We feel observed all the time. We feel observed by our conscious selves and our inner critics. We feel observed by others--by our real and imagined tribes, by the people we pass on the street—because we are tribal beings, evolved to need each other. We feel observed by our inner selves constantly, because self-aware consciousness is self aware. Collectively, I call all the felt observers the invisible audiences. The invisible audiences help us be moral and self-regulating, guide us socially, and encourage us to be good. The invisible audiences also can torment us. We especially suffer from our inner critics, the most difficult parts of us to deal with as well as necessary partners in our personal evolution.
The invisible audiences are ubiquitous because humans are intensely social. Most of our brains are dedicated to social relationships and social referencing with real and imagined others. We walk through the world under the gaze of invisible audiences—always more or less supportive and approving, critical or condemning.
Most unconscious values are those we believe we share with our tribes—our families, teams, towns, religions, political parties, nations, etc. If we feel observed violating these values, our unconscious generates shame emotions.
When we feel critically observed by the invisible audience, a shame emotion arises to pressure us to not violate a value. The shame family of emotions includes guilt, mortification, and moral self-disgust (a particularly nasty combination of shame and disgust). Shame feels personal, as if a person is criticizing and attacking us for doing something wrong, making us bad. As we develop from infancy onward, we absorb and internalize painful critical energy from parents and others, with which we cocreate our inner critics. As we’ve all experienced, inner critics seem quick to attack and chastise us when triggered by real or imagined transgressions.
Inner critics correct and remand us—often with the voices, energies, and words of angry or exhausted caregivers from our past. The positive functions of inner critics are to help us be virtuous and to follow social rules. This is the main function of shame emotions, to help mammals be social, and all mammals socialize their offspring with approvals generating good feelings, and disapprovals generating shame emotions. The destructive functions of inner critics are obvious—they torment us, punish us, criticize and demean us.
If you can feel your inner critic right now, imagine him or her in front of you—try to see their face. Look them in the eyes and say, “I’m going to help you grow into an ally and a guide.” What is the expression on their face as you say this? Angry? Scornful? Indifferent? Hopeful?
You might want to do this exercise daily for the next month See if anything changes in the expressions on your inner critic’s face. See if you feel differently at all towards your inner critic as the days pass.
Constructive invisible audiences?
Our self in the future can guide us so well! Imagine waking tomorrow and remembering this moment. What could you do, think, or say right now that will make that self tomorrow morning happy and proud of you now? How about five years from now? What could you do right now to please yourself five years from now?
One of my clients told me, “That thing about my audience being me in five years blew my mind!”
“How so?” I asked.
“I can do it for me in five years, or me at 5:30 today. It really helps keep me focused on doing and saying the right things now.”
Mostly we imagine our future self wanting us to do well right now. I like identifying my future self as wiser than my present self. My wise future self wants me to make good decisions, to serve love, to reach for the beautiful, good, and true.
Wise-self is a much better invisible audience than the inner critic! To strengthen the sense of being observed by a future wise-self, you need a certain kind of discernment—not inner critic discernment with fear, shame, or anger, but wise-self discernment with compassion.
What do you mean by “Discernment with compassion?”
We perceive the world through veils of conditioning and preconceptions. We spend our lives being constantly guided by conditioning, habits, and preconceptions while also growing them, changing them, for better or worse. We can reach for compassionate understanding of ourselves and others at any moment. This is the human superpower of self-aware consciousness directing growth and transformation—accelerating evolution.
Discernment with fear, shame, and anger means that when we feel threatened, we can objectify others, and think and act from self-protection or selfishness without regard for others’ welfare (or often our own best interests!).
Discernment with compassion never objectifies others, and always looks for deeper truths, balanced understanding, and the highest good for all.
Much of psychotherapy is helping people shift from discerning with fear, shame, and anger to discerning with compassion.
All this takes courage. Courage is knowing you won’t let anger, fear, shame, or selfishness make the final call on what you think and do. Knowing you’ll do your best to do the right thing generates the courage to act.
Neurons that fire together wire together
If you want to hard-wire the new habits of consciousness I’ve described, you need to practice them regularly. Each time you do one of them—Telling your inner critic you’ll help them grow into an ally and guide, imagining your wise-self observing you as a positive invisible audience, and discerning with compassion—you activate and strengthen the new neural networks associated with them.
The easiest way to change is to engineer new habits. As B. J. Fogg has discovered with his Tiny Habits approach, to create a new habit you need a prompt, a behavior, and a celebration. You need a prompt that reminds you to do the practice—maybe when you stand up from your desk, or walk outside, or look at your watch. You need to do the practice, feeling in your body what sensation/emotion arises as you do the new habit. And, finally, you need to celebrate doing something good for you! “Good job, Keith! You did your wise-self practice!”
We constantly are guided by ingrained patterns, implicit memories, and all previous learning. These are positive, healthy patterns, and negative destructive patterns. We can create new habits, new patterns, with focused intent and action, in service of principle, and driven by resolve. It’s good to not rely too heavily on resolve, which can ebb and flow. It’s better to keep creating tiny habits that are easy and fun to move us in the right directions.