- You post something on Facebook, and only one or two people respond, and you wonder, “Everyone responds to my friends posts that are similar to mine. What’s wrong with me that no one is interested in my life?”
- You just preached your heart out, firmly believing it was of the Spirit. Yet, other than the obligatory, “Nice sermon, Pastor,” from the standard people, no one in the congregation said a word. You berate for yourself for your inadequacies as a minister, and you are discouraged and depressed as you think about preparing yet another sermon for the next week.
- You are conversing with a friend who is really hurting, and after talking with her, she seems just as depressed as when the conversation started. You second-guess yourself for several hours saying, “I shouldn’t have said that . . . I should have said this.”
- You send a text to a friend, and there is no acknowledgement that they received it. You tell yourself, “Why did I say that? I should have kept my mouth shut.”
This is the voice of the shoulds and the should nots, the all-or-nothing talk such as everyone or no one, or the internal blame. It can be loud and hostile, making it impossible to ignore. The voice can seize our attention as it dictates merciless demands colored with blame. Its unforgiving nature can heap shame on its hearers. Like a tyrant, it wields so much power that those under its may rule believe they are powerless to overthrow it. Could it be that only death is more formidable than it is?
This inner voice goes by many names:
- Tara Mohr calls the voice, “the inner critic.”
- Compassionate Communication names it the inner jackal voice.
- A good friend of mine refers to it as the tyrannical conscience.
- It is commonly seen as “beating yourself up.”
- Christian artist, Andrew Peterson sings about it in his song, “Be Kind to Yourself”: “Gotta learn to love, learn to love your enemies too.”
This voice has a secret, yet potent, reign. It is the silent voice no one else hears, but it may become the loudest voice in our ear.
While its hidden realm is not usually openly discussed, I hear evidence of its rule as we attempt to conquer it.
We may couch the voice’s power with culturally acceptable phrases such as I hear while facilitating grief groups: “I am giving myself a pity party.”
What does that mean? Seriously. What does it mean?
It is a story we tell ourselves in an attempt to find the security, acceptance, and love we longingly desire when we are feeling discouraged, depressed, or distressed. Thus, this becomes a tactic that disguises the way we may distance ourselves from our own pain and our own vulnerability. (It would seem, then, it also indicates that if we use the phrase to describe someone else, we are attempting to distance ourselves from the other’s pain.) In our attempts to distance ourselves from our pain, we are inadvertently judging ourselves for that pain. Allow me to explain.
At first glance, the word “party” seems fitting in a culture that extols happiness (e.g., the pursuit of happiness). But I wonder do we use the word “party” to make it easier to swallow the bitter pill of our malaise?
Then there is the word “pity.” I define pity as seeing one as inferior. The image I have is a person with her arms folded towering over and looking down on the other. In other words, it denotes a power over rather than a power with someone. Thus, if I am describing myself as having a pity party, I am exerting power over myself by seeing myself as substandard. In essence, I am shaming myself. I do not know about my readers, but shaming myself usually does not empower me. It has the opposite effect.
What about simply using the Bob Newhart approach of “Stop it!” to silence the inner critic? For some, this tactic fails because it is like handing more ammunition, and maybe even weapons, to the tyrant. It gives the inner dictator more power—it promises to be helpful, but it injures rather than assists. Now, the tyrannical conscience is enabled to become critical of self for being critical of self. It is a never-ending, downward spiral.
I suggest a different tactic: Caring for the tyrant, the enemy within. What if we begin to see the inner critic as signal that a need is unmet for us? When we do not receive a high number of likes on Facebook and the jackal voice says, “You shouldn’t have posted that,” it becomes a signal of negative feelings such as anxiety or fear. These negative feelings point toward an unmet need. Maybe there is a piece of us that is longing for affirmation, a sense that we matter, validation, or normalization, and we thought that our FB friends liking our post would provide that for us. This is caring for the enemy within. It is paying attention to a part of us that expected a need to be met in a very particular way, and when it was not, our internal tyrant kicks in gear with all kinds of shoulds and should nots due to a lack of a secure base that allows us thrive and explore.
Attachment theory reminds us how important our basic need for security is. When a child is frightened by a loud noise, the child cries as the attachment behavioral system kicks in. When a caregiver holds and comforts the child, the child is enabled to gain a felt sense of security, and the attachment behavioral system is deactivated. This sense of a secure base enables the child to continue to explore her world.
But our need for a secure base does not simply disappear when we turn eighteen years of age but remains throughout our lives. The main difference as adults is hopefully we have also learned how to offer self-compassion. Some of us have not learned this skill, which now leaves it up to us to make small steps toward learning to care for ourselves. One small step is to recognize that this inner critic is a part of us and that it may be fearful and/or anxious. Then, in the same way we would reach out to care for the other who is fearful, it becomes an invitation to care for ourselves.
Theologically, I believe that self-compassion is a way to participate in God’s own ministry to ourselves. Compassion is an act that demonstrates suffering alongside that may be expressed through the giving of clothing, food, or empathy. God’s acts of ministry reveal that God is characterized as being compassionate. In Exodus 33, Moses requests that God reveal God’s glory to him, and God responds with “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” That is, the revelation of Yahweh includes the underscoring of God’s compassion. Notice how this appears thirty chapters after we see indicators of Moses’ inner critic. In Exodus 3 and 4, Moses claims he is unable to speak eloquently when he is to participate in God’s ministry of freeing the Hebrews from slavery. Whether or not Moses really could not speak well in addition to believing he could not speak well, we do not know. It was a belief he had about himself whether or not it had some truth to it, and his inner critic took this opportunity to protest. I could imagine his inner critic is probably anxious and fearful . . . I mean, whose wouldn’t be! Moses had not exactly left Egypt on the best of terms. Who knows? Maybe he was still kicking himself for killing that Egyptian. So while he herded sheep out there in the wilderness, maybe his inner critic was having a heyday! Yet, Moses at some point in his life experienced God as compassionate, the one who suffers alongside. As the first theologian (thank you, Ray Anderson), Moses communicates that to us in Exodus.
If we were to compare Yahweh to the gods of the other nations, we would find that both Yahweh and the other gods create, save, and judge but with one difference: Yahweh alone is compassionate (see Diane Bergant, “Compassion in the Bible,” in Compassionate Ministry). As Diane Bergant notes, the Hebrew word for compassion is the plural form for the Hebrew word for womb; thus, compassion carries the meaning of inward parts, of new life or birth, a bond, and of protection and safety. This informs us that when our inner tyrant shows up, as an indication of our need for protection and security, God is the one whose very essence meets that need.
As a Christ-follower, I believe God’s compassion is embodied in Jesus Christ. God suffers alongside humanity by physically walking on this earth with us. Being the embodiment of God’s compassion is signaled in how the word “compassion” is used in the Gospels: It is only associated with Jesus or the God-figure in Jesus’ parables. For instance, we see compassion in relation to the in-breaking of God’s reign through Jesus’ performing of a miracle as in the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 8), and we see Jesus’ compassion when the people are described as harassed and helpless (Mt 9).
I also witness this in Jesus’ interaction with Judas. There are indications Judas’ internal tyrant was powerful. I note his criticism of Mary who uses an abundance of perfume to wash Jesus’ feet (John 12). Criticism such as this is often an indicator of a tyrannical conscience. But perhaps the strongest indicator to me of Judas’ inner critic is his completion of suicide (Mt 27; Acts 1). I can imagine how much he longed for forgiveness, but the inward tyrant laid down its terms and said, “No. It can’t happen. You are evil.” Yet, I see Jesus continuing to reach out to his enemy in the Fourth Gospel. In John 13 we observe Jesus loving his disciples (including Judas) by washing their feet, and in 13:26 it says that Jesus dipped the bread and handed it to Judas. There are suggestions in ancient literature that this is a custom to indicate favor; thus, it is as if Jesus is lovingly reaching out to Judas and caring for his enemy (see Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 918-919).
We often see our inner critic as our enemy, an enemy we must expel. However, it is when we care for this enemy that I believe we participate in God’s own compassion towards us. The image is one of a park bench on which Jesus sits with his arm around us, caring for us. When we, too, are alongside ourselves, sitting beside ourselves, expressing compassion and caring for the enemy within, that is how we are participating in the power of the Spirit in the ministry of compassion that Jesus embodies towards us.