What is the inner critic?
Humans are social animals. We depend on others for protection, support, advancement. We are designed to seek connections and partnerships.
We all have internal critics. The role of the inner critic is to keep us in line and preserve our connections.
However, nothing holds us back more than our internal critics. Some of us had to develop inner critics that helped us survive when we were young, but are now out-of-date and do more bad than good.
We may be stuck in a dead end job, or unable to work at all. We may be feeling isolated, disconnected and alone. We may feel angry, bitter or resentful.
In this post I will outline 3 essential steps you need to take to begin quieting the inner critic. A future post will detail strategies you use after you have understood HOW it works, WHEN it is working, and WHY it is there.
HOW does the out-of-date inner critic work?
The inner critic uses “talk” which is aimed at generating keep-us-in-line emotions. These emotions push us to take action. These 3 emotions are ANXIETY, GUILT, and SHAME.
A lot of the time this is helpful. For example, if we have hurt someone we love, GUILT tells us we need to make reparations. However, the inner critic develops very early in life and helps us to adapt to our environment and then doesn’t easily update. If this internal critical voice is telling us that even a small mistake will lead to terrible punishment then it will hold us back.
Sometimes the internal critic warns (if… then):
“If people get to really know you, then they will reject you” -> (anxiety) -> We avoid opening up.
“If you get close to people, then they will take advantage of you” -> (anxiety) -> We try to be as independent as possible.
“If you want more for yourself, then people will think you are greedy” -> (anxiety) -> We stick with less than we need.
Given that we cannot (or will not at certain times) follow the warnings of the critic, retrospective strategies are also used:
“You should have married by now. You are a failure” -> (shame) -> We beat ourselves up.
“You should have achieved more in your life. You are a failure” -> (shame) -> We beat ourselves up.
“You probably offended them” – > (guilt) -> We go back through the events.
“You can’t do anything right” -> (guilt) -> We stop trying new things or taking risks.
Learn to recognise WHEN your inner critic is talking
Most of us do not realise there is an out-of-date inner critic talking to us. We hear our own words.
Sometimes, we do not even hear the words, but simply feel the emotions that come from the words.
Sometimes, we do not even notice our emotions, we simply go on autopilot.
However, if you imagine the words are spoken by someone else, you may realise how unhelpful they are. You will also notice that the critic has certain qualities. If we perceived someone else showing these qualities, we might be less willing to listen:
“You are stupid and keep making stupid mistakes. You are going to get fired!”
Black and white
“All people are the same. You shouldn’t trust anyone”.
“She’s not going to listen to anything you have to say”.
“You need to sort this now. You need to keep moving. You don’t have time for relaxation. Get back to work”.
WHY does the inner critic develop?
It is often essential to understand how it develops before we can address it. This is because responding to it with ANGER is often unhelpful. We actually need to respond with COMPASSION. You must remember that:
The inner critic always aims to protect you
This may sound unbelievable, especially given the things the inner critic that develops after attachment trauma says (we will talk about this in a separate post that focuses on trauma). Sometimes the critic sounds exactly like our parent. At other times the critic fills in the gaps after observing our parents.
When you start to become more able to recognize WHEN the inner critic is talking and HOW it operates (you have started to suss out the rules it follows, the talk it uses, the feelings it evokes), it becomes easier to ask:
“WHY would my inner critic ASSUME this is the case”? Or “what does my behaviour say about my beliefs?”
When the inner critic is like a mean boss
Jenny’s *mother always expected her daughter to be the best and would repeat this to her. She would become very sad and disappointed if Jenny didn’t get A*. Jenny’s internal critic developed a rule about love being conditional on performance. Even in adult life the critic would induce feelings of a ANXIETY in Jenny to make sure that she never got her eyes of the ball and GUILT when she did.
It’s often not so easy to make the link. Sticking with this kind of critic consider this:
Mark’s * mother seemed to love his brother a little more (or at least that’s what Mark thought). His brother was very good academically. Their mother never pushed Mark like Jenny’s mother did. She just praised his brother more. Mark developed a rule according to which being average means someone else will get more from you. In the end, his inner critic would speak in very similar ways to Jenny’s. However, it is harder here to see the link.
However, remember the out-of-date critic is stuck. When both Jenny and Mark succeeded in something, the inner critic would say “Well, it was a fluke” or “It wasn’t that hard”.
I met both Jenny and Mark because of difficulties with their bosses. Here is another example.
When the inner critic needs to disguise itself
Adebowale* was raised by a single mum. His father left the family early on. His mother would be away a lot of the time trying to make ends meet. He had 2 younger siblings and his mother relied on him to look after them. Adebowale felt abandoned. When she was around, she focused more on them as he was the older one and was becoming quite good at looking after himself (on the surface). Adebowale felt neglected. In both cases, he didn’t want to upset his mother. He also learnt to suppress his emotions.
His inner critic developed a couple of rules around “the availability of others when we need them”, and the “scarcity of resources in the world”. However, especially in cases of childhood neglect, the critic might be quite hidden, because if we could listen to it we would feel the sadness and loss that we suppressed in childhood.
Adebowale did not have an inner voice that told him “if you get close to others you will be abandoned”. He didn’t even feel any ANXIETY. However, he would act accordingly, having lots of brief relationships and ending them before they developed. He also did not show much affection to his partners (the scarcity of resources bit; if you don’t have enough you don’t spend a penny).
In many cases working on these three steps is enough as our natural capacities kick in and we begin to respond differently when we know what we are up against. We let that email go before checking ten times. We begin to let others in a little more. We take steps to pursue our dreams.
In a lot of cases, it is very hard to separate ourselves from the critical voice. We agree with it too much (this can be helpful to notice though). It is often very entrenched because of how upset our childhoods were and it is extremely powerful. It will not easily let you take risks. Especially in trauma it may be very hard to overcome it without external help.
There different types of critics, that develop from different childhood environments, and operate in different ways. The end result is the same: we stop living openheartedly, hold ourselves back, and forego meaningful connections. If you need some help with your inner critic get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org (if you can access Earls Court Station). 07805945233 if you’re old fashioned.
*These are not real people, but composites of clients I have met in the last 10+years.