“Do you REALLY think you can do it”, “You simply aren’t good enough”, “You did try, but you could’ve done SO much better”, “You should always listen to your parents’ advice” … Have you ever heard anything similar in your own head? An inner voice of reason telling you that you can always do better, do more, try harder… Well, if you have, it turns out you’re not alone, and most of us do house a personal critic within ourselves – a critic who tends to be more critical and demanding of us than the strictest and toughest of teachers and bosses.
So, Who Really, is the Inner Critic?
The concept of an inner, critical voice has been addressed in the field of Psychology and Psychotherapy since the inception of the discipline. Different schools and approaches have all used different terms to describe it – “harsh superego” (psychoanalysis), “critical parent” (transactional analysis), “top dog” (Gestalt therapy), “negative beliefs” (cognitive-behavioural therapy). All of these different terms amount to the current concept of the “inner critic”, defined by Gendlin in the 1980s within the client-centred/experiential theory.
Put simply, the inner critic is a system of self-criticism made of critical negative thoughts and attitudes about oneself, which interfere with our everyday living experiences. The inner critic is an internal voice that not only criticizes you but also imposes shoulds and shouldn’ts – you “should always bring your 100% to work”, you “should never say no to a friend”, and so on. The inner critic derives its power from its ability to impose an array of emotional punishments – feelings of guilt, defectiveness, shame, inferiority, or magnified fear.
How Does the Inner Critic Work?
There are several sources throughout the lifespan from which the inner critic derives and grows. The inner critic may stem from interpersonal difficulties and a critical and negative self-attitude or serve as a self-protective mechanism. It may also have its roots in a family history of restriction, rejection, and neglect. Depending on who you are, and what your experiences have been, the inner critic may evolve to become degrading, accusatory, over-demanding and controlling, distant, or even domineering.
Irrespective of the origins of the inner critic, its mechanisms of working can be very similar. The inner critic appears to have a very sharp eye that can spot all of our shortcomings, read our deepest feelings, and to hold them to an unreasonable standard of comparison.
Can the Inner Critic Be Befriended?
While the concept of the inner critic may seem inherently maladaptive, it really is possible to tame this inner devil. Several schools of psychotherapy take their own approaches to this difficult journey – but at their core, all of them employ empathy, unconditional acceptance, positive regard, and bringing congruence between the inner critic and reality.
A popular evidence-based theory that addresses working with the inner critic notes that to work with the inner critic, one must first identify it, distance from it, hear what the inner critic has to say, and then shift the attention from it. This can allow the individual to integrate all aspects of their ‘self’ in a flexible and dynamic manner.
In short, yes! The inner critic can very much be befriended, and taught be constructive in their criticism, making space for you to grow and develop.
Join a workshop on the Perfectionism and the Inner Critic by BecauseYOU and Mindful and Body on September 4 at 12pm IST. Click here to register. Explore the impact that your inner critic has on you, and learn how to befriend it.
Elliott, J. E., & Elliott, K. (2000). Disarming your inner critic. Anthetics Institute Press.
Stinckens, N., Lietaer, G., & Leijssen, M. (2013). Working with the inner critic: Process features and pathways to change. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12(1), 59-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/14779757.2013.767747
Stinckens, N., Lietaer, G., & Leijssen, M. (2013). Working with the inner critic: Therapeutic approach. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12(2), 141-156. https://doi.org/10.1080/14779757.2013.767751
Stone, H., & Stone, S. (1994). The inner critic. Psychotherapy in Australia. Retrieved from: https://halstone.com/articles/The_Inner_Critic.pdf