We all have an inner voice or inner critic.
The “critical inner voice” is a concept used in popular psychology to refer to an inner part of the self that judges and demeans the self.
A concept similar in many ways to the Freudian “superego” as a judging, inhibiting censor, or the negative Jungian “animus”, the inner critic is usually experienced as an inner voice attacking the individual, saying that he or she is bad, wrong, inadequate, worthless, guilty, and so on.
The inner critic often produces feelings of shame, deficiency, low self-esteem, and worthlessness. It may also cause self-doubt and undermine self-confidence. And it’s very common for people to have an inner critic so harsh that it is debilitating.
If you’re like most people, your inner critic sizes up the present, anticipates the future, and examines the past. It evaluates other people and the surrounding circumstances, but it especially likes focussing inward, making oneself the focus. And when it does, what does it tell you most often? Maybe it will be celebratory, offering a well-deserved pat on the back, or it could be soothing, encouraging, forgiving, understanding, or inspiring. But it is most likely going to be fault-finding, disapproving, and hurtful, even mercilessly so.
Another great concern over the inner critic is that it often poses its criticism as the absolute truth.
What does the inner critic look like?
Jay Earley and Bonnie Weiss have labelled seven types of inner critics:
- Perfectionist: This critic tries to get you to do things perfectly by setting high standards for the things you produce, and has difficulty saying something is “good enough”. It tries to make sure that you fit in and that you will not be judged or rejected. Its expectations probably reflect those of people who have been important to you in the past.
- Inner Controller: This critic tries to control your impulses: eating, drinking, sexual activity, etc. It is polarized with an Indulger –addict who it fears can get out of control at any moment. It tends to be harsh and shaming in an effort to protect you from yourself. It is motivated to try to make you a good person who is accepted and functions well in society.
- Taskmaster: This critic wants you to work hard and be successful. It fears that you may be mediocre or lazy and will be judged a failure if it does not push you to keep going. Its pushing often activates a procrastinator or a rebel that fights against its harsh dictates.
- Underminer: This critic tries to undermine your self-confidence and self-esteem so that you won’t take risks. It makes direct attacks on your self-worth so that you will stay small and not take chances where you could be hurt or rejected. It is afraid of your being too big or too visible and not being able to tolerate judgment or failure.
- Destroyer: It makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It shames you and makes you feel inherently flawed and not entitled to basic understanding or respect. This most debilitating critic comes from early life deprivation or trauma. It is motivated by a belief that it is safer not to exist.
- Guilt-Tripper: This critic is stuck in the past. It is unable to forgive you for wrongs you have done or people you have hurt. It is concerned about relationships and holds you to standards of behaviour prescribed by your community, culture and family. It tries to protect you from repeating past mistakes by making sure you never forget or feel free.
- Conformist: This critic tries to get you to fit into a certain mould based on standards held by society, your culture or your family. It wants you to be liked and admired and to protect you from being abandoned, shamed or rejected. The Conformist fears that the Rebel or the Free Spirit in you would act in ways that are unacceptable. So it keeps you from being in touch with and expressing your true nature.
What is the role of the Inner Critic?
As we have seen above, it seems the main purpose of the inner critic is to protect you from external judgment and rejection. By constantly pointing out to you that you are “not enough”, it hopes to create enough discomfort and fear of being rejected to either motivate you to do more, to do better, or to avoid doing anything and therefore escape failure.
Your Inner Critic is more like a guardian that stands over you, protecting you from pain. Now of course pain can come in many forms including getting hurt, failing miserably at something, making a terrible mistake, experiencing disappointment, etc. All of these things lead to some kind of pain. And your Inner Critic’s purpose is to protect you; in fact, his/her main objective in life is to keep you feeling comfortable for as long as possible.
It is further common for your inner critic to show up when you establish new life goals. However, these goals all exist outside your comfort zone. That’s of course where uncertainty also exists, and this doesn’t sit well with your Inner Critic. He/she doesn’t appreciate when things are somewhat uncertain. In fact, your Inner Critic wants to avoid uncertainty at all costs. As such he/she will fill your mind with all these doubts in order to deter you from experiencing potential pain when things go wrong. And yet, this is kind of a blessing in disguise because every time your Inner Critic reminds you of your inadequacies/limitations, it helps you see potential pitfalls and problems in advance that you might not have considered – placing you in a prime position to prepare yourself for what’s to come.
Taming Your Inner Critic
Here are some steps to help you deal with your inner critic:
- Become aware of your inner critic. Pay attention and identify the things your inner critic tells you in various situations. For this we need to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings. For example: What is my Inner Critic telling me? What are some common themes and patterns I recognise? How does all this affect my behavior? What does all this say about me? Where did this opinion come from? Is this opinion based on fact or is it purely fiction? Where did I first learn to think this way?
- Acknowledge your inner critic. We are often advised to “stop thinking this way”, or “stop saying that to yourself”. But instead of trying to mute your inner critic, remember it’s main objective is to protect you, and there is a good chance that it will escalate its efforts if you dismiss its warnings. Rather, acknowledge the voice and try to identify what your inner critic is trying to protect you from. As you partake within this conversation with your Inner Critic you will come to the realisation that your Inner Critic is either completely misguided in their opinion, or they might actually be somewhat justified in their criticism/judgment of you in this situation.
- Give thanks and appreciation for your inner critic’s protection and concern. It has shared its opinion with you, but it’s now time for you to consciously interrupt that thought process and put all your attention towards finding a solution that will help you move forward in a better way.
- Give permission to your inner critic to give its opinion. But remember that is exactly what it it – an opinion.
- Practice self-compassion. You can respond to your inner critic by writing down a more realistic and compassionate evaluation of yourself. Write these responses in the first person (as “I” statements). In response to a thought like, “You’re such an idiot,” you could write, “I may struggle at times, but I am smart and competent in many ways.” This exercise isn’t meant to build you up or boost your ego but to show a kinder, more honest attitude toward yourself.
- Do not act on the directives of your inner critic. Take actions that represent your own point of view, who you want to be and what you aim to achieve. Your critical inner voice may get louder, telling you to stay in line or not to take chances. However, by identifying, separating from, and acting against this destructive thought process, you will grow stronger, while your inner critic grows to accept that you may not need its protection in this situation any longer.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
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