Because the Inner Critic is the cause of so much suffering, it’s natural to try to silence or get rid of our critical inner voice. But when we do, we also miss out on the gift it offers us. This post explains why the Inner Critic criticises, how it develops, and what its secret gift is.
Most of us are aware of an inner critical voice. This voice criticises us about specific things or it becomes active in some situations. Or we experience it as an ongoing inner commentary about ourselves or a general feeling of not being good enough or worthy.
Self-criticism may feel as if it’s just ‘us’, and that the judgments we feel about ourselves are self-evident truths. But self-criticism comes from a specific part of our psyche – an inner self – known as the Inner Critic.
Most of us struggle with the Inner Critic our whole lives, but we don’t need to.
When we understand how the Inner Critic works and we take responsibility for it, we gain access to its gifts, just as we do with our other inner selves.
Why Does the Inner Critic Criticise?
Your Inner Critic criticises because it’s concerned that you’ll be accepted and therefore safe. It’s trying to help you survive.
This motivation – to keep you safe – is the purpose of all 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 together have become the personality you identify with. 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.
Your Inner Critic picked up judgments from other people, particularly from your parents and other caregivers during your childhood. As you grew older, the Inner Critic also took cues from your culture and social groups.
Some of those criticisms may never have been vocalised – simply a look or a pause in a conversation can convey an enormous judgment, especially to young children who are particularly sensitive to the feelings of those around them.
And 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, it’s common to still experience your Inner Critic as an authoritative, all-knowing inner voice or feeling that holds immutable (critical) truths about you.
It is a remarkably clever self, with knowledge about all your innermost thoughts and vulnerabilities and ‘buttons’ that can be pushed. Many people even feel that it knows who they ‘really are underneath’.
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 took the largest piece of cake for yourself or wouldn’t let your sibling or friend play with your toys, your Inner Critic would have nudged you. It would have told you that you were not behaving the ‘correct’ way and would have admonished you about it.
It probably heard one of your parents chastising you for being selfish when not sharing or not offering to help with something. It realised that for you to be protected from their disapproval – something that 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 took on the value of having consideration for others first. Later in life, this type of conditioning can make you feel self-critical even when you rightly take care of yourself and your own health, as if you are not considering other people while caring for yourself.
Another example that’s common is if your parents made you brush your hair before you left for school and checked that you’d done it every day, then your Inner Critic would have taken note of that. If it heard your mother tell you that your hair is messy and you’re embarrassing the family, your Critic would take note.
Over time, you would have developed a rule about your hair needing to be tidy and if you ever forgot to brush it, if a parent wasn’t around, then your Inner Critic would mimic them and tell you your hair was messy. Its concern would have been for you to follow the rule so that you wouldn’t be unacceptable.
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.
Change Your Relationship to the Inner Critic
Once you understand that your Inner Critic is essentially trying to help you, and feels responsible for you, you can take that responsibility yourself.
When you take responsibility for your Critic’s anxieties, your Inner Critic will automatically change. But you need to step up and genuinely take responsibility. When that happens, you’ll have access to more objective, discerning and self-accepting thoughts and feelings, and your anxiety will diminish.
The Gift of the Inner Critic
When your Inner Critic realises you’re willing to listen to it and take it seriously, and are taking responsibility for its concerns, it will willingly work with you.
Getting to know the ways it is trying to make you acceptable will reveal the rules and values your primary self has taken on board from your family and culture.
Your Critic will show you – by what it criticises and the extent of its criticism – whether you’re living according to the rule system of your primary self (criticism will be low grade) or if you’re transgressing those rules (criticism is high grade). Some of those rules you’ll already be aware of, but you’ll be surprised at how many you have unconsciously absorbed and judge yourself against every single day.
So the gift of the Inner Critic is that it reveals to you the full nature of your primary self. It helps you identify, to see clearly, your internal rules and values and the expectations you may be unknowingly trying to live up to.
Once you discover them, you may want to keep some and aspire to live by them. But you’re likely to want to discard others that may have been restricting you growing into who you really want to be and feel you are.
When you take responsibility for the anxiety about how well you follow those rules, you can then decide on new rules for yourself and grow more fully into who you are.
So your Inner Critic can help you to become more conscious, self-aware, and ultimately grow into the person you want to be and to live the life you want to live.
The following exercise will help you get started.
Exercise to Start This Process
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. My home page and this page on how our selves work in relationships explain how our personalities form.
Write down one main thing you criticise yourself for.
Let’s say it’s your appearance, something most of us are critical of about ourselves. Most families have rules about appearance which is why we all feel self-critical about it in some way.
Consider if it was important that you looked and dressed in a particular way. Or did a parent criticise a particular aspect of your appearance, such as your hair, your choice of clothing, the size of your nose, ears, feet?
Maybe your primary self values a particular look that your family approved of, which it thinks you should have.
Taking hair as an example, even if you wore your hair exactly as you were originally expected to, maybe you feel 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.
How to alleviate this situation is to identify and listen to the self in you who feels it is important for you to wear your hair a certain way – the self who imbibed the rules and values of whoever in your childhood also held such rules and values about your hair.
Then when you have consciousness of this self and can decide with that consciousness what is important to you now about the appearance of your hair, the power of the Inner Critic in relationship to your hair will diminish.
Create Rules for Yourself Consciously
To continue keeping the Inner Critic in check, you need to continually be conscious about the rules you make for yourself. 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 is basically when at any given moment you become aware of the self you’ve been identifying as (your primary self) and can experience the perceptions and energy of other selves. So you have available to your awareness your usual self as well as other aspects of yourself. This allows you to make more conscious choices because you’re not limited to the ideas of only one part of yourself. It also allows you to separate from your Inner Critic when you realise you’ve re-identified with it.
- Consider what you criticise yourself for
- Identify the primary self and its rules
- 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 and experience other selves and their point of view.
The best way to learn how your Inner Critic is affecting you, is to see an experienced Voice Dialogue facilitator. A facilitator can work with your primary self and Inner Critic, helping you to see how your particular selves operate. There are great facilitators in most parts of the world – here is a listing of Voice Dialogue facilitators you can contact at Hal and Sidra Stone’s website.
Know anyone this might interest?