Maurine Proctor’s columns appear Tuesday on Meridian.
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Have you ever heard a voice in your head that nags you? Or felt the invisible scowl of someone inside that is constantly evaluating your performance? “You could have done better,” you hear in a slightly scolding voice. “That’s not good enough,” comes the message. “Try harder. Do more. You are not measuring up.”
This voice wheedles, jibes, and points out your faults and says you must do better. It follows you around claiming a superior vantage point on all your thoughts and choices, your actions and behaviors. It mentions with a frown, that you have blown this thing, shown weakness in that, worn out your chances because your character is so mundane. It suggests that if you just got up earlier or stayed up later or could act with superior wisdom or had more skill, you would be more acceptable.
It sometimes tells you that the difficult things, which are actually natural to life in a fallen world, are your fault. If you had been a better parent, your child would not have faltered, or you could have overcome all of their natural weaknesses by your superior love and care.
If you were more lovable you wouldn’t be single. If you were more spiritual, God would not have let this terrible thing happen to you. If you just used every minute better, you would have had more stunning opportunities.
Tsk, tsk, the voice says with a scornful shake of its head. “You can certainly be a let down.”
“Try harder,” this voice encourages. “Try harder and harder. Try until you drop. Try until you hurt with exhaustion. Never let up for a moment.”
And if by chance someone says they love you or gives you a word of praise, “Don’t believe it entirely,” says the voice. “They don’t really know everything about you.”
Now, some may be completely unfamiliar with this voice, and others may only know it in much milder ways than I’ve just described, but this critic on our shoulders is alive and well in many of us. It makes us feel tired and tense and sometimes discouraged.
I remember hearing that critic sometimes. As a young mother with many little children spattering the house with toys, chaos and fingerprints, I used to be slightly embarrassed if someone came to the door unannounced before I could clean up. I carried with me an invisible committee of unknown Relief Society sisters, all with perfectly ordered and decorated houses. They were so judgmental of me, these fabricated sisters who constantly sat on my shoulder and evaluated my homemaking. “You’ve got dust on your table,” said the critic with a jeer.
When we had a lesson once on what we’d do if Christ came to visit our homes, I thought. I’d do nothing. He’d see in my home a life center with projects spread around. I’d feel perfectly content. It’s the invisible and imaginary Relief Society presidency that I would really worry about visiting.
I noticed that voice, too, one day when I was in the car, waiting to turn into a busy road full of traffic. I’m not an aggressive driver, and so I missed a couple of opportunities someone with more grit would have taken. I could feel the impatience, yes, the ire, of the driver behind me who was also waiting to pull into the traffic. Finally, I turned around to get a good look at the person who was hounding me from behind. There was no one there. There never had been. It was my invisible critic who had been so busy pointing out my driving timidity.
Many years ago I was writing a television series on the family and on happy living for a program that the Church produced. A psychologist, who we were going to interview for one show, asked that we put together a little play for him.
He told me that we experience ourselves in pieces and parts. We may think that we have one unified voice in our heads, but that isn’t how we experience life. We hear multiple voices in our minds, representing different parts of us. Our language reflects that. We say things like, “Part of me wants to go and part of me doesn’t want to go.” We acknowledge. “I’ve been arguing with myself all day about this.” “I do and I don’t want to do this.”
For this role play about the criticism we level at ourselves, the psychologist asked that we set up three chairs that would represent various parts of one person.
In the first chair was the Critic, the one who sits on our shoulders and evaluates so much of what we do. The Critic had great, almost arrogant, confidence in what she was saying.
In the second chair was the Stressed, that part of ourselves who takes in everything the Critic says and believes it because the Critic speaks with so much authority. The Stressed looked worn and badgered.
In the third chair sat the Deeper Self, that part inside that is ancient, wise, and observant and has important things to say when she can be accessed.
Since each of these roles were parts of the same person, they were played by one actress who slid from chair to chair when she delivered the lines that belonged to the Critic, the Stressed and the Deep parts of herself.
Finally, in our scene was a Teacher. The Teacher was able to question the various parts of the woman to arrive at important conclusions.
The play begins with the actress in the Critic’s seat and the Teacher starting with a question:
Teacher to Critic: What’s your role here?
Critic (pointing to the chair where Stressed will sit): I keep her in check. I always have such important things to tell her, but she never does what I ask. She is such a disappointment. I’ll tell you, it’s hard work to keep her going.
Teacher: What kind of things do you tell her?
Critic: I tell her what to do. I give her big lists. I have to watch her everyday and evaluate everything she does. I remind her what a great performance would look like and where she misses out.
Teacher: You are on her case a lot?
Critic: Someone has to be. It’s a kind thing, after all. Without me, it’s no telling what she’d be. I’m here to prod and poke and judge. It’s hard work but someone has to do it.
Teacher: Can you give me an example?
Critic: Just last week, she was juggling too many things, and I told her that a really competent person could do it, if she just tried harder. She’d be a sloth without me.
Teacher: Anything else?
Critic: I’m at it all the time.
My work never ends. I try to make her feel responsible for the happiness and well-being of everyone around her-especially her family. Even circumstances over which she has no control. I say to her, you could control that if you were better. But you aren’t, are you?
Teacher: That last comment doesn’t seem too nice.
Critic: Nice doesn’t always get the job done, does it?
Teacher: Let’s talk to Stressed for just a minute.
Critic: You won’t get much out of her, I never do.
[Actress playing the Critic, now slides over into the seat for Stressed.]
Teacher (pointing to the chair where the Critic sat): I’ve been talking to the Critic about you. What do you think of her?
Stressed: I believe everything she says.
Teacher: You trust her?
Stressed: Oh, yes. She only wants to help me. She wants me to make more of myself. She always reminds me of how much I lack and how far I have to go and how often I fall short.
Teacher: Why would you trust her?
Stressed: She is always asking me to do the right things. She has high expectations for me. I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment to her.
Teacher: Does her voice make you feel encouraged?
Stressed: I’m sure that’s what she intends. Constantly showing me the gap between myself and what’s acceptable, constantly making me think that my life is a performance–that’s sheer kindness, all right.
Teacher: I ask again, how does she make you feel?
Stressed (cringing, and looking over toward Critic’s seat): I can’t say.
Teacher: Why not?
Stressed: I’m afraid she’ll be mad at me.
Teacher: Go ahead. How does she make you feel?
Stressed: The Critic’s voice hurts me. It hounds me. It discourages me. I can’t stand to live a life where my actions are evaluated with such relentless scorn. It is hard to breathe when it is not acceptable to be in process, to learn, to falter and try again.
Sometimes I cannot breathe for the heaviness of her judgment. I cannot try new things because I’m afraid she’ll laugh at me. I’m tired and weary. I cannot live up to her impossible standards.
Teacher: Who do you really think that voice belongs to?
Stressed: I thought it was just part of me-my best self, my stern self with high expectations.
Teacher: That’s not who you really think it is. You think the voice belongs to someone else.
Stressed (questioning) What do I think then?
Teacher: Let’s ask your Deeper Self.
[Actress slides to chair for Deeper Self]
Teacher (to Deeper Self): Have you been listening to all of this?
Deeper Self (nods): Stressed is really stuck.
Teacher: Who does Stressed think that voice really belongs to?
Deeper Self (sorrowing): Sometimes when she cannot access me, when Stressed is carried away in her natural mind, she thinks that voice is God’s.
Teacher: No! Why would she ever think such a thing?
Deeper Self: Because the Critic poses as one who wants to make more of her. Because the Critic puts up the front of urging her to do good things. Because the Critic claims to be encouraging her. Because the Critic seems to have impeccable standards.
Teacher: How are you so certain that this voice is not God’s, then?
Deeper Self: Perhaps you can answer that question. Who wants you to feel constantly condemned? Who wants to discourage you? Who wants you to give up and sit down on the trail with sheer weariness? Who wants to devour your hopes, eat you alive until you cannot find yourself? Who wants you to think you can control every minute of your life until you cannot live and cannot see what is around you here and now? Who wants you to become divided from others you love because you are constantly self-absorbed, evaluating your performance?
Teacher: That is the Adversary.
Deeper Self: You have spoken truly.
Teacher: Can’t you tell her? (looking at Stressed’s chair)
Deeper Self: I do all the time, and often, she hears me. I remind her that when she hears the voice of the Lord, it is not with condemnation. It is with love and encouragement. He came not into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him should be saved.
[Actress slides to Stressed’s chair].
Teacher (to Stressed): Did you hear? Will you believe? The Critic does not have a kind voice, no matter what is claimed. That condemning Critic is not a voice to be trusted. With God’s help, you can remove the chair in your soul where that mean voice has sat. What time is better than now to give place no more for the enemy of your soul?
[As together Stressed and Teacher begin to remove the Critic’s chair, the scene fades to black.]
We have our battle with the critic on our shoulder, some more than others. But let us not confuse whose voice it is. After the Lord had visited Moses, Satan came, hoping to deceive him and crying and ranting, “I am the Only Begotten. Worship me” (Moses 1:19)
Satan likes to claim that he is God. He dons many masquerades to confuse us, claiming in first one way and then another “I am God. I am God.” When we assume that the critic on our shoulder is God, we may want to run from Him. Make no mistake, if you hear a condemning voice, if you are plagued by a voice that discourages and evaluates you negatively and whose net effect is to deflate your hope, that is not God’s voice.
How can we be sure? Consider how it is when we feel the Spirit. We are washed in a flood of light. We feel loved and encouraged. We have hope and know that the Lord can lead us along line upon line. We have increased energy and expanded capacities, not diminished days. We trust that the earth is in the Lord’s hands, and we have no delusion that we are in control or should be. ” The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22).
The fruit of the Spirit is not stress, anxiety, condemnation, worry or a sense of failure. Only one who desires to chain and destroy you would have you think so.
If you are one who is plagued by a critic on your shoulder, pray to silence that voice.
Pray to hear more clearly the voice of the Spirit, and the encouragement it surely gives.