The intention of this article is to explore a psychological phenomenon often known as the inner critic. I aim to stimulate a greater awareness of what is occurring in this process, its dynamics and consequences. I offer some basic approaches to help create a healthier relationship with the inner critic. It is my hope that the article will also provide stimulus to become curious about this commonplace but often overlooked event that happens to us. I would like people to feel inspired to become more aware of the way the inner critic operates uniquely in them as an individual, and to feel encouraged to bring their own perspectives, creativity and individuality to working with it. Ultimately I hope to help people create a better relationship with themselves.
Whilst this article may be especially relevant and useful for people who have a strong inner critic, I hope that it will also be of some benefit to those who experience a less problematic relationship with their inner critic to further their journey towards wholeness.
What is the inner critic?
Good question. There are of course a wealth of definitions and ideas of origin and function of the inner critic. To attempt to cut through this philosophical and semantic minefield, what can be said simply is that most of us experience critical thoughts about ourselves. These can vary in degree, tone and the effect they have on our lives.
A key element is that these thoughts are not consciously intentional – in that they seem more like something that happens to us rather than something that we choose to think. In fact it can be very difficult to stop thinking in this way.
A working model of the psyche
We usually consider ourselves to be a single, discrete entity. I am Craig. But when we experience unbidden critical thoughts, who is speaking? Who are they speaking to? When we look more deeply at such an ordinary, commonplace event it can open us up to wondering what is really going on here. Who and what are we – one, two, or many? The truth of the matter may be beyond our capacity to comprehend or at least put into language. I don’t propose to illuminate this mystery; however I will offer a working model which may provide a useful framework to explore the phenomenon of the inner critic.
In this model of the human being, there are parts of the self which make up the whole. Some of these we identify more with as being us – our personalities or our conscious selves. Other parts exist in shadow, or potential – they are unconscious or less conscious. We identify with them less. But all parts make up the whole.
The parts we don’t tend to identify with or embody still have needs, and what is more, something of value to offer the whole. They will tend to affect us in various ways in order to have these needs met. The inner critic is an example of one such part of us.
The greater perspective is that all these parts have, in essence, a shared goal. This goal is our overall health and wellbeing. It is the conflict about the way that the parts believe this ultimate need will be met that the difficulty occurs.
This model isn’t new, and it isn’t necessary to accept it as true. It is intended to allow a way of speaking about and exploring the phenomenon. You are invited to translate the concepts and practices into your own model.
Turning towards the Inner Critic
The inner critic can be harsh and incessant. It is often a major presence in creating and sustaining the experience of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and addiction. Understandably the attitude we usually begin with is to want the critic to just shut up and go away. However, ignoring the critic is not effective in the long term. It still has needs, or something to offer, and won’t go away until these needs are met or the part is integrated. Often if the critic is ignored it will simply find more intense ways to make itself heard. Also, if we ignore the critic we also ignore what it has to offer us. This offering could enhance our lives in powerful ways. So instead of avoiding the critic or seeking to banish it, we turn to face it.
Becoming aware of the process
The first step is becoming more aware of the inner critic and how operates. The experience of criticising ourselves is so common that often we fail to really notice it. A healthy spirit of curiosity helps here. How does this actually occur for you? Can you become truly interested and attentive to this phenomenon which affects you so deeply and sometimes in such a damaging fashion?
It is easiest to start with the thoughts which feel like harsh criticism or a putdown. At times we may even say these thoughts out loud to ourselves.
Some things worth noticing:
- What is the emotional tone of the voice of criticism?
- Is it your voice, or the voice of someone else? If someone else, does it sound like someone you know?
- Where in physical space does the voice feel like it is coming from (behind you, above you, in your head)?
- What are the themes of the criticism?
- What is happening around you or what are you doing when the critic speaks?
- How are you affected by the critic when it speaks? What happens to you emotionally, physically and energetically when it occurs?
It may help to create a diary of what you notice.
It is also possible to use creative processes to learn a little more about the critic. You can depict it in artwork, write a story with it as a character, dance the critic’s dance or any other creative approach which helps to externalize and clarify the critic a little more.
The act of noticing already begins to change the relationship between you and the critic. Turning to face it, becoming interested in it, diminishes the unquestioned power it has over you. It helps to create a little more distance between the criticism and you. Even through this simple process of observing, you may notice changes.
Building a relationship with the critic
When the critic speaks to us we are affected in various ways. Typically there are experiences like unworthiness, low self-opinion, loss of vitality, powerlessness, helplessness, hopelessness. Our posture may become affected; we may make ourselves physically smaller – hunch over, lower our heads. This can be obvious or subtle.
Through observing over time what happens to you when the critic speaks, you may begin to recognise an escalating cycle that occurs. When the critic speaks, we tend to feel unworthy and disempowered. In these states we tend to act out more of the behaviours which the critic has issue with. For example I may be trying to build a chook shed and doing a poor job of it. The voice of the critic telling me I can’t do anything practical to save my life only serves to put me in an emotional state where I have no confidence in my ability to do the work and can’t actually focus on the task at hand. I do an even poorer job and the critic escalates its criticism.
Breaking through any unhealthy relationship patterns takes communication. This is also true for relating to the inner critic.
Ways to communicate with the critic
It may be easiest at first to begin the communication when you become aware that the critic is speaking to you. When you hear the critic speaking of its own volition, it is already present and engaged.
The communication with the critic can occur within your mind – hearing what the critic says, responding to it with thought and feeling, and then listening for the critic’s response and so forth.
You can write down the dialogue on paper, perhaps with one colour pen for your own thoughts and another colour for the critic. Again the process is feeling for your own response and attentively listening for what the critic has to say.
It is also possible to speak to the critic out loud. Whilst it may not be socially comfortable to be speaking to yourself on a crowded train or at the dinner table, you can find or create safe places for this exploration. There is another level of engagement in an embodied process using the voice and body to speak – it can create a deeper level of connection to what you are saying.
Some of these techniques may feel a little strange at first. Keep at it. If you feel like you are making up or imagining what the responses of the critic are rather than really getting a response directly from the critic that’s ok. You probably know quite a lot already about what your habitual attitudes of self-criticism are, and the process will still have value. It is also likely that you will warm up to the process and it will feel more natural and meaningful with a little practice.
Whatever the approach, the idea here is to create an open, ongoing dialogue with the critic. This may take some time to work up to. In the beginning the dynamic may only be a cycle of one or two responses before a kind of stalemate is reached.
Come on in, but take your boots off first
We want to build a healthy, respectful and equal relationship with the critic. We hope to be able to hear what the critic has to offer us, to be able to integrate its perspective and energy into our conscious selves. But to begin with the critic can be disrespectful, rude or even intensely cruel. It is important to first create some boundaries for the discussion.
The critic wants to be heard. It has needs it wants met. Let the critic know you are willing to listen to what it has to say, but before this can happen it needs to tone things down a bit and speak more respectfully.
It is helpful to as much as possible cultivate a genuine willingness and interest in meeting the needs of the critic. Being so close to you, the critic will be able to sense when you are just paying lip-service and when you truly want to understand and be able to help.
It is probably too much to initially expect the critic to be completely respectful and calm, just as it may be too much to ask for you to be totally empathic with a harsh critic. What you are seeking is a working level of communication, a place to start. The process itself will engender growing mutual understanding and respect between you and the critic.
A particularly unreasonable or aggressive critic may not initially respond to such calls for moderation. In this case continuing to assert the boundary may help. This boundary can be put simply as a demand for constructive criticism. Insults and derision from the critic do not offer a way forward and only serve to create more problems. Refuse to listen to or take on criticism which has no constructive content, and keep demanding more specific and helpful dialogue. A key energy here is assertiveness. In the beginning this can even mean responding to the critic with equal aggressiveness, telling it to shut up or go away. Let it know you’re not going to take its crap anymore. Whilst this is unlikely to make the critic disappear, continuing to embody an assertive energy in the face of the critic may change the game enough to open up a more constructive relationship. It is important through this process to retain the willingness to hear what the critic has to say when it does offer something more constructive or respectful.
What does the critic want?
The critic has needs. The criticism, insults and oppressiveness of the critic are its way, however misguided, of having these needs met. In the spirit of a willingness to try to meet these needs, invite the critic to make specific, achievable requests as to what you can do to help. You may be able to make educated guesses about what the critic is wanting from the themes of the criticism. If the requests aren’t easily forthcoming, you can suggest these possibilities to the critic.
How do you respond to the requests of the critic? Firstly, assess whether the requests are specific and achievable, whether the form of the request fits the bill for respectful and constructive criticism. If not, put it back to the critic to come up with something that might be more workable.
You may be willing to do what the critic asks. However it is more likely in the beginning that you will experience resistance or difficulty when confronted with the request. Identify what your specific resistances or difficulties are. These could include ways that the request makes you feel emotionally, practical difficulties in meeting the request, conflicting needs that you have and ethical dilemmas the request creates. Share these blocks or difficulties with the critic, then listen for its response.
Continuing the dialogue
How the critic responds to your sharing is completely up to its nature as an individual. It may acknowledge, deny, intensify or diminish its aggressiveness, repeat itself, scream or go away… What you are looking to do is to keep sustaining the principles of demanding constructive criticisms and specific requests. We still want to meet the needs of the critic but it is important to respect our own needs and feelings as well.
The process is as follows:
- Draw a solid boundary with the critic which demands respectful communication
- Ask the critic what it needs
- Encourage the critic to respond with a specific request
- Tell the critic what we feel, think or need in response to that request
- Let the critic respond to this
- When this response comes in a constructive or respectful (enough) way we again respond
- Keep seeking specific requests as to how we can meet the needs of the critic in ways which also account for our own feelings and needs
The process may sound rigid, but it doesn’t need to be. There is room for both yourself and the inner critic to be human, to have your own style of communication, to divert from the structure of sharing responses and making requests. Have a rant, make a joke, be yourself and let the critic be itself too. This will help keep things more real and key into the energy of the actual conflict and its emotional content. The structure is there to help keep things on track towards resolution. As long as things are moving and the relationship is developing, follow your flow. If things begin to feel stuck or unhealthy, come back to the support of the structure.
Positive outcomes of the conversation
This is a unique and creative process for each individual. Everyone is different and has a different relationship with their critic, thus the way the dialogue unfolds and the outcomes of it will vary. What follows are some likely or typical outcomes. They may also be helpful as principles to help guide the conversation from your end.
Getting our own needs met from the critic
At a certain point we may find we also have requests we can make of the critic. This may even take the form of agreements or deals with the critic that we will meet its request as long as it meets one of our own needs. We may ask the critic to back off, help out, recognise our efforts or treat us with respect. It is helpful here to do frame these needs as specific and achievable requests, just as we have asked the critic to do.
Making small steps
Although we may not be able to fulfill all the requests the critic has, we may be able to make steps by suggesting or agreeing to smaller actions we are willing to take in the same direction. This can help appease the critic and develop goodwill in the relationship.
As we drill down deeper into what the underlying needs of the critic are, we may begin to develop empathy for its situation. We may even begin to see the vulnerability and hurt that lie beneath its critical approach. Through the process we also become more conscious and attentive to our own needs and vulnerabilities. We may find that the critic begins to empathise more with us and thus soften its own approach.
Gaining clarity about the conflict
Through the exploration we can more clarity about the conflict that exists between ourselves and the critic. The conflict evolves from a trading of insults to an understanding specific and understandable needs which aren’t being met. This generates the possibility of much more practical approaches and solutions to the problems.
Evoking respect from the critic
Turning the tables on the critic and asking it to come up with practical suggestions and solutions to the problem may be a bit sobering for it. It may be less likely to harangue you if it can’t come up with clear ideas of how to change the situation. Continuing to expect and demand constructive criticism and refusing to take on criticism which is simply abuse and bullying will also force the critic to shift its approach. The result is a more congenial and respectful critic.
Recognising the value of the critic
As the relationship develops, you may begin to see the positive qualities that the critic can represent. Critics can be motivated, assertive, powerful, goal-oriented and have a fierce morality. It is possible to not only admire these qualities but to also use the presence of the critic to integrate these aspects more deeply into your life.
A long term relationship
The inner critic does not have to be a static entity. Just as we grow and evolve over time and even change day to day, the critic does as well. As the relationship evolves and mutual understanding, empathy and co-operation develop, the critic will alter its manifestation. In all likelihood it will become less aggressive, more supportive and perhaps even a resource for wise counsel. What form each person’s critic takes as the relationship with it changes will no doubt have a personal and individual shape. For myself, my critic has begun a transition from an oppressive, harsh and antagonistic force into a stern, noble and masculine presence. This presence holds me to account to maintain my integrity and to take the actions I resist doing out of fear. In these times the tag “critic” doesn’t seem as relevant to its nature any more. This is not to say that this is how it always is. As much as not this energy still takes its old cantankerous form, but the general movement in a positive direction is clear.
Our expectations are also creative forces. If we approach the critic as a being worthy of respect and offering wisdom, it is more likely to assume this shape.
For most us, our relationship with the critic is a long term proposition. We are bound together. With consistent and creative effort, this relationship can become one which is supportive and empowering. Rather than living with an abuser, we can have inside us a presence which is there to guide our way towards a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
Invitation to participate in the exploration
I would love for people to share their own explorations, understandings, inspirations and awakenings about this phenomenon. I imagine that this could become a resource for others to access inspiration for creative approaches to the inner critic and to help move past any stumbling blocks they may come across. You are also welcome to seek reflection or guidance from me about what occurs for you. If you do go on the journey of exploring this relationship, I have a facebook page which you are welcome to add your own experiences and reflections and ask any questions that may arise.