Dethroning the Inner Critics in Spiritual Practice
It is often said and very truthfully that spiritual practice is mostly unlearning what we bring to our spirituality rather than what we learn and try to add to ourselves.
Letting go of False Self, True Self Emerges
We thought we knew how to get there
through sheer dint of effort,
with self criticism and self flagellation.
But somewhere within us,
we realized the insanity of our efforts.
Dropping into the dark abyss of surrender,
we encounter the deep heart of tenderness.
And we finally realize we were home all along.
– Robert Cornell
The False Self of the Inner Critics
Very often when we come to spiritual practice for the first time, we bring to our efforts many preexisting ideas and much unconscious conditioning from our family of origin, our peers and our culture. We are often fixated on making ourselves into some image of what the ideal person is so we can feel better about ourselves. In doing so we conflate what Freud called the Super Ego with enlightened mind. We have ideas about what constitutes the enlightened state and so we try to make ourselves conform to them. “Well,” we tell ourselves, “the enlightened person never gets angry so I won’t let myself get angry.” What we have done in this example is to set up an ideal and then to force our real feelings underground so that we can think we are making progress towards enlightenment. But this is just another form of spiritual materialism or ego centered activity.
It is a common mistake to confuse the ideals and criticisms of our Super Ego with enlightened activity. One of the most common manifestations of the Super Ego are the Inner Critics that are typically internalized parents (Object Relations) that were demanding, critical, abusive or just unapproachable or emotionally cold to us growing up in our family. We internalized these parental injunctions and criticisms early on in our life and they tend to be our unconsciously held view of ourselves and the world around us. In childhood, we also developed protective behaviors of self- criticism, self-rejection and self-guilt tripping self flagellation as means of protecting ourselves from further harm, rejection or abandonment from our parents or siblings.