How To Embrace Your Inner Critic: A Path To Kinder Self-Talk

I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about the inner critic, and I think things are getting worse, not better, for many people who come to speak to me. 

It’s especially telling when I’m working with creatives and people who feel a strong sense of pressure to take their work to the next level.

The inner critic fuels the achievement focus in many of my clients. But it also fuels anxiety, stress and burnout. 

What’s the Inner Critic: A Simple Definition

The short and easy definition of the inner critic is that voice/experience within us that tells us, often harshly, do more, do better, hurry up, you’re not good enough, this work is not good enough – you can fill in your own. 

Sometimes the voice is loud and clear. It might also bring a feeling of tension, an inability to relax, a shot of what feels like adrenaline when we see someone working hard or showing their ‘best life’ on social media’ – why aren’t you working as hard as them? Why aren’t you like that? 

Some clients talk to me about the inner insistent urge to keep working. They know, intellectually, that it’s too much and there’s no way they can meet the expectations; expectations which they’ve often set themselves, with the inner critic’s voice in their ears. 

But it’s hard to stop when the negative self-talk fuels you. Harder still when, on the occasions you try to get a break for a moment, you feel the flicker of fear. What if you fail? What if? What if?

The Inner Critic: An Introduction

Psychosynthesis therapist Piero Ferrucci describes the inner critic as a subpersonality: a collection of thoughts, impulses, feelings and other responses and reactions we absorb over time. They guide and sometimes impose their ideas and desires onto us in particular situations in life.

Some of these collections of responses feel and sound so strong and clear that they almost feel like they have their own personality. And we have many of them, a collection of different ways of being for different aspects of life.

Some of our subpersonalities are adaptive and help us grow. Some seem a lot less helpful and feel restrictive. Some might intend to help us develop, or to protect us in situations which may have seemed dangerous in earlier life. 

For creatives and for people trying to make new work, the inner critic might serve us in times when we are trying for our best. It’s urgings to keep improving and not to settle for where we are might encourage us to fulfil our potential and not settle for a result we don’t like. 

But it may also drive us in negative ways. It may speak harshly of our efforts, never allowing us to be good enough no matter what the process or result. It may trigger shame and stress within us and leave us not knowing what to do, afraid of the severe inner punishment we seem to receive. Left unchecked, the inner critic can undermine our efforts, our relationships and even our desire to bring to being our purpose in life.

Sometimes we fight against our inner critic and the pain it causes us. Trying to push down or repress the critic, though, only causes suffering and reinforces the conflict we feel within us as the critic often shouts louder, and we feel worse.

The solution, however, lies not in suppressing or rejecting this aspect of ourselves but in developing a compassionate, accepting relationship with it. How can we extend it recognition, understanding and ultimately integration?

Psychosynthesis sees the human being as a self looking to grow and evolve and develop throughout life. 

This compliments the perspective of Zen therapist practitioners like David Brazier who see the self as fundamentally whole and compassionate. According to Brazier, 

“The basic view of humanity in this approach is positive. We are regarded as having an inherent capacity for compassion, wisdom and creativity. Our personal development is not something that needs to be forced upon us through negative reinforcement such as criticism, punishment or censure. Rather, it is a natural process that will occur spontaneously if we can learn to remove the obstacles that hinder it.”

(Zen Therapy by David Brazier, page 15)

From this point of view, harsh criticism, rigid rules and threats can stifle our growth and the unfolding of our potential.

‘Tell that to my inner critic who’s telling me my audition was terrible/this draft doesn’t work/my report wasn’t good enough/I don’t deserve lunch until I tick off all the items on this list’’, I hear you say. 

Fair enough.

So where do we begin?

The inner critic, like all subpersonalities, is not inherently bad or trying to harm us.

This  gives us the opportunity to see the inner critic not as a foe to be vanquished but as a part of ourselves to be understood and accepted. By cultivating a curious, non-judgmental stance towards this subpersonality, we can begin to unravel its origins, motivations, and beliefs – and through that process, we open the door to integration and self-acceptance.

When the critical voice springs up, we often experience it in our own voice. We often believe that it’s us talking, and we feel bad that we’re not ‘reaching our own high standards’. One important first lesson to understand is that our critical voice, though it may seem very real and very insistent and Very RIght/Righteous, is a summation of beliefs, thoughts and experiences. These accumulate from our past, our family background and beliefs, our cultural identity or identities and the assumptions about right and wrong, good and bad, that come with them. 

The critic seems powerful, but it’s important to see that it plays out like a character within our awareness. It acts out a sum of those experiences and sees the world solely through that lens, rather than seeing what’s real for us in the present.

In psychosynthesis, and in Zen psychology, our goal is not to eliminate or fight against these subpersonalities. Rather, we take a view of curiosity, non-judgemental awareness and even compassion toward our subpersonalities, even those that seem to want to hold us back and cause us trouble. 

A more open approach helps us to see and unravel the beliefs, tactics and motivations behind the critic’s actions. It also helps us to release our tendency to fight against the critic, which is an understandable response but one which, in practice, increases our psychological and emotional tension and suffering.

Origins of the Inner Critic: A Brief Look at the Science

The critic is a distorted version of a quality that has served us well – and it can serve us well again. The contents of our consciousness can also be restored, rejuvenated. All of this requires us to reconnect with those parts of ourselves that have become distorted over time, maybe over generations. 

A bit of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology might also help here to lay out the history and development of the system that gives rise to some of our more difficult subpersonalities. 

I’ve written a separate article which talks a little about the history of the brain and the developments of subpersonalities like the critic. The brain’s threat system alerts us to any and all actions we might take that might threaten our love, safety and belonging within our tribe. And our drive systems push us to achieve and get the reward from our work.

Neither of these are bad. On the contrary, the brain’s negativity bias pushes us to learn quickly from painful events so that we don’t repeat them. That was very helpful in earlier stages of our evolution when we needed to worry about wild animals and threats all around us. It’s also helpful when we’re growing up to understand that being hit by a car will be bad, to put our hand on the hot stove will be painful.

But when we want to push through survival into growth? That survival instinct can kick in hard and haul us back to safety, whether we like it or not. That process is worth an article on its own. For now, let’s consider how we might become aware of the survival process of the inner critic and how we can understand it as something that might be trying to help us.

But our relationship with our critic doesn’t have to be a one-way-street of communication. And our critic may also have constructive, helpful things to say if we can encourage it to speak to us from a place of conversation, not distortion.

It seems counterintuitive, but reconnecting with our experience of subpersonalities like the inner critic helps us to increase our knowledge of ourselves. 

Instead of feeling at the mercy of every thought, feeling and experience, we start to understand that there are subpersonalities like the critic, and they are within us – and we are more than that. We are that person in the process of our evolution that the subpersonality is talking to.

How to Understand And Talk To Your Inner Critic: A Simple Exercise

In this exercise, you’ll find it helpful to find somewhere you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes. It’s also valuable to have some paper and something to write with. Some of you might be tempted to write on your device, but I really encourage you to have a pen and some paper handy. There’s mounting evidence that physical mark-making has an impact on us physically and neurologically in ways the writing on screens doesn’t. 

To begin, I often invite clients to sit and allow themselves to relax and become aware of their breathing for a few minutes. If this comes easily for you, then use whatever practice of presence or meditation that helps you ground yourself.

For people with less experience, I’ve recorded a short meditation you can access here

It’s only a few minutes. It will help you to let go of thoughts and stresses about past and present, to let yourself be here, unencumbered by emotions, thoughts and sensations. It will help to clear the mental clouds and give you access to a clearer sky for this next exercise. 

Once you’ve completed the exercise: 

Let your eyes close or lower. Allow a couple of slow, full breaths to pass. Allow yourself to consider the experience of your inner critic.

Who are you?

What’s your role in my life?

When did you take on that role? How early?

What kind of tactics do you use to get me to listen to you?

What leads you to talk to me so harshly?

What are you afraid of?

These next questions can be challenging but are important for developing your inner relationship:

What can I do to support you?

What can I do to make you feel safe? (you can amend these questions, of course, depending on your experience with your own critic: What can I do to make you less angry, soothe your sadness – whatever you understand that your critic needs)

What kind of communication would make you feel safe as we go through life and grow together?

Sit with these questions and allow responses to come gently, slowly. It may take a little time for the responses to filter through. It’s also helpful to try this exercise a few times over the course of several days. Your relationship with your inner self may need a little repair and it might take a few attempts to build trust and relaxation that will lead to a fruitful conversation.

This is one of several articles on working with our inner selves. In future articles I’ll continue with practical exercises to water seeds of kindness and compassion for ourselves. We’ll also work with exercises to develop kindness and relationship with those parts of ourselves that are painful and difficult to deal with.

If you’d like more of this, and if you’d like to work with me in a 1-1 or a group program of inner development with a focus on self-compassion and purpose-led development to help you live more in alignment with your values and what you believe life to be about, contact me and let’s talk.

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  1. Pingback: Healing The Inner Critic: A Workshop With Craig Behenna - Craig Behenna

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