The Inner Critic is the cause of so much suffering (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, relationship problems, self-sabotage), and so it’s natural to try to silence, ignore or get rid of it. But when we do, it simply re-appears in new ways, and usually with greater power. We also miss out on the life-changing gift it offers us. This post explains why the Inner Critic criticises, how the Critic develops, and how this critical inner voice is the secret to your personal growth and healing.
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.
Watch this video from Psych Alive for a good summary of how the Inner Critic works:
Why Does the Inner Critic Criticise?
The Inner Critic criticises because it’s concerned that you’ll be accepted and therefore safe. It’s basically trying to help you survive.
This motivation – to keep you safe – is the purpose of all your primary selves. Primary selves are the building blocks of your psyche that together form your personality. Your primary selves develop to enable you to survive in your family and culture. Your Inner Critic is the inner self that has aided your other inner selves to do what they do, in the best way they can.
(Read this page for a simple introduction to how your personality works and this page for a more in-depth explanation in the context of relationship.)
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’.
Some Examples of How The Inner Critic Develops
Pleasing Your Parents with ‘Good’ Behaviour
If in your childhood generous and unselfish behaviour was rewarded and valued, 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 noticed. 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 you developed a primary self who values putting the needs of 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 needs. You might get a feeling that you are not considering other people while caring for yourself.
Learning Rules About Acceptable Appearance
Another example that’s almost universal is parents making you brush your hair before leaving for school. Your Inner Critic would have taken note of the required standard for personal appearance. If it heard your mother tell you that your hair is messy or that 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.
When Your Critic Can’t Win
Then there are situations where there’s nothing your Inner Critic can do to help you fit in. When parents and caregivers constantly judge a child, even unknowingly, or project their own anxieties onto a child, then the Inner Critic can end up joining them.
If a parent has disowned aspects of themselves due to their own upbringing, then they’ll judge those characteristics when they emerge in their child.
The nature of what has been disowned, the depth of disowning, and the severity of consequences for expression of those energies, will effect the power of such an Inner Critic.
The Inner Critic can then become a serious inner abuser.
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, and start to make conscious decisions about the kinds of things it’s concerned about, your Inner Critic will automatically become less severe.
And when it realises you’re serious about taking responsibility for its concerns, it will willingly work with you.
And that’s an opportunity to discover how you have unconsciously imbibed rules, values and behaviour patterns from your family and culture that may be limiting you to expressing only a part of who you are, or even not allowing you to be yourself at all.
The Unlikely Gift of the Inner Critic
The gift of your Inner Critic is that the content of its criticisms reveals the values and rules of your primary self system – even unconscious ones. So if you’re unsure what your deepest values and beliefs are, your Inner Critic can help you identify and see clearly the expectations you may be unwittingly trying to live up to.
So your Inner Critic can help you become more conscious and grow more fully into who you are.
Exercise to Start This Process
Think of something you criticise yourself for.
Consider if that thing was important when you were growing up. Did a parent have a rule about that thing? Were you ever teased, nagged, humiliated, punished, labelled about it?
Is there a part of you now who feels it’s important for you to do/wear/become the thing your Critic feels you haven’t lived up to? That would be the self who imbibed the rules and values of whoever in your childhood also held those same rules and values about the issue.
Then when you’re aware of this part of you, consider if you agree with it.
Try to access an opposite viewpoint within yourself to experience another perspective. Maybe there’s a more mature part of you who thinks this issue isn’t even important. Maybe there’s a teenage self who thinks it really is important? Maybe there’s a rebellious self with another viewpoint? Maybe there’s a younger child who feels hurt about this or who can’t see why it would even be an issue? Sit with however many perspectives you can muster, considering the truth of each one.
Now you have a choice. You can go with the side that feels right to you, if that’s apparent. Or you can choose to give the issue more time and consider it further, keeping a number of perspectives in mind.
Notice how your Inner Critic changes in relationship to this thing/issue as you stay with this process.
- Consider what you criticise yourself for
- Identify the self within you that holds the rules about this thing
- Separate/unhook from that self and find other perspectives
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 the selves operate. There are great facilitators in most parts of the world – this page links you to a listing of Voice Dialogue facilitators you can contact.
It might also help to understand how the Inner Critic works together with another self most of us have, known as The Pusher.
Learn how the Pusher – the force that keeps us doing and won’t allow us to rest, relax and be present – together with the Inner Critic are responsible for much of the stress so many of us feel when we’re not aware of these energies: Relieve Stress Naturally
If you’re a parent and you want to raise your children more consciously than maybe you were raised, you could start with my post on consciously connecting with your children.
Know anyone this might interest?