UNTHRONING THE FALSE GODS
We had worshipped them on high as objects of abject veneration,
as implacable judges that punished us severely for our transgressions
and sent us out of the Garden to fend for ourselves.
We thought they lived outside of us on high mountain tops
or in the vast reaches of the heavens above our lowly heads
where they could scrutinize us and make sure that we did not sin.
But in fact we find that they dwell most intimately inside of us,
whispering or shouting in our ear their warnings and maledictions
for our every misstep, our every straying from the straight and narrow.
But Grace descends upon us and declares that we are the Beloved
and the old hurtful voices soften and gradually diminish
as we move towards Jerusalem in confidence of being received by Love.
- Robert Cornell
People who come for Spiritual Direction are typically conscientious, responsible and thoughtful human beings. They have been well socialized to be good men and women and are quite likely to have a well developed sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others, possibly to the point of not having the best boundaries and perhaps a tendency to be hard on themselves and to take on more responsibility in relationships than is warranted. Often they come to Spiritual Direction with a conflation of the Super Ego and its injunctions to “be good” with what they feel God is calling them to. So it is important for us as Soul Tenders to help them to discern what is the true Inner Voice of Spirit as opposed to the demands and attacks of the Super Ego in the form of one of the Inner Critics.
The False Gods: the Inner Critics
Our Inner Critics 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 tend to develop protective behaviors of self- criticism, self-rejection and self-guilt tripping as means of protecting ourselves from further harm or abandonment from our parents or siblings. It is very common for a Spiritual Seeker to be hard on themselves in terms of their personal relationships and in their spiritual life and practice. Hence, it is wise for Spiritual Directors to be aware of these patterns and know how to work skillfully with these issues.
This work on the Super Ego at the beginning of the psychospiritual program is one emphasized by the respected spiritual teacher A. H. Almaas in his Diamond Approach and it is often my number one priority for my directees / clients. In my role as an integrated Spiritual Mentor and Psychotherapist, I find that many of my clients have a negative, critical attitude towards themselves. While I do a lot of Rogerian listening, loving acceptance and mirroring, I find it necessary to be more proactive with my clients when it comes to these toxic internal voices. I talk to them about the nature of the Superego and how it is often confused with the voice of God or whatever beliefs they hold about a transcendent presence in their lives. I facilitate and support them in learning to distinguish the voices of their Inner Critics from the true voice of the Divine and to reject the toxic influences their harsh Inner Critics have on their lives.
Working with clients from many faith traditions and no faith traditions: Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Humanistic, atheistic, New Age, what I find in common with all these categories of clients is the pervasive presence of Inner Critics that stand in harsh judgment of them. While a sense of conscience is critical for a person to live a civilized, kind life, Inner Critics are not about morality or the Golden Rule. Rather they are toxic interlopers that the client has taken on in childhood to survive, to gain some modicum of love and acceptance in their family. Rather than being the voice of enlightenment, Inner Critics are part of our egoic defense system and not a function of true empathy for others or oneself that undergirds the Golden Rule.
I help my clients to become discerning about their internal voices as to whether a voice is part of an Inner Critic or is a voice of true empathy and conscience. For many this is a difficult task because the voices have been present within them as long as they can remember and have the ring of truth to them – a truth that is deeply felt in their emotions and in their bodies. Dethroning these false gods takes time and a gradual working through of the complex of feelings, beliefs and behaviors that underlie the Inner Critics. As part of that process I like to discuss with them in detail about the various manifestations in which Inner Critics may show up in their consciousness.
The Toxic Gang of Eight Inner Bullies
Why are you so mean to yourself?
Do you hope against hope that you can
flog a dead horse and get it to trot?
Do you hope to make up for all of your
imagined shortcomings and transgressions?
Or perhaps, you want to beat others to the punch?
Put the daggers away, all the instruments of self-torture
you have collected over the years.
Bring out the pillows and the sweet tea.
Rest. Allow yourself to be: as God made you.
- Robert Cornell
As the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes in A Path with Heart, for spiritual practitioners, it is very useful to name their “demons.” By “demons” I mean in this article the obstructing and negative influences that arise in their consciousness. When they can name their inner demons, they begin to have more power over them. These demons are no longer hidden forces undermining, sabotaging and holding them back without their knowledge of them. Now they can become aware of them as they creep into their consciousness and fend them off before they do damage to their self esteem and self confidence. Here is a list of some possible Inner Critics you may run into with your directees. I like to use somewhat amusing monikers to take the Inner Critics down a peg or two in the client’s fear of their toxic power and hold over them.
The Judge is all about right and wrong behavior and seeing to it that we behave properly. The Judge engages in black and white thinking and has a rigid view of right and wrong. Even in female clients it is often experienced as a male presence and seen as very powerful and forceful. The Judge is often experienced as being above us looking down upon us disapprovingly. The Judge watches vigilantly over our shoulder for any potential shortcoming or misbehavior on our part. The Judge can often be heard in the background admonishing us to behave ourselves and to adhere to a rather black and white code of conduct that has no nuance or discernment in it. It will get on our case when we make a mistake to tell us how we have really screwed up. It likes to go over the same mistake again and again to really grind us into the ground to make sure we got the lesson. The Judge knows nothing of Grace, which is a completely foreign concept to it.
The Perfectionist is on our case to avoid any mistakes. Nothing less than perfection satisfies it even on things that are not that important. Spiritually speaking, this critic keeps us from experiencing Grace, which is simply not in its lexicon. Carried to its ultimate extreme, the Perfectionist can make us feel like we will never be able to meet up to God’s expectations and demands on us and it leads us into the dark regions of shame and unworthiness. The Perfectionist and the Judge are frequent allies in their assaults on our failings and imperfections as human beings.
The Comparator is always uneasily looking outside of ourselves to see what other people are doing and to put us down. It is very insecure about its own spiritual progress and wants to check itself against others whom it judges to be “more spiritual” than it is. In a spiritual context, this might show up for example with a person who reads the lives of the saints and sees themselves in comparison as too selfish, too lazy to do their duty and to practice diligently enough. It is allied with the next bully to keep us on the treadmill of life and away from the economy of Grace.
The Pusher is on our case all the time to work harder and to do better. It is very uneasy when we relax a little and is afraid we will fall behind in our life if we cut ourselves some slack. It is always going to self-improvement workshops and reading all the latest spiritual books to be sure that it is doing enough. The Pusher is very uncomfortable with quiet contemplation and Being. It has no idea of how to abide in Presence, which challenges its world view to the core. People with a dominant pusher are all about doing and feel guilty to slow down and let themselves get in touch with their soft needy vulnerable parts.
The Squelcher represses feelings and thoughts that are judged inappropriate. This is not a healthy social filter but rather an internalized strict parental injunction to be “good.” Often the Squelcher operates below the radar of our awareness and has no voice that we hear. Instead it shuts down feelings or thoughts before we are even aware of them. This is why somatic based work such as Focusing or Biospirituality is so important in helping us to become aware of the activity of Squelcher.
Squasher tells us that we have no right to be large in spirit. From childhood on Squasher has told us that staying small is the way to remain safe and aligned with our family. This can come either from a desire to hide from familial abuse or a need to be loyal to the family injunction to be small in outlook and to be careful in the way that you present yourself to the world. Squasher admonishes us to not be,“too big for our britches”. Squasher tells us that if we are too big, too “out there” we will get cut down to size. Directees with this Inner Critic tend to appear diminished and to be deferential to us as authorities. They need our encouragement to allow themselves to expand and feel free to be what God made them for.
The Guilt Tripper tells us it is our fault when anything goes wrong in our relationships. It has us take on responsibility even for things we have no control over. In a Spiritual context, the spiritual practitioner can feel intense guilt towards God for not being responsive to others needs or that they have disappointed God in some way. The natural healthy inclination to be empathetic to the suffering of others becomes an intolerable burden because there is no end to their responsibility. This misunderstanding leads to self abandonment and compassion fatigue. The Guilt Tripper also tends to see God as disappointed and disapproving.
The Rejecter is the worst of the lot. It can come out and just beat the life out of us when we have fallen short on a task or been rejected by someone. It thrives on self- loathing and self-rejection which leads to feeling really bad about ourselves. Typically, this Inner Critic comes from an internalized rejecting parent but it can often feel as if God Himself / Herself is rejecting and abandoning us. In the worst cases this Inner Critic evokes terribly painful emotions of depression, hopelessness, despair, shame and can lead to self-harm and even suicide. This one has to be confronted and cast out unequivocally.
While I do inquire into the past to help the client see how their Inner Bullies formed, you don’t have to have psychodynamic training to see how these voices from the past hurt your directees. You can address these painful voices as is done in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by helping your directees to begin to notice these thought patterns in the present moment. As they become more aware of these negative inner voices over time, they lose their identification with them and can more easily fend them off.
Working with the Inner Bullies
Who would know -
the last thing we would want - would be the gateway?
That raw edge, the heartache, the anger, the aching hurt
would be the Way that God could reach into us and heal us.
There is a catch, though.
We have to let the feelings be and melt into their depths.
And when we surrender, the dark clouds will open
and the beams of God’s love will enter our hearts.
Working to heal these painful bullies from a spiritual standpoint involves us in a paradoxical approach: we learn to move towards our vulnerability rather than away from it, as is our human tendency. Our Inner Bullies are activated when we feel vulnerable; in our childhoods they acted as protectors so that we would not experience being hurt or abandoned. That was their role in our past but obviously now they do not reflect our reality and they do not allow us to be in a state of Grace or loving relationship with what is present in our lives.
Our work is to move towards our vulnerable selves, our hurt Inner Children with understanding and compassion. Understanding our original wounds and our defensive reactivity helps us to restrain the attacks of the Inner Critics. Self- Acceptance as broken human beings allows us to begin the healing of the original wounds and to let Love (God) enter the hurt and fear that is present. Underlying the Inner Critics are vulnerable child parts of ourselves that the Inner Critics in their misguided efforts tried to protect. As we become more skillful in being lovingly present with our vulnerability we let God in, we let Love in. And the Bullies are activated less and we become more consistently and compassionately attached to our wounded child selves. This is the road to healing and wholeness. This is the road to Grace.
What we find underlying the Inner Critics are Inner Children who are wounded by the judgments of parents and siblings and peers. Under the Judge lies a child that feels wrong, bad. Under the Perfectionist lies a child that feels inadequate. Under the Comparator is a child that feels like they are not good enough. Under the Pusher there is a child that was told he was lazy, incompetent. We find an Inner Child that feels overly responsible where the Guilt Tripper is on their case. And under the Inner Rejecter, we find an Inner Child that feels unloved and deserving of being cast out. The Inner Critics are mirror images of the wounded Inner Child underlying them AND they keep perpetuating the wound in the directee’s consciousness until we can help them to dis-identify with and cast their Inner Critics out.
With our support, our directees develop more accepting, more compassionate relationships with their woundedness, and then it becomes time to overthrow the Inner Critics. This can be done gradually or more forcefully depending upon the client’s own predilection. Some clients find it best to approach their Inner Critics with an appreciation for how they have tried to protect the client but how that is no longer working in their life today. And they gradually but firmly move the Inner Critics out of their dominant role in their psyches. One way this can be done is with an inner dialogue (which may be written out in a journal) between the directee and the Inner Critic. Often they will tell their Inner Critic lovingly but firmly that they are no longer needed. Other clients feel fed up with how painful their Inner Critics have made their lives and want to banish them forcefully and decisively. Still other clients might need to discuss the toxic beliefs that they have about God from their childhood and how that is tied to their beliefs about themselves. There is no one size fits all way that this ”exorcism” is done.
What Does This Look Like in Real Practice?
I have been working for two years with “Mandy” a Japanese American Nisei woman whose parents heavily leaned on her when she was very young to be a support for them. Her father had a gambling habit and she had to write letters to angry creditors to ask for their understanding and more time to repay his debts. Her mother was a very wounded cold person who gave her little love. On top of this an older cousin molested her when she was eight years old and she had to hold this hurt inside her in shame with no support from the adults around her. This experience as a child trained her well to marry an abusive husband that she put up with for 25 years until he ultimately left her. In spite of all this she was a very loving mother who raised two good men and has been a very productive worker in a social agency and a responsible member of her Buddhist Temple.
Based upon her childhood she had formed some very deep beliefs about herself and the world around her. She developed early on in her childhood some very severe and hurtful Inner Critics to try to “shape herself up” in order to fit in and be accepted by her very dysfunctional family.
I am bad because no one loves me. I must have done something wrong Judge
I am no good. I have to constantly be on the lookout for my mistakes Perfectionist
I am inadequate. I have to push myself to get anything done. Pusher
I can’t be too lively or noisy or people will think me un-Japanese.Squasher
I can’t show my real feelings of hurt and sadness. Squelcher
I am responsible for everything that happens around me. Guilt Tripper
As we have worked together, Mandy has been able to get in touch with her hurt, sad, lonely, scared little Girl who so wanted to be loved and cared for. With my support, she can give voice more and more to the hurt little one and has been able to mourn what she went through as a child. She has begun to be able to take care of her real needs and to set boundaries with others in regard to her responsibilities. She has also learned a lot about her Inner Bullies and is starting to kick them out of her life. Recently she came in with a bunch of 8x11 sheets of paper on which she had written the statements her Inner Bullies were making about her. We worked together at arranging the statements on the floor into the categories of the bullies shown above. Then I invited her, if she felt inclined, to stomp on all of these statements. She enjoyed doing this and it gave her a sense of empowerment over these bullies that had haunted her all of her life.
We talked a lot about a Japanese martial art that she has been deeply committed to her whole adult life as a spiritual practice and how her Inner Critics get in the way of her joy in this practice. Now she is feeling more and more that “good enough is good enough” and letting herself be just as she is when she practices. She feels a call to some kind of ministry within her Buddhist Temple and perhaps that will be to help other Japanese American women to find their own voices. Previously she had felt inadequate taking on such a role in her Temple but now I would not be at all surprised if her ministry turned out to be to support other women leaving abusive situations and finding their own personal power. Mandy now feels more and more joy in her life. She is coming alive.
The case of Mandy may seem more appropriate to the work of a therapist, but I strongly suspect that we have all seen many Mandys in our work as Spiritual Directors: people who have been badly hurt in their childhood and need a lot of love and support to find themselves and to find a connection to Love, God, the Beloved, True Self, Higher Power or whatever you want to call it. And one powerful way to begin this work of healing and self-empowerment is to help our clients and directees to free themselves from the toxic and undermining influence of their Inner Critics.
The Discernment of Spirits
The work of dealing with Inner Critics can be done in a more traditional context as well. The Ignatian rules for Discernment of Spirits can be used to help our directees to become aware of and to overcome the toxic influence of Inner Critics. St. Ignatius in his Fourteen Rules for discernment is using the contrasting states of desolation and consolation to help lead Christians into the ability to discern the way forward in their lives.
The sense of desolation can often be connected to the action of an Inner Critic on a directee’s mind. Feelings of depression, anxiety, unworthiness, shame, guilt are so often clearly related to patterns of thought regarding how we see ourselves. We no longer have to blame the actions on an outside evil force because we can see how our self-critical thoughts bring about much of these feelings that St. Ignatius called desolations. Instead, we can talk about how the desolations cut us off from God and from the energies to serve Him properly. We can talk about how God’s grace and forgiveness are available to us if we can let go of our self-judgement.
In Rule Six, St. Ignatius talks about how to combat desolation through more prayer, meditation and examination. The kind of “examine” we could do with our directees would be to examine their patterns of thinking to see if an Inner Critic is at the bottom of their disquiet. If that is found to be the case, the directee could be encouraged to give these negative self-evaluations over to God, rather than to brood upon them. It would be good to engage the directee in a conversation about God’s infinite mercy and compassion and how that relates to them personally.
In the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Rules, St. Ignatius wisely cautions us about relying too much on consolations, which can always leave us and to endure even when desolation comes over us. For in life, even if we learn to be more aware of our Inner Critics, some dark times will still descend over us. It is wise to not give our directees false hopes that if they learn to throw off their Inner Critics that it is smooth sailing from now on. The human journey of faith is more complicated than that.
The Courage to go beyond Our Comfort Zone
I realize that this material may seem to some in the Spiritual Direction tradition more fitting in the context of psychotherapy. But I suspect that even in spiritual direction, the issues of poor self esteem and self criticism are so often inevitably an essential part of the conversation. A spiritual director might feel more comfortable addressing the issue by emphasizing the infinite nature of God’s compassion and forgiveness. However, Inner Critics have a way of deflecting all this good theology so I think it very useful to directly address the toxic influence of Inner Critics on our directees.
It might challenge our sense of competency to bring this subject into a conversation with a directee, but if you persist, I think you will find that such conversations can lead to a rich and useful process of unearthing and dethroning these toxic interlopers. In my experience, the best thing to do is to have the conversation with our directees and then gradually to explore with them how they feel most comfortable in sending these false gods off. Trusting the process of our directees in this regard takes us off the hook of having to tell them how to cast them out, a role we would be loath to take on, and rightly so. When these false gods have been sent packing, the true God has a much easier time entering into our directee’s hearts and minds.
ROBERT KANDO CORNELL, MFT explores the rich boundary lands between Christianity, Buddhism and Psychology. He is a former Zen Buddhist monk who practices an integrated pychospiritual counseling. He leads interfaith meditation and practice groups at his church, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.spirittherapist.com
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Bradshaw, John, Healing the Shame that Binds You, Health Communications, revised 2005
Brown, Byron, Soul without Shame, Shambala Publications, 2012
Campbell & McMahon, Biospirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow, Loyola Press, 1997
Campbell & McMahon, Rediscovering the Lost Body Connection within Christian Spirituality, Sep 5, 2011, Tasora Books
Cornell, Robert, Fifty Ways of Letting Go , Balboa Press 2016
Kornfield, Jack, A Path with Heart, Random House, 1994
St. Clair, Michael, Object Relations and Self Psychology: An Introduction (3rd Edition) Cengage Learning, 1999
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, translated by Fr. Elder Mullan, S.J. I.H.S. from an E- text in the public domain.