July 4th Post: The Inner Critic, Conflict, and Dissent in America

In therapy, they tell you to “silence the inner critic”—the idea being that the source of your problems is the voice inside your head that constantly criticizes everything you think, feel, and do.

I’ve found this to be an incomplete prescription. While a dysfunctional inner critic can drive you mad, it doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore it. The inner critic serves an important function in motivation, critical thinking, creativity, and personal growth.

Who cares? Well, I’ve been through therapy, and I think the most valuable thing about it is that it forces you to seriously think about what your inner critic is telling you and explore the reasons for why it might be saying those things in the first place.

The key is the second part—reflection and contemplation about the ways in which you criticize yourself can be a very rewarding exercise. The process can help you to notice things about yourself that you might have otherwise ignored—insight that forces you to look at what you’re doing wrong, to feel bad about it, and to ultimately make change for the better.

You’ll find that in some scenarios, the inner critic is off base, and this is because your perception of reality is simply inaccurate. If your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never be a good enough student to get into graduate school, but your GPA has never been below a 3.8 in your life, then you’ll have to delve into the details of why your inner critic is saying something that obviously contradicts objective reality. Usually this happens because your feelings and emotions are misfiring, and they need to be calibrated back in line with reality through guided therapy.

However, to think that you should completely silence your inner critic is missing the point. Your fear of not getting into graduate school likely fuels your excellent academic performance, and for this reason it is valuable. If getting into graduate school is a priority to you, then your inner critic is performing an important and necessary function. It only becomes a problem when you realize that you’re afraid of missing out on grad school because your parents have expected it of you for your entire life.

What just happened there? You listened carefully to what your inner critic has been telling you, and then you took the next step and asked yourself why it was saying that in the first place. And fortunately, you finally found the answer. It may not have been the answer you wanted—realizing that you’ve been doing things for the wrong reasons can be traumatic—but you’ll never grow or improve yourself if you only find the answers that you’re looking for.

This point can be generalized to a macro scale. In the United States, I think we focus too much on silencing the inner critic, rather than listening closely to it in order to make improvements for the better. The idea of “patriotism” can be a dangerous thing if it means that patriots must always blindly support their government and its policies. Pride and patriotism can be interpreted as our collective, protective ego that forces us into the pleasant delusion that America has no flaws. Too often, we interpret American dissent as Anti-Americanism, while in reality a thoroughly thought-out dissension that goes against the common narrative is one of the bravest and most patriotic positions a person can take.

Think of it this way: when your close friend tells you that you have a drinking problem, what is your reaction—do you take it personally and make your friend feel bad for hurting your feelings, or do you thank your friend for being honest and looking out for you? When your history professor talks about the Holocaust, do you get upset at him for being a downer and triggering unpleasant emotions, or do you treat the situation as a time for reflection and learning?

I’ve found that, too often in American life and politics, we look at conflict not as a place for connection, growth and intimacy, but as a place for ego, anger and rage. We’d rather avoid conflict in the short term at the expense of facing, addressing, and fixing real problems that will almost certainly damage us in the long term. This needs to change.

There is reason to be optimistic. We live in an era of unprecedented information flow and communication that has fueled more scientific progress, human connection, and creative expression than ever before in the history of the world—all thanks to the free and open Internet. But we need to be careful that we don’t sacrifice all of it because we were too proud of ourselves to even entertain the thought that it was at risk in the first place. And this freedom is most certainly at risk.

What does this mean? It means that we have to embrace dissent, disagreement, and conflict in our lives. Acknowledging conflict is the first step to conflict resolution. And in order for this to happen, it means embracing and loving other people. It means following the golden rule: treating others as you would want to be treated—not just your family, friends, and fellow Americans, but everybody. Making choices that are motivated by compassion and empathy for *every* human being is the only way that we can collectively move towards a more peaceful and prosperous world. And you can help by personally making the choice to be the change you want to see in the world.

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