Transform your Inner Critic into a powerful ally. When you understand its function in your psyche, you can use its remarkable skills in a positive way: to help with your personal growth and to live your life in the way you would like.
M ost people are aware of being self-critical, either sometimes about specific things or in some situations, or most of the time either as ongoing inner commentary or as a general feeling of not being good enough or worthy.
Even though self-criticism feels as if it is just ‘us’ being critical of ourselves and as if the judgements we feel are self-evident truths, the self-criticism in fact comes from a specific part of our psyche – an inner self – known as the Inner Critic.
This Inner Critic can be isolated as a distinct part of your psyche and separated from so that you no longer feel identified with its criticism.
The freedom from the judgements your Inner Critic holds gives you the ability to access more objective, discerning and self-accepting thoughts and feelings.
The effects of an inner critic that you are not conscious of are powerful and can be serious. They range from experiencing frustrating feelings of not having done something well enough, to feeling unhappy and dissatisfied, to self-imposed limitations on the choices you make and the experiences you allow yourself to have, to major depression and an inability to function effectively.
So taking the time to become aware of how your Inner Critic operates within your psyche and gaining some separation from it will lead to enormous positive changes in your life.
The Origin of the Critic’s Criticisms
Your Inner Critic’s criticisms have been picked up from other people, particularly the criticisms and judgements your parents and other caregivers held about you during your childhood.
Even if those criticisms were never vocalised – simply a look or a pause in a conversation can convey an enormous judgement, especially to young children who are particularly sensitive to the feelings of those around them.
Even though as an adult you can dispute the Critic’s claims with evidence and ideas from other, more supportive aspects of yourself and from other people who know you, you might still experience your Inner Critic as an authoritative, all-knowing inner voice or feeling that holds immutable (critical) truths about you.
Until you unhook from the Inner Critic’s hold over you and understand how it works and why it does what it does, you will essentially believe everything it says and remain a victim of it.
It is a remarkably clever self, with knowledge about all your innermost vulnerabilities and ‘buttons’ that can be pushed. Many people even feel that it knows who they ‘really are underneath’. So it is important to gain some separation and objectivity about its claims.
Understanding Your Inner Critic
Surprisingly for many, once you get to know your Inner Critic and understand why it criticises you, you will gain empathy for it and for its anxieties.
Your Critic is actually concerned that you will be ok and do everything right, so that you will be accepted and therefore safe. This motivation – to keep you safe – is the purpose of your primary selves, which are the parts of your psyche that have developed to enable you to survive in your family and culture, and which have become the personality you identify with. And your Inner Critic is a part of you that has aided your primary selves to do what they do in the best way they can.
For instance, if in your childhood generous and unselfish behaviour was rewarded and valued highly, and your caregivers expected generous behaviour from you, then every time you behaved in any way opposite to that, your Inner Critic would have reminded you that that was not the ‘correct’ way to behave and would have admonished you about it.
It probably heard one of your parents chastising you for being selfish, such as not sharing with your siblings or not offering to help with something, and realised that for you to be protected from their disapproval, which would have been painful to you, it would have to get to you first so that you would behave ‘properly’.
That may have led you to feel uncomfortable each time you took or did something for yourself without considering others. And so your primary self became concerned with helping other people. Later in life, this type of conditioning can make you feel self-critical even when you take care of yourself and your own health, as if you are not considering other people while caring for yourself.
This kind of motivation – the alleviation of anxiety about being unacceptable – is behind most of the Inner Critic’s original behaviour. It’s just that over time, most Inner Critics become so good at what they do that they just keep doing it all the time, even when we’ve left home and no longer need approval from our caregivers.
The following exercise will help you to lessen the impact of the Inner Critic’s criticisms.
How to Reduce the Critic’s Impact on You
Before you start:
This way of working with the Inner Critic is in the context of understanding how your personality works in regard to the many parts or selves that constitute it. This is explained in the Psychology of Selves, the theory of personality developed by Dr Hal Stone and Dr Sidra Stone. This page on what Voice Dialogue is gives you more information.
Write down the main kinds of things that you criticise yourself for.
If you always feel bad about your appearance, for example, it is probably because your Inner Critic is constantly at you about it. If that is the main thing that worries you about yourself, it could be that your family held appearance to be the most important aspect of who you were.
Was it important that you looked and dressed in a particular way? Did a parent constantly criticise a particular aspect of your appearance, such as your hair?
If that was the case, maybe a primary self of yours is one who values a particular look, which it thinks you should have. If you don’t always look that way, your Inner Critic will criticise you for it. And Critics tend to get carried away with doing their job so well that even if you do try to satisfy it, it will still find fault.
Taking the hair example, even if you wear your hair exactly as you were originally expected to, your Inner Critic will say that it isn’t quite the right shade or thickness or length, or that it looks scraggly. It’s as if the anxiety the Critic feels about your hair is so great (and impossible to alleviate without your conscious help) that no matter what you do with your hair, it feels there must be something wrong.
The best way to alleviate this situation is to identify and listen to the self in you who feels it is important for you to look a certain way – the self who imbibed the rules and values of whoever in your childhood also held such rules and values about your appearance.
Then when you have consciousness of this self and can decide with that consciousness what is important to you now about your appearance, the power of the Inner Critic will diminish.
If your Critic does say something, you simply acknowledge it (much as you might acknowledge another person who comments on an aspect of your appearance that they don’t approve of but with which you are happy) and say to yourself that even though your hair being a particular way is important to a part of you, you are deciding not to worry about it any longer.
Become Conscious of the Rules You Have for Yourself
You need to create a new set of rules about what you want with your hair, and you need to make those rules fit in with your lifestyle and other preferences.
Basically, you need to develop what in Voice Dialogue is called an Aware Ego in relation to the things your Inner Critic criticises you for. An Aware Ego allows you to make more conscious choices about the standards you set for yourself.
When you can make your choices more consciously, you are no longer the victim of your Critic’s attacks and, at the same time, your Critic’s attacks will lessen in frequency and intensity as it realises you are taking responsibility for yourself and for the things it feels anxiety about.
3 Main Points for Using Your Inner Critic for Personal Growth
- Consider what you criticise yourself for most
- Identify the self your Critic wants you to satisfy
- Separate from this self, either by doing Voice Dialogue with a friend or facilitator, or with a technique such as journaling so that you can bring it more clearly into your conscious awareness.
If your Inner Critic is seriously affecting your life experience, I highly recommend seeing an experienced Voice Dialogue facilitator. There are great facilitators in most parts of the world – here is a listing of Voice Dialogue facilitators you can contact.