Inner Critic (n): internal voice that judges you
Examples: “You’re selfish.” “You’re a terrible friend.” “You’re a fraud.”
You are probably quite familiar with your inner critic, but if you’re not, the best way to identify its presence is to notice when you feel bad about yourself. If you feel bad, you can be certain your inner critic isn’t far behind. It’s cleverly personal and brilliantly insidious, ensuring that its words strike at the heart of your fears while barely leaving a fingerprint.
If you’ve tried to deal with your inner critic, you have no doubt read or been given advice about how to manage or combat it. A first step is often identifying the inner critic as a voice that comes from inside you, but is not you.
After that, common guidance includes: don’t believe it, replace its criticism with positive affirmations, be compassionate with yourself, and tell it to f*** off.
Have you heard any of these? Or, tried them?
If you have, perhaps some of these practices helped you gain freedom from your inner critic, allowing you to live more spontaneously and fully. But perhaps that freedom has been fleeting or you haven’t felt free at all. Maybe you’ve wondered if there is more to the inner critic’s story. If so your instincts are accurate.
The inner critic is a complex phenomenon that is rooted in very early relationships. Its original mission was to protect you by internalizing messages from the people around you about what was safe and what wasn’t. With the inner critic’s help, “Watch out for cars, Johnny” turned into life-saving wisdom about protecting yourself from harm.
Due to various experiences, the well-intentioned inner critic at best develops mission creep and at worst entangles us in a dependent relationship with something that appears to be protecting us while simultaneously condemning us. This is an excruciatingly complicated and painful psychological dilemma.
Let’s look at this in more detail. First we must imagine ourselves as a very small child, an infant really, because that is when this complex relationship begins. As you read the following, remember that infants are many years away from the capacity for rational thought and, thus, cannot yet understand such concepts as boundaries between people or cause and effect.
With that foundation, let’s imagine being an infant who is experiencing intense sensations, like hunger, or big emotions, like fear. If that child is left alone with these experiences too often or for too long*, he has to make sense of them and manage them himself. How is he to do this? Recall the inner critic’s mission to protect the child? This certainly seems like a job for the inner critic. You’re experiencing pain from hunger? You’re scared? Let me help you.
(*Important note: This description is not about parents or caregivers. Even the best caregiver cannot meet a child’s every need at the moment he has one. What is being described here is the child’s internal experience in response to his environment.)
What happens, though, when that child’s inner critic attempts to help him make sense of his inner world?
Infants and children are completely dependent on their caregivers for everything from food to the development of their nervous system.
If an infant isn’t getting his needs met, he is not psychologically in a position to be angry with his caregiver for not meeting his needs (though he will cry for his needs to be met). Within the infant, anger could likely jeopardize the relationship on which he depends for his very livelihood. (Besides which, infants don’t yet have an awareness of self versus other, but I’ll leave that complexity for another day.) Instead the inner critic is there to place the problem on the infant. The internal message is something like, “Your needs are too great” or “You shouldn’t need anyone.” Obviously these aren’t actual cognitive thoughts for the infant, but are nonetheless experiential messages to him.
To the rational, adult mind, these conclusions may sound like ridiculous jumps in logic. Isn’t it obvious that the infant simply has basic needs? But from the inner critic’s perspective, they are protective thoughts. If the infant is the bad one, then there is always the hope that all he has to do is be good and eventually he will get what he needs. If he blames the outside world, that would leave him at the very vulnerable mercy of others, powerless to get even his most basic needs met.
Remember the “dictionary” example of the inner critic at the beginning of this article? “You’re selfish” might actually be the inner critic’s best effort to make sense of a scenario in which an infant’s need for food or soothing wasn’t met.
Beyond internalizing seemingly protective yet ultimately isolating messages, the infant becomes attached to his inner critic in the same way that adults get attached to loved ones. The inner critic is always right there to intervene, whether that intervention is helpful or not. This creates a real relationship, and, as we all know, breaking up is hard to do, especially with a lifelong companion.
As we can see the inner critic’s messages are not merely harsh statements that can be simply ignored, overwritten, or pushed away. They are strong statements about oneself that are deeply embedded in the context of relationship. Problems that arise in relationship often, if not always, need to be healed in relationship. Trying to deal with these alone reifies the underlying problem of being left alone.
How do we rewire our relationship with our inner critic so that we can live freely, without harsh inner judgments limiting us, while also knowing our inner critic will protect us as needed per its original mission?
Within the steady and consistent relationship with a therapist, the inner critic’s messages can be disentangled from the underlying sensations and feelings, the original needs can be experienced in full, and the self can be freed from the convoluted and controlling meanings that were made, leaving you able to live in more freedom.