The Inner Critic
by Diane Linsley
You know that voice inside of you that says you are not worthy?
That you are flawed in some way? Maybe you are not smart
enough, beautiful enough, successful enough, popular enough....
Whatever it is, you are not enough.
That's the Inner Critic. It's not you, but a voice (a subpersonality)
The Inner Critic not only hurts us, but it can also mess up our relationships. It can prevent us from seeking out healthy relationships if we don't think we are worthy of love. Or it can cause us to criticize others the same way we criticize ourselves, damaging the relationships we already have.
The Origin of the Inner Critic
The voice of the Inner Critic was developed in childhood. It's a recording of the criticism we received from authority figures and peers. Unfortunately, it doesn't go away when we grow up. It stays with us, torturing us over and over, until we find ways to deal with it.
People who suffer from Complex PTSD from childhood abuse have an unusually toxic Inner Critic. This type of Inner Critic can literally be deadly. The first time I tried to talk to my Inner Critic, it told me that it wanted me dead. Period.
In Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker describes methods for dealing with the toxic Inner Critic. These methods help to restore a person's natural fight response that was crushed by adults who overpowered them in childhood and didn't allow them to develop boundaries. Pete's methods are a type of assertiveness training that starts with talking back to the Inner Critic.
The next stage of inner critic work involves using Voice Dialogue to begin having rational discussions with the Inner Critic. Eventually, the Inner Critic transforms into a healthy, mature voice that can be negotiated with. Voices can never be eliminated. They can only be transformed into a mature state. All voices in their mature states are voices of Wisdom.
Voice Dialogue with the Inner Critic
The way to deal with the Inner Critic is to bring it out of the shadows of the unconscious mind and shine the light of awareness on it. Once we see it for what it is, we have a choice of whether or not to believe what it says.
Voice Dialogue is best done with an experienced facilitator. The facilitator asks to speak to the voice of the Inner Critic, and the client speaks from the voice. The facilitator then asks several key questions, allowing the Inner Critic to express itself.
The purpose of this work is to help the client separate from the voice of the Inner Critic - to see that it's just a voice inside of them, not who they really are. It's a great relief to find out that you don't really despise yourself.
Another reason to speak with the Inner Critic is to find out its motives. It usually has "good" reasons for criticizing you. These reasons may sound suspiciously like the reasons why your parents criticized you. The Inner Critic thinks it has to criticize you, or else you will grow up to be a failure.
According to Richard Schwartz, one of the best questions to ask the Inner Critic is, "How old do you think I am?" The Inner Critic usually believes that you are a child - no matter how old you really are. It believes that its job is to protect a young child in a dangerous world.
Informing the Inner Critic of how old you really are can come as quite a surprise to it! This shifts your relationship to the Inner Critic, and you can start having an adult conversation with it.
The Job of the Inner Critic
Like all voices, the Inner Critic is just trying to do its job. When you understand what motivates the Inner Critic and how it thinks, you can help shift its perspective. This conversation begins with telling the voice why you want to speak with it.
When speaking with a voice, it's important to treat it with respect, even if you are having problems with it. But don't let it bully you! It's like talking with someone outside of you. You need to be assertive.
Subpersonalities are like real people inside of us. They each have their own unique perspective, and they are trying to serve us by doing the job for which they were created. It's important to acknowledge this and thank them for their efforts. When facilitating a voice, I always ask, "What is your job?"
The Inner Critic will sometimes say that its job is to protect you from other people's criticism by criticizing you first. The Inner Critic also believes that you need to be criticized in order to feel motivated.
Unfortunately, neither of these tactics really works. So, what does?
Self-Criticism or Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, says that self-compassion is far more effective at protecting and motivating us than self-criticism. Research shows that self-compassionate people are healthier, happier, more creative, and more satisfied with their lives. Exactly what is self-compassion? Kristin Neff says that self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness and care that you would give to a good friend or another person whom you love. The more we practice self-compassion, the less the Inner Critic feels the need to criticize. I believe that it's more effective to heal the Inner Child than to spend a lot of time working with the Inner Critic.
As long as the Inner Child is suffering, the Inner Critic will try to protect it in a way that makes things worse. The Inner Critic protected us in childhood by making us conform to the demands of the adults in our lives and punishing us when we failed to conform. But that doesn't serve us as adults. It gets in the way of our individuation process.
Self-compassion is the key to healing the Inner Child. There are plenty of self-compassion practices we can do. But the first step is to become aware of when we need to use these tools. We can start by noticing when we are being self-critical. Then we can switch from the voice of the Inner Critic to the voice of Self-Compassion. It's like changing the recording in our head. Just change the channel!
Talk to Yourself
Does it seem a little weird to talk to yourself? Success coach Brendon Burchard says that successful people use positive self-talk frequently. Studies show that it works best if you do it out loud. Brendon says that if you saw him backstage before he goes in front of an audience, you would observe him talking to himself, reassuring himself that he can do it. He is basically coaching himself.
I was happy to hear that because I've been talking to myself all my life. I used to feel embarrassed if someone overheard me talking to myself, so I only did it when no one was looking. But I've been doing it openly and with greater enthusiasm ever since I learned how beneficial it is.
Write to Yourself
You can start by making a list of things you like about yourself. State them in the second person, as if you were your own best friend saying them. For example, I would write, "Diane, you are such a thoughtful person. You are sensitive and kind. You are smart and well-organized."
Second person is the voice I use most often when speaking to myself throughout the day, especially when I need to comfort myself. Sometimes I say "we" instead of "you." For example, if I'm worried about something, I will say, "We're going to be okay. We can do this. We can figure this out." I'm not sure exactly who this "we" is, but it gives me a sense of solidarity and friendship with myself.
You can also speak in the first person: "I am such a thoughtful person. I am sensitive and kind. I am smart and well-organized."
Try each of these different ways of talking to yourself, and see which one feels most comfortable.
Pete Walker suggests memorizing your list of postive attributes and repeating them to yourself whenever you have an Inner Critic attack. Positive self-talk is part of the emotional healing process.
Going Deeper with the Inner Critic
Sometimes it actually helps to listen to the voice of the Inner Critic - once you are strong enough for this part of the work.
Zen master Genpo Roshi, who uses a form of Voice Dialogue that he calls Big Mind, says that all voices want to be heard because they have something to tell us and a job to do. Once a voice has its say, it calms down. When a voice expresses itself to a witnessing audience (you), it becomes more mature. Voices that are locked in the basement and not allowed to speak never have a chance to grow up. I sometimes ask to speak to the voice of the Inner Critic to see what's going on inside of me that I'm not aware of. I imagine that I'm going into the dark basement of my unconscious mind with a flashlight to see what's down there so I can shine the light of awareness on it. The Inner Critic often acts out of fear, and I want to know what it's afraid of.
After hearing from the fearful and immature Inner Critic, I may dialogue with it - defending myself and asking it to do its job in a more mature and helpful way that's not abusive. I then ask to speak to the mature voice of the Inner Critic, which is a voice of Wisdom.
Once the Inner Critic is done speaking, I move on to the voice of Self-Compassion, which comforts me. From this voice, I remind myself of my good qualities, and I express love for myself.
As we continue to work with our voices, they become more mature, and we eventually develop a healthy relationship with them. Genpo Roshi says that all voices in their most mature forms are enlightened inner guides who help us in our lives.
Dealing with Criticism from Others
Over time, I have gotten faster at recognizing the Inner Critic in all its forms, and I feel less intimidated by it. Sometimes it appears in dreams, as I wrote about in Coping with Chronic Illness.
Sometimes it appears as other people. I've noticed that I only feel hurt by the critical comments of others when they resonate with the negative beliefs that I hold about myself. The outer critics we encounter in the world are just reflections of our own Inner Critic.
Contrary to what the Inner Critic claims, criticizing ourselves first doesn't protect us. The opposite is true. The less you criticize yourself, the less affected you will be by other people's criticism - unless, of course, you remain in relationships with critical people, which can negatively affect your self-esteem.
When you change your relationship with the Inner Critic, the outer world will naturally shift to reflect your more positive inner world. Before doing my work, the Inner Critic was the magnet that attracted critical people into my life. After developing self-compassion, those people vanished, and now I attract people who are more compassionate. What a relief!
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