The voice of the internal critic lives inside our very own head. There are many names for this ancient, invisible, and enormously influential wee beastie – the voice-over, the narrator, the internal critic, the gremlin, your conscience, your trip advisor, the mind, the ego, and so on. For the sake of brevity and convenience lets just call it a gremlin.
A gremlin’s job is to maintain the status quo. It’s always the voice of limitation. What it wants is to keep you safe, to keep you in a box, to never take a risk, never be exposed or vulnerable, to never get hurt. Nearly all our gremlins are created sometime in childhood as a survival response when a perceived threat to survival happened. When we were kids someone said something negative and hurtful, and they said it often enough over time that as a matter of self-defense we internalized their voice and started saying it to ourselves. We do this simply because it hurts less if we say it to ourselves than it does if someone else says it to us. Eventually we forget that commentary came from someone else, and we just believe that this noise, this internalized voice is telling the truth about who, what or how we are.
The problem is that human beings like and need to be fulfilled, or else life is not much fun. In order to be fulfilled we need to take risks, change behavior, grow and learn, try new things, explore new territory, stretch and develop new masteries, and etc. When we try to do all those new things, that’s when the gremlin shows up.
The gremlin says:
You can’t do that! You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, strong enough, pretty enough, young enough, sexy enough, thin enough, rich enough, healthy enough – whatever. You’re too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, too stupid, too smart, too white, too black, too sexy, not sexy enough, too male, too female – whatever the pairs of opposites are that come quickly to mind – you’re just not good enough, you are not worthy of it, you don’t deserve it, you better not even try.
The thing is that your gremlin is really not your enemy and you’ll never get rid of it. It is actually your friend because its entire interest is pegged to your survival. For example, if you are going to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, you better listen to that voice when it says, “No, don’t do that, you’ll die!” So there are indeed times when you do want to listen to your gremlin.
The trouble is it’s really out of control. It generalizes over everything and it’s often confused about what actually concerns your survival and what does not. It’s highly sensitive and not very smart. Wait. Let me say that again:
A gremlin is highly sensitive and not very smart. (This is an amygdala function – always alert – very poor distinctions.)
Part of the challenge is also that it was created in childhood, so while its interest was our survival, it was usually focused on our emotional survival, not our actual physical survival. We had an experience where we felt we would die of embarrassment or shame, so the gremlin kicked in and now it rallies just as strongly about talking in front of people as it would have if we got chased by a bear. It cares about you not ever being embarrassed as much as it cares about you not ever stepping in front of a bus.
We want to take our power back, and specifically we want to reclaim our power to choose freely yes or no in all the places where we have the power of choice. The trick is for us to become in charge of our gremlin, so we can make our own choices about whether or not something is a real or perceived threat to our survival, instead of letting our gremlin choose for us. We want to use the gremlin as an advisor, but one we can override and say no to when appropriate.
What happens to most people is that they think they are the gremlin. We make no distinction between the human being, who we really are, and the survival voice of the gremlin going off inside our head. As a result, we buy into everything it says, because we think it’s us.
The way we work on this, and it’s very powerful work, is to learn to distinguish yourself from the gremlin. We have to see the difference between the gremlin and who we really are as a being. That is when we get our power back, the power to choose freely, right now in the present moment. What gives a gremlin power is its ability to hide, to remain invisible. So when we shine a spotlight on it, we take back our power to choose what we want for ourselves.
Once we see it, once we really know the gremlin is not who we are, then it’s just a matter of listening to the gremlin, evaluating what it says, and then choosing freely yes or no. Then the gremlin becomes an assistant, an advisor, or perhaps on occasion even a co-pilot.”Yes yes, you’re probably right. If I jump off this cliff I’ll just go splat and die, so I won’t do it. Instead I’ll go out for pizza with my friends, figure out how to open up emotionally a little more, and maybe they can help me understand what’s not working. Thank you for sharing.”
“You know, I probably won’t die if I go talk in front of all these people and it’s something I really need to do to grow my business, so thank you for sharing but I’m busy now. Please go sit on the bench until I’m done.”
There are three steps to handling a gremlin:
1) First step is to hear that inner voice, that commentary, and acknowledge that it’s not you – that it’s a gremlin. The criteria for recognizing whether or not something is a gremlin is to ask one question, “Is that voice speaking to my greatness or to my possibilities? Or is it speaking to my belief in my limitations?” (Notice how hard it is to imagine and admit that we might have possibility or some greatness stashed away here…)
All this requires is a process of inquiry and the honesty to tell yourself the truth. Just look and see. That insight and recognition has to come from inside you – nobody else can do this for you – just look inside and see what’s true.
2) Second step is for you to shine the spotlight on it. Ask yourself what exactly does the gremlin say? Many of my clients actually write down everything their gremlin says, word for word. Sometimes it’s one sentence, sometimes three pages, but externalizing the gremlin’s narrative will help you see the difference between who you really are and what the gremlin is telling you about yourself and the world around you.
Also if appropriate, give the gremlin a name, describe what it looks like, etc. I’ve had clients who have drawn, painted and/or created a sculpture of their gremlin out of play dough. When I was doing this work on myself I got one of those rubbery finger puppet monsters and named him Fred. One day I realized there was also a female version of that voice, so I got another finger puppet monster and named her Jane. (no offense intended to anyone named Fred or Jane.) Lemme tell ya – we have had some very enlightening conversations over the years…
3) Third step in how to handle the gremlin – in that moment when it starts yackin at you, the criticisms, the warnings, the admonitions – what can you say to it that gets it on the sidelines, puts it aside, moves it out of your way so you can move forward and accomplish the goal or objective, whatever it is you intend or want to achieve?
The point is that your gremlin is not actually your enemy. There is no need to kill it off completely and it’s not possible to do that anyway. That’s just resistance, and resistance inevitably creates persistence. Learn to work with the gremlin, but remember and realize that you actually have the power to choose.
The gremlin is not you, and in and of itself it has no power beyond what we surrender to it. Remember – it’s highly sensitive and not very smart. The gremlin cannot recognize the difference between a real threat versus a perceived threat – between a 3 year old in a tantrum, a pissed-off spouse, or a hungry bear. To the gremlin, anything that looks like trouble of any kind is going to be translated into a 3 alarm fire. It holds no distinctions – we do.
Stop – Listen – Distinguish – Reclaim Your Power – Choose – Act.
I hope you find this useful. If gremlin work is of interest to you, give me a shout.