We are given a conscience by God, but that conscience is not given fully formed. Our conscience is shaped by our experiences and our responses to life. It is further molded by the perceptions we have of our experiences. This is also a part of spiritual formation. Everyone experiences spiritual formation, from Christians to atheists, we are all spiritually formed in one direction or another.
A great influence on spiritual formation is your family of origin. Since formation takes place in the early years of our lives, we don’t readily recognize it. It becomes evident when you recognize you are doing something, without thought, just like one of your parents.
One of the funniest things I’ve witnessed was my wife say something, then to abruptly stop talking. Next, she exclaimed, “I sound just like my mother!” I’ve experienced this with both of our adult daughters: “I sound like mom!” It’s a startling realization that we are being shaped in the early part of our lives, for years at a time, often without even knowing it, only to realize it as adults.
This kind of formation is a double-edged sword. It can be great if you had someone to help you interpret these experiences in a healthy way. The other edge is when you don’t have the best of examples or a healthy person in your life to interpret life-shaping events. Our formation is then found wanting.
For most of us, our spiritual formation is a mixed bag. We have some very good values on the one hand and in the other, we are challenged in how we view the world. Our early experiences are interpreted for us by parents, religion, siblings, caregivers, teachers, and friends. These then become the structures in which we view everything else. The structure of our thoughts determines our view of the world.
The thought structures that we’ve adopted may be true or false, or a variation of both depending on the circumstances. This becomes part of your inner critic.
Next, we are going to list eight different ways our thought structures have been formed that are harmful to us. It is essentially eight ways your inner critic may sabotage your life.
It is important for us to be critical with our inner critic and acknowledge to ourselves when we have been holding thought structures that sabotage our lives, making our situations worse than it really is or needs to be.
I’ve drawn these eight different ways from two books by Dr. Daniel Amen. I’ll reference them at the end of the blog. So here are the eight ways your inner critic can sabotage your life.
1. All-or-nothing thinking
This kind of thinking is focused on absolutes. You won’t hear “maybe” or “sometimes” come out of this kind of thinker’s mouth. This thinking uses words like “all”, “always”, “never”, etc. Part of this thinking is believing that everything is either good or bad, that there is nothing in between. It’s a black or white rigid thinking.
You might get away with this in simple math, but not in simple relationships. One secret to building long and successful relationships is the ability to compromise. Anyone who has been married for a while knows the application to this statement: You can be right, or you can be happy, but you can’t be both. Which one can you live with?
2. Focusing on the negative
This is when your thoughts see what is bad or negative, ignoring anything good that may be in the situation. You may be speaking in front of a group of people, and you didn’t cover the material as you had thought you would. That may cause you to feel like the presentation was terrible. However, there were likely many there who got something good out of it. They didn’t know what you knew. They didn’t have the same expectations you had of yourself. Remember, “God works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28).
3. Fortune telling
Fortune telling is letting one bad experience determine how the rest of the trip, job, or life will turn out. Getting a flat tire early in a car trip does not mean that the rest of the trip will be bad. Having a bad dating experience doesn’t mean all members of the opposite sex are idiots and you should give up. Do you see where I’m going with this? Don’t give up. You don’t know how it will turn out. Give life, love, and God a chance.
4. Mind reading
Mind reading is believing you know what the other person is thinking even though they haven’t told you. This is a major reason why people have so much trouble in relationships. They assume they know what the other person is thinking even before they get a chance to give evidence. It’s hard enough when someone assigns bad motives to your actions, let alone putting their own words inside your head. Give people the benefit and wait for them to speak. It may be much better than you thought.
5. Thinking with your feelings
Feelings may lie to you. Your thoughts may lie as well. Be aware how dangerous it is to say, “I feel you don’t love me” or “I feel like a failure.” You must counter “thinking with your feelings” by thinking with your thoughts. Look for evidence. Maybe these feelings are just coming from your own insecurities or unrealistic comparisons with others.
6. Guilt beatings
This is a specialty of the inner critic. Guilt beatings begin with “I should…” or “I ought…” or "I must…” There are expectations tied to these statements about your performance.
Dr. Amen states that it is better to replace “I should…” with “I want to….” It removes it from the guilt arena and moves it into positive motivation. Guilt beatings are effective, but only for a while. They soon lose their power because the benefit of good behavior is clouded by our negative motivation. When we see it is good for us, we can move from “have to” to “want to” to “get to.”
When you label someone or something with a negative image, you limit the way they can be perceived. If you label someone a “jerk” it will be almost impossible to see anything good come from them. There may be much good that the person does, but the “jerk” label covers it up. The same goes for yourself: “I’m too stupid”, “I’ll never get it right”, and “I’ll never change.” These are all labeling. When you apply that label, it makes it easy to give up and not try anymore.
This can also work in the positive side but in a negative way. Someone has labeled a son or daughter as being “perfect.” Now they cannot see what everyone else sees about them. They have flaws and shortcomings like everyone else. But the person who has labeled them “perfect” just can’t see it.
This is the worst one of the eight. Blaming is when you blame others for the problems in your life. Statements like: “It’s not my fault”, “If you hadn’t…” or “How was I supposed to know…” It is unattractive when a child does it, but it is downright insulting when an adult will not just take responsibility for their own actions or inactions. It’s a sign of a real change in character when a person accepts responsibility for the failures in life. It means that they can do something about it. When you don’t take responsibility and it’s always someone else’s fault, you are powerless to make change.
It's not necessary to overthink how you think, but it is good to do a check-in to verify if your thinking is matching up with reality. Sometimes a good objective friend can help. But for most of these, simply withholding judgment on others is enough. You’ve got enough trouble in this world without making yourself part of it.
For further reflection on these, Dr. Daniel Amen has put this into two of his books: Change Your Brain Change Your Life, Revised and Expanded. by Daniel G. Amen, M. D. pgs. 116-117 and in his book Feel Better Fast and Make It Last. pgs. 100-106.