BOOK REVIEW: EMBRACING YOUR INNER CRITIC by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone (Harper Collins, 1993)

“You’re no good at math. You never have been. You obviously aren’t as intelligent as everyone else around you. What makes you think you will ever be successful in college anyway?”

Many of our students hear this voice whispering to them every time they enter class and believe it is the voice of absolute truth telling them who they really are. In reality, it is the pervasive, destructive voice of the Inner Critic. In Embracing the Inner Critic, clinical psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone, point out, “The Inner Critic kills your creativity…on an inner level, is the source of low self-esteem…, is a source of shame, …[and] can make you depressed” (12-13). In other words, for our students, the negative messages of the Inner Critic can lead to choices or actions – like skipping class, procrastinating on assignments, dropping out, or demonstrating inappropriate behavior – that can keep them from staying on course to their goals and dreams.

In Embracing the Inner Critic, the authors suggest that each of us is made up of different “selves” – the building blocks of our personalities – that determine who we are and how we act. The Inner Critic is one of these internal selves that guides and evaluates our thoughts, feelings, and actions through criticism and judgment. The purpose of their book is to enable readers to become aware of the presence of the Inner Critic, to learn how it operates, and to recognize the destructive effect it can have on our lives and relationships. Further, the authors propose strategies for learning how to separate the “true self” – what they refer to as the Aware Ego – from the Inner Critic, and, in doing so, transform it from a destructive force to one that is supportive of our lives and relationships. The authors propose some strategies that can help those who struggle personally with the Inner Critic as well as those who are assisting others with personal growth, which includes all of us who work with students as instructors, counselors, tutors, or in any other capacity.

The Stones point out that, although many of us may think of the Inner Critic as a negative part of the inner self that needs to be eliminated, the original role of the Inner Critic is to protect the “vulnerable, unprotected, and sensitive child that [we] used to be” (177) by threatening us not to think, say, or do anything that might result in shame, rejection, or abandonment by others. Consequently, the authors contend that the goal is not to eliminate the Inner Critic from our lives but to learn to separate ourselves from it by developing our Aware Ego so that we can distinguish the Inner Critic’s judgmental voice from who we truly are. One of the strategies they suggest for doing this is one that educators can adapt for use with their students. This strategy is journaling. The student writes out a conversation with his Inner Critic as though he is carrying on a dialogue with another person. They suggest a simple process: “You sit down in front of a notebook and begin to write from the ‘I’ that is talking to [your Inner Critic]” (179).

In a math class, for example, after explaining the concept of the Inner Critic, the instructor could invite the students to write a conversation between themselves and their Inner Math Critic. This could raise the students’ awareness of this critical voice as being separate from who they really are and what they are capable of. What the authors refer to as a “Voice Dialogue” might look like this:

I: I want to talk to you because I’m realizing just how powerful you are and how much I listen to you.
CRITIC: Well, I’m glad you realize just how important I am. If you would always do what I say, like dropping this math class, I think things would go much better for you.
I: No, that isn’t what I meant exactly. I appreciate your power, but I’m also becoming aware of how much you’ve been criticizing me all my life, especially when it comes to math.
CRITIC: Well, better me than the teacher. I’m just trying to keep you from being embarrassed.
I: Why do you think I will be embarrassed?
CRITIC: Because I know you can’t do math. You have always gotten bad grades in the past.
I: That may be true, but in the past, I didn’t really take my math classes seriously. Now I plan to spend two hours every evening, completing the homework, and I’ll ask the instructor questions if there’s something I don’t understand.
CRITIC: What makes you think you’re going to change and take math seriously now?
I: Now I realize that doing well in math is a step toward my goal of becoming an engineer….

Hal and Sidra Stone point out that, although some people may go through this dialogue in their imaginations, “writing tends to objectify the [voice of the Inner Critic] more clearly and strengthen the Aware Ego since [writing] requires a stronger focus” (180).

Another suggestion the authors offer is the use of positive affirmations as a way to deal with the negativity of the Inner Critic. For example, to combat the negativity with which math students may enter a class, the instructor could have each student write an affirmation for math. She would ask her math class to brainstorm characteristics of successful math students. She lists them on the board and then asks each student to select three characteristics that, if increased, would enable him or her to have more success in math. Each student then writes out an affirmation for himself on a 3×5 card or sheet of paper, using the three characteristics he has chosen. It might look like this: I am a motivated, intelligent math student who is willing to ask questions. The student posts this where he can see it – on his notebook or inside his text – and refers to it consistently, especially whenever he is aware of the Inner Critic criticizing him.

Hal and Sidra Stone point out that the purpose of affirmations is not to make the Inner Critic go away, as many of us may think. “[Affirmations] are used to affirm the positive and healthy side of a person. The refrain of the Critic, ‘The trouble with you is…’ is a kind of negative affirmation. Instead of affirming the individual, it is denying him or her…. Affirmations are really a way of developing a new, more positive self” (189).

Overall, I found Embracing the Inner Critic to be enlightening. As an educator, I found that the discussion of the role that the Inner Critic plays in our lives has increased my awareness of how powerful the voice of the Inner Critic is and the negative impact it has on my own life as well as those of my students. I now realize that many of the negative actions and attitudes of my students can be attributed to the fact that they are letting the accusations of their Inner Critics define who they are and they don’t even realize it. I can see that helping my students recognize the voice of the Inner Critic and seeing it as separate from themselves through journaling and/or writing affirmations will help them both personally and academically. However, Embracing the Inner Critic is not the type of book one can pick up and easily find an activity to use in tomorrow’s class. The suggested activities are designed more for use by the reader for his/her own personal growth and require extensive adaptation for use with students.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

–Reviewed by Eileen Zamora, Faculty, English, Southwestern Community College, CA

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