go back to playing at an amateur level.’
The Underminer: ‘Do you think anyone will notice you’re faking the tricky bits?’
The Molder: ‘You really have to do better, Jenny. Back to studying, and a character change would help too…’
When this lot is going on it’s incredible really that I can play a note. And as for enjoying myself – and transmitting that joy – well, that is definitely not an option.
Beat the enemy?
So I really felt an urgent need to beat this enemy. Destroy the inner critic!!
Telling it to ‘Just stop it!’ or ‘Knock it off!’ didn’t work. How about ‘Shut up and leave me alone!’ (Getting increasingly whiney here!) Or appealing to its better nature: ‘Please stop. You’re making my life hell.’
Nope. Still doesn’t work.
Ok, let’s try and level with it.
‘What are you up to?’ ‘Do you hate me?’ ‘Do you want to destroy me?’
And a tiny voice, just like a little one-kilo meerkat, squeaks back:
‘I’m just trying to protect you.’
‘I’m on sentry duty. I have to warn you of the dangers.’
‘Snakes, eagles, predators…lots of them around. Run and hide, run and hide.’
Now, as an adult living in a safe environment, my ‘dangers’ are no longer connected with real survival. Unfortunately my brain doesn’t seem to have caught up with that. So a perceived ‘negative’ word, a look, a slight…all of these feel like danger to my inner meerkat.
Especially when I am at the edge of my so-called ‘comfort’ zone, taking chances and risking exposure.
OK, little meerkat. You’re just busily doing your job, just trying to keep me safe. So, thank you for that.
But ‘COULD YOU PLEASE MODIFY YOUR TONE OF VOICE AND THE WORDS YOU USE??!!’
Modifying the inner voice
This is where other inner tools come in.
Mindfulness. Which is?
Just listening, becoming aware, but not trying to change anything. Remember: ‘What you resist persists.’
Putting a little distance between yourself and the thought, saying ‘Thank you for sharing’ but not believing that it is inherently true.
At first it was really hard not to get caught up in my negative train of thought. This was an express train. There was no way I could jump off at that speed.
But little by little, with practice, I am seeing changes. I meditate for about fifteen minutes a day, but I also practice mindfulness when I am playing the violin, when I am helping my daughters with their homework…at odd moments during the day.
‘Space’ around the thought
It doesn’t stop the voices completely. Especially when I am embracing new ventures.
But it does give me a fraction of a moment when I can choose. ‘Is this thought supporting me or not supporting me?’ ‘ If it isn’t really the truth, but just an old tape running, could I just stop the tape, gently but firmly?’
And maybe think about something nicer.
Something like a fuzzy little meerkat, just doing its job.
- The voice in my head is not me and it isn't necessarily true.
- I can't control what comes into my head but I can decide if I want to let it continue there.
- There are seven types of inner critics: The Perfectionist. The Taskmaster. The Inner Controller. The Guilt Tripper. The Destroyer. The Underminer. The Molder
- Using mindfulness and EFT it is possible to notice the voice and change my thoughts.