Why We Fear Quietness

The critic within

Nancy Anderson
7 min readJul 29, 2023


When was the last time you had uninterrupted time with no pressure to achieve anything? Did you make time for reflection only to hear a voice in your head say you were not doing enough? Did anxiety cause you to do something, anything to fill the empty space?

The fear of not doing enough comes from the belief that success is measured by how much you get done, not how self-aware you become. When uncomfortable feelings come up the tendency is to scan the environment for clues about what to do, rather than look within for the source of the emotional distress.

In some cases seeking outside advice is the right course of action. You are too close to what is going on to be objective, or you need accurate information. Ironically, the best advisor encourages you to listen to yourself.

But who is the self you can trust? Which voice deserves your attention? What voice tells you to repeat what you know, even when it does not work for you?

The Frenemy Within

The voice that pressures you to repeat what you know was formed in reaction to family and societal beliefs about money, work and relationships. When frustrated in any of these areas the voice tells you what you should do.

If you do what the voice says and fail it never says, sorry, I got it wrong, try something new. Instead, it says the outcome is your fault.

To get away from the voice you may use alcohol, food, socializing, TV, shopping, social media, work, travel or entanglement with family conflicts. You could develop physical symptoms that occupy your mind. But whatever you do the voice is there, commenting about everything and everybody from morning till night.

The Origin of the Voice

In an article for the website GoodTherapy (April 26 2017), therapist Ben Ringler says “the voice in our heads that reminds us of our failings and shortcomings” is the superego, the part of the mind that “reprimands us when we think or act independently of its proscribed behavior, and it can censor us in very sneaky ways.”

Sigmund Freud said “proscribed behavior” was the internalization of parental injunctions you heard during your toddler years. Day by day your little mind recorded the adult voices around you until they become a part of your own thinking.

In contrast to Freud, psychotherapist Melanie Klein “discovered through her observations of young children that the superego is formed as a byproduct of the infant’s attempt to protect the self from destructive and aggressive thoughts and feelings,” Ringler says.

Regardless of the origin of the superego, if parental or other early authority figures were supportive, present, and receptive, Ringler says you were more likely to form a mildly critical or supportive superego.

In other words, if the inner critic is patient you take risks, and you learn from what takes place. When you fail you feel down, but you try again (and again!) until you get it right. You ask for help when you need it, admit mistakes and apologize. You are supportive of those who take risks, and you encourage them when they miss the mark.

If early caretakers were impatient, critical or emotionally absent, however, the chances are you have an inner judge that punishes you for real and perceived errors. This voice does not forget, nor does it forgive.

Those with a harsh superego are resistant to change because improvement puts the superego out of a job. They can also be critical and unforgiving of others.

Conversely, if you have a harsh superego you can be the scapegoat for critical and unforgiving people who accuse you of what is true about them. Over time, you take on these projections. Even when it rains, you take the blame.

As the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck famously said about these two reactions in The Road Less Traveled:

“Most people who come to see a psychiatrist are suffering from what is called either a neurosis or a character disorder…When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.”

Neurosis means the personality is split; consciously you desire one thing, unconsciously you need the opposite. Suppressing legitimate needs fuels anger that manifests as depression or physical illnesses, until you take the action you need to take.

As an example, you stay in a job for money and security; unconsciously you (desperately) need to leave what is killing your soul. Consciously, you want to be out there where it is all happening; unconsciously you crave solitude.

Character disorder is the phenomenon of our age, according to George Simon, psychologist and author of In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. Modern permissiveness and a culture of entitlement foster avoidance of responsibility, he says. When life gets difficult those with a character disturbance expect others to make it easier for them. If choices do not work the outcome is never their fault.

As you can see, becoming conscious takes courage, especially where money and work are concerned, since they are about survival. Added to the fear of poverty is the fear of what you might learn about yourself when you open the door to the unconscious.

As it turns out, traveling through the underworld can be life’s greatest achievement. Sometimes you are the only one who knows about the treasure you discover, but these riches show up in how well you handle life.

Befriending the Superego

Rather than avoid the harsh superego, it helps to be curious about why it says what it says. The more you can separate from this voice–and this may require professional help–the more you can change how you react to it.

By separation, I mean becoming aware the harsh superego is not you; it is a recording of what others believed about how to live life. Rather than accept everything the voice says is true, as you did when you were a child, you question what you hear.

But who asks the questions? The being you are beneath layers of conditioning knows what is true for you. This inner presence is the Self, what Jung called the unification of consciousness and unconsciousness in a person.

The process of becoming a unified self accelerates in your early forties, when youthful values fail to satisfy emotional and spiritual needs. This search for meaning is the theme in many fairy tales.

The prince hears about a sleeping beauty and goes looking for her. Along the way he has to conquer the dragons that guard the princess. The dragons represent the defenses you erected as a child to protect the vulnerable feelings (the princess).

In that sense, a harsh inner critic is a dragon you have yet to slay, and that is why it is so persistent. The guest you find most abhorrent wants an invitation to the party (your self-image).

To get to know this unwanted intruder, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Imagine the harsh critic standing in front of you. How do you feel about it? Scared? Angry?

Can you be curious? If so, ask what the critic believes is true about you (there will be a long list). Then ask if it knows who you are. Next, ask what it would like to do if it did not have to find fault with you. Each time you ask a question, pause until you hear a response. Write down what it says.

It will take several conversations before you realize the harsh critic’s argument is with life, not you. It wants life to be predictable and safe. There should be no upsets, no mistakes, no crushing defeats, no long delays in reaching goals, and no periods of not knowing what to do. No one must see you as you are because then they would reject you.

Does the need to keep life from happening explain the inner critic’s expectations of you? Can you see it really believes you have to be perfect? Does this explain your current situation?

For whom does the critic want you to live this life: your mother, your father, your grandparents, Twitter, Instagram, and the world at large? The problem with trying to live such a life is that you get to the end of it never having lived it for yourself.

The Individual Versus the Group

Great literature reflects the conflict between the need to be an individual and the need to live up to the group’s expectations, the first group being the family. The protagonist in these stories has to see the group’s hypocrisy before he can find himself, or die trying. This means giving up a child’s idealized view of the family and other authority figures.

As Nathanial Hawthorne made clear through Hester, the heroine in The Scarlet Letter, the group is always wrong; only the individual sees the truth.

But Hester does not see clearly until she is banished from the group. Living in her cottage outside the village with her aptly named daughter, Pearl, Hester grows into a wise, respected woman.

Or as Ernest Hemingway said in Farewell to Arms, “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

Those who are strong at the broken places have learned to live without the need for agreement. After many dashed hopes, what matters is their own approval.

The Balanced Ending

To reflect means to think deeply and seriously about any subject. Depending on what needs your full attention, this may require hours, days or months. Impatience with the slowness of change can cause you to change course, or give up on the process.

You will be surprised by the shift in your attitude once you accept the part of you that fears life and the mistakes that go with it. Tolerance for error slays the perfectionist dragon. It also brings home what you may have projected onto disapproving spouses, bosses, competitors and family members.

Loving what you used to dislike about yourself not only brings equilibrium to your personality it transforms the harsh critic into an admiring ally. United by mutual understanding, the prince and the princess live peacefully ever after.



Nancy Anderson

Career and life consultant, author of Work with Passion and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond.