A Review of
Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life
Reviewed by Christopher Brown
There is a little voice in my mind that stubbornly says, “I am a fool.” A few times a day it pipes up to remind me of past mistakes, missed opportunities, or the hurtful words of others. It’s weaker now than in previous years – sometimes I shoo the thought away like a fly, or I counter it with a positive truth like, “I’m becoming wise” – but the inner critic keeps coming back.
I know I’m not alone in wrestling with such messages, because Andrew Lang’s book Unmasking the Inner Critic guides readers in exploring nine other statements our inner critics whisper to us: I am not good enough. I am not important. I am not lovable. I am alone. I am worthless. I am not in control. I am not free. I am my trauma. I do not know who I am. Rooted in trauma, these messages summarize the narratives we tell ourselves in the wake of suffering. Lang calls these messages “constrictions” and says that they “construct the world we experience” (21). A belief that I am not lovable, for example, will become either a self-fulfilling prophecy or the scaffold for the false-self, masking a deeper desire for acceptance in the world. Life within such illusions is indeed constrained, held back from its full potential.
In response, Lang presents wisdom from a variety of contemplative traditions to help readers break free of these constrictions and live with greater freedom. Be warned, though, that dismantling these illusions is no small task. Unmasking the Inner Critic will be a helpful tool in that process, but it will also require your effort and attention, and you will get out of this book what you put into it. I’ll offer here a few suggestions that may help readers deeply engage with this book.
First, take time to journal your way through the book. Each chapter of Unmasking the Inner Critic contains reflections questions to help you recognize how these constrictions manifest in your life, where they came from, and how they affect your actions in the world. A few blank lines are provided after each question in the book for those who want to make notes there, but many of the questions deserve more time and space to write full answers. Read the book with your journal at your side and pace yourself so you don’t rush through prompts for reflection that deserve more attention.
Second, don’t read this book alone. If you’re like me, you’ll find that some of the stories in the book and the reflection questions stir up emotions or insights that are best processed in conversation with others. In Lang’s own words, “each wound is a passageway for transformation is one of the great spiritual truths of life. This is why it is so important to have a good therapist, spiritual director, or soul friend: someone who can walk with us in the paradoxical space of exploring our wounds so that we can find a way through them” (131).
Third, notice how your body responds to this book. Lang prompts you to do so with reflection questions that ask what these constrictions feel like in your body. I noted, for example, that the message “I am not good enough” shows up in my body as slumped shoulders, shallow breathing, and perceived weakness. Developing this skill of interoception enables us to respond to these sensations with physical practices and movements that loosen our constrictions. In the case of “I’m not good enough,” Lang recommends a “Right-Sizing” practice which involves alternating between stretching widely and shrinking one’s body. To make the physical and interactive pieces of the book like this more accessible, Lang has a companion course on his website with videos of practices and other supplemental material. Keep this tab open while you’re working your way through the book and take advantage of what’s offered there.
Fourth, look for the inner work you’re doing to bear fruit in the world. Lang is passionate about justice and has an activist’s heart. Building on Thomas Merton’s description of the inner life as a spring that feeds the stream of action in the world, Lang expects inner transformation to empower outward activism. One exercise in the book invites readers to consider their spheres of influence, the places in our personal relationships, our communities, and in society as a whole where we can participate in positive social change. When you break free of your inner critic’s constraints, there might be significant ripple effects in your spheres of influence.
Because Lang blends insights from Christian, Buddhist, and secular sources, the book does not present a theological response to the voice of the inner critic. The pastor in me kept waiting to see if Henri Nouwen would make an appearance in the book to remind us of the voice that calls each of us God’s beloved, but he did not. The less religious-centric content makes the book accessible to a broader audience, and I can imagine using it with my coaching clients to help draw out some of our held limiting beliefs. If you’re willing to do your inner work and have a community with whom to process it, Unmasking the Inner Critic can help you quiet the critic’s voice so that you can hear truth afresh.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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