Befriending Your Inner Critic
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Is your inner critic working overtime? Our annual marking of the Earth's passage around the Sun drives many of us to evaluate where we are in life, set goals, and begin working to achieve them. While this process can be motivating, it can also push our inner critics into overdrive.
Whenever you feel inadequate, deficient, worthless, or a failure your inner critic has shown up. Its words can leave us feeling ashamed, guilty, fearful and depressed. If you were to hear its insults and complaints coming from the mouth of a friend you would find them annoying, boring, and cruel, their invitation would get lost in the mail. So why not show the little bugger the door?
Perhaps you've struggled to ignore, silence or escape the attacks with little relief? Some of us are afraid to let go of the critic, mistakenly believing we'll lack drive or motivation without its judgmental taunts, yet research shows that self-compassion (June 2016 post) is a far more effective motivator, which brings us to why it's a good idea to befriend our inner critic. Before you become besties it helps to understand how and why the critic formed.
Why Do We Put Ourselves Down?
The critic showed up when we were very young, roughly two to five years, as we learned to control impulses such as when to reach for that cookie. Freud referred to this part of our mind as the super-ego, which reflects the internalization of cultural norms and punishes misbehavior with feelings of guilt. This is inner self-regulation, and although it is a necessary part of development it would be nice if it formed without negative believes, such as "there must be something wrong with me," "I'm not good enough," or "I'm unworthy".
There are several ways shameful beliefs take hold. When infants and young children experience heightened states such as joy or distress they need an attuned response, they need to be "seen" by their parent or caregiver. A lack of attunement can induce a feeling of shame along with corresponding self-critical thoughts. Since no parent is perfect missattunements will happen, what's important is the parent's ability to repair the brake with their child. Without repair the shameful feelings create a powerful inner critic.
In addition children take on or assimilate critical and negative emotions parents or primary caregivers experience, especially when directed at the child. In this sense the parent's inner critic is passed on, and children learn to parent themselves in much the same way they were parented. Unfortunately, when abuse or neglect is involved, the only way the vulnerable and dependant child can developmentally process what's happened is to internalize it, mistakenly believing they themselves are bad or defective, hallmarks of a harsh inner critic.
How to Make Friends And Play Nice
There are two things necessary to weaken the inner critics impact. We need to learn to disidentify from the critics negative messages, and to accept this part of ourselves, to make friends. As you do so the attacks will soften and grow less frequent.
To befriend the critic it's helpful to understand that its constant judgments and discouraging negative messages about our self worth are really distorted attempts to protect us from failure and humiliation. Remember the voice was formed back when you were a wee tot learning to control your impulses while seeking your parent's approval. Your inner critic is still very young, in a sense it's stuck in a time warp continuing to discourage and berate you in an often-misguided attempt to protect you.
Once we accept that our inner critic developed out of necessity with the honorable goal of protecting us, we can begin to meet its voice with compassion. If we reject it as a part of ourselves, rather than weakening it strengthens.
Getting To Know Your Critic
Recognizing that you are in the process of self-attack is the first step in befriending your inner critic. It's easy to identify by the way it devalues you, always putting you down or making you feel bad in some way.
The next time you hear the critic pause to really listen. Notice if the voice, the tone, and the phrasing sound like one of your parents, a caregiver, or an older sibling. Some individuals can identify a source, for others it's many voices combined. It may be helpful to keep a journal for a few weeks to jot down your observations.
For the next step you will need a quiet place to reflect where you feel safe. Take some time to ground and center yourself. If this process does not directly follow the step above, try to recall what your critic said and how you felt, sensing where the critic resides in your body. There is no right or wrong answer. Just observe what sensations are present when the critic attacks.
You may experience a sinking feeling in your stomach, your head, shoulders, or chest dropping, or an overall sense of collapse. (If the sensation feels too overwhelming shift your attention to your breath, then back to your thoughts. A somatically trained therapist can safely assist you with further body-based exploration.)
Mindfully stay with the feeling in your body. Acknowledge and allow what is present, turning toward it rather than away. Soften into it, letting go of any resistance. If you haven't already, try touching that part of your body or place your hands on your heart.
As you continue allowing what is present, see if you can get a sense of how old the critic is. Some people see an image in their minds eye of a child. If you can, direct compassion to the inner critic, thanking it for working so hard at protecting you, letting it know that it does not have to work so hard anymore.
Notice if the sensations have shifted. Usually they will soften as the critic is seen, accepted, and met with compassion.
Once the sensation has relaxed, remind yourself that the critic is not now and never was a fair measure of your worth, nor is it a part of your true nature, your essence.
As you learn to acknowledge, accept, and dissidentify with your inner critic, it will recede into the background, its attacks will no longer engage and distract you. Your decisions will have space to arise from inner wisdom rather than fear and remnants of others values and judgments.
This work takes time, be patient and it will pay off.
I'm happy to assist you further in deepening into somatic, mindfulness, and parts work to calm your inner critic.