What is the inner critic?
Updated: 3rd January 2023
Most people are familiar with the concept of the inner critic or inner bully, especially people who have suffered childhood trauma or emotional neglect. I have offered trauma therapy and relationship counselling for nearly 15 years now and I am going to share 3 simple steps that you ca begin to use to quite or silence your inner critic.
Alex* hates social occasions. Whenever she is around people she becomes anxious. She worries she might say something “weird” or “offensive”. Sometimes she ruminates about her interactions while lying in bed and analyses what she said or didn’t day. Alex’s dad left the family when she was very young. She longs to connect with people. To open up to friends, to laugh, to feel free. She longs to have a partner she can depend on. To walk along the Thames and have picnics and get a cat named Copernicus.
Martin* takes pride on being responsible. He believes that men should be strong and in charge of themselves. He works long hours and actively seeks challenges. He is highly valued at work because he always says yes. Lately he has become increasingly resentful at his employers and believes he is being taken advantage of. Martin longs to have a partner he can rely on, but he has always been left by partners because he doesn’t really open up or show any emotion. He longs to be a father and pass his knowledge on and do all this things his dad never did with him because he was always busy at work.
Fatima recalls being terrified when she was growing up. She had to tread on eggshells around her mother whose unpredictable moods ruled her life. She quickly became extremely sensitive to signs her mother was about to get angry. One of the most important things she worked out was that she had to stay out of the way. Fatima longs to be looked after. And yet she somehow finds herself with troubled men who can’t hold her in mind.
Alex, Martin, and Fatima might not really think themselves as being self-critical. And yet, they live under the shadow of an internal bully.
Why do we criticise ourselves?
Children depend on their parents (or whoever is looking after them) for survival. And yet children have emotions like joy, anger, sadness, guilt. If the parent is unable to meet their needs, children will usually blame themselves and assume that it is how they felt or what they did that made the parent “bad”.
Imagine that as an adult someone says something that makes you angry. Anger is a lovely, healthy emotion that can make us strong and help us to defend ourselves. If, however, you have learned (and you are very unlikely to remember this) that your parent felt overwhelmed when you were having a tantrum and withdrew from you, you will either get anxious or you may minimise your anger, dismiss it, or turn it against yourself.
Or you may build up a wall based on perfectionism, striving to meet impossible standards.
Step 1: Learn to recognise WHEN your inner critic is talking
The internal critic is a metaphor, of course.
Imagine that there is a relationship between you and yourself. YOU are doing something and then another YOU turns around and beats you up. You may literally harm your body in some way.
In therapy, people may reveal the inner critic in the following way. They are sharing something they felt, thought, or did and then suddenly they will say “I had a thought”, for example “I can’t do anything right”.
At this point I might say: “when you were trying to give me insight into your experience, and you experienced my attention on you, you put yourself down, as if you were failing at a task!”
However, like Martin, you may argue that being self-critical helps you.
At this point I might say: “Would you say this to someone you care about? Most people will say “no”, of course not”. Then they can begin to see they are treating themselves with less compassion than others.
The inner critic has certain qualities that can allows us to reveal its presence:
It is BLAMING: “You are stupid and keep making stupid mistakes
It is BLACK and WHITE: “Everyone will let you down if you depend on them”
It is CERTAIN: “There is no way your idea will be accepted”
It is IMPATIENT: “You need to be productive. You don’t have time for relaxation. Get back to work”
Step 2: Notice what was happening before you criticised yourself
This step is extremely important. It’s about the function of self-criticism and something we frequently focus in Attachment Based Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy at my clinic.
Especially when you are around others, you are likely to become self-critical if we begin to experience emotions that you have learned would threaten the relationship. Anger is a good example. We may not be aware that we are becoming angry towards someone we care about, but we may move on to criticise ourselves, that is turn our anger inwards.
Sometimes it can happen when we experience healthy guilt, but find this quite painful to bear. You may realise you treated a loved one badly. Healthy guilt helps us to make reparations. Self-criticism can mitigate against the pain of guilt, but does not allow us to do anything constructive.
Step 3: Allow yourself to experience your emotions
There is plenty of advice to exercise self-compassion, and that is undoubtedly one way to help. However, what often gets missed is to help ourselves or others experience our emotions fully and deeply.
Give yourself permission to hold off on that self-criticism. What do you notice? What sensations do you experience in your body?
You may actually become anxious. This can mean that the underlying emotion, being “illegal” as it where, is triggering anxiety.
See if you can gently put that anxiety to one side. What do you notice now?
Is it anger? Sadness? If you are not criticising yourself or making yourself anxious, what do you feel inside?
If you need some help with your inner critic get in touch by emailing me at email@example.com (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 11 years.