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Inner Critic: Friend or Foe?

by John Kent(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 162 - September 2009

It never stops, that voice in our heads. It has our ear when we stand on the bathroom scales or look in the mirror: "You should lose weight!" it says, "You need to do something about those wrinkles; your hair is a mess!" There are times when nothing we do seems good enough for it: "You should work harder!" "You don't rest enough!" "You will never be perfect!!" Meet your Inner Critic!

Inner Critic Book Cover
Inner Critic Book Cover

Where Does it Come From?

Our Inner Critic develops early on in our lives. Its job is to act as a kind of internal policeman. It enforces the rules of the dominant or 'primary' parts of our personality that are responsible for running our lives and keeping us safe in the world.

These primary selves help us adapt to the particular family and social system we are born into. We learn very quickly which behaviours are acceptable to the adults around us, and which will incur their disapproval and judgement. For example, if we grow up in a family where we are expected to be good little boys or girls all the time and put the needs of other people first, the chances are that we will develop a strong Pleaser self. Its rule is "always be nice to others". It will try its hardest to make sure we behave appropriately. It knows that if we do not, our parents or teachers will be upset with us and may even punish us. This will make us feel very vulnerable.

The Underlying Anxiety of Our Inner Critic

Our Inner Critic remembers the pain and shame of having the adults around us withdraw their approval and affection. Its underlying anxiety is that we will be judged and rejected. It fears we will be alone, disliked and unloved and so it tries everything in its power to have us follow the rules of our primary selves and tow the line. Its aim is to ensure that our core vulnerability is protected.

If we even think about defying the rules of our Pleaser and putting our own needs first, it will shout in our heads that we are being 'selfish'! If we have a strong Pusher self that wants us to work hard and pass our exams to please our parents, it will tell us that we are 'lazy'! when we kick back and relax too much. The negatives of our Inner Critic very often mirror those of our actual parents and teachers when they judge us for not following their rules. "You should be more tidy", "You should be on time", "You should show more respect." It is easy to see why 'should' is one of our Inner Critic's favourite words – sometimes whispered sotto voce, sometimes bellowed full force.

As we grow older, more and more pressures are brought to bear on us about how we 'should' behave. Adverts set the standard for how we should look, what we should wear, how we should smell, what we should eat, how we should relax. Films show us the perfect male and female physiques, the perfect way to kiss and make love, the perfect romantic relationship we should have. Personal development programmes exhort us to be more sensitive, more assertive, more sensual, more aware. The standards are set so high and there are so many rules to follow, it's little wonder that our Inner Critics are in a constant state of anxiety and becoming ever more powerful.

At its most powerful, the voice of the Inner Critic can seem like the voice of God. When out of control it can wreak havoc with our feelings of self-confidence. It can make us feel inferior, incapable and inadequate. In the worst case its nagging voice can lead to despair, depression and even suicide.

How Our Inner Critic Tries to Protect Us

The voice of our Inner Critic can sometimes feel like a continual hammering in our heads. At other times, it can be so quiet – like a background hum – that we hardly notice it. One technique it often uses is to have us obsess about a perceived mistake we have made. It will run and rerun a video in our heads of the actions that we have or haven't done, or words that we have or haven't said, and make us squirm internally with embarrassment. Our mistakes will be put under the microscope and magnified out of all proportion. Remember, the purpose of this is to make sure we always behave in ways that will keep us safe. Our Inner Critic will do whatever is necessary to get us to follow the rules of our primary protecting selves, no matter how painful that might seem to us.

To be self-critical is felt to be less painful than being criticised by someone else. It is a form of self-defence, a kind of pre-emptive strike. If we can say "I'm so stupid!" or, "Oh I know how bad I was," or, "I am hopeless at doing that," it helps to shield us against the external slings and arrows of those who would judge us.

Building a Working Relationship with Our Inner Critic

Since we can never get rid of our Inner Critic (drinking, drugs or other distracting behaviours only offer temporarily respite), the best way to proceed is to build a working relationship with it. There are four steps:
  1. Become aware of it as a separate voice, noting the tone and content of its injunctions. It can be helpful to write down the exact words on a piece of paper so that we can see them more objectively;
  2. Determine the rules it is trying so desperately to have us follow. Write them down as a list of 'shoulds' and 'should nots';
  3. Identify the particular primary selves responsible for making these rules. Is it our Pleaser, or Pusher, or Perfectionist, etc.?;
  4. Get in touch with the underlying anxiety of those primary selves that are driving our Inner Critic. What are their fears and worst-case scenarios – disapproval? judgement? shame? rejection? abandonment? loneliness? What is the core vulnerability that their rules are trying to protect?;
For example, our Inner Critic might be telling us that we are too fat and that we should go on a diet, join a gym and lose weight. In this case it is attempting to enforce the rules of the part of us that thinks we should always look slim and fit – the Physical Perfectionist. The anxiety behind this is that if we get too fat, people won't like us and might even ignore or ridicule us. This would touch those parts of us that feel inadequate and insecure – something our Inner Critic wants to avoid at all costs!

Loving Ourselves

It is impossible to love ourselves until we can unhook from our Inner Critic. Separating from our Inner Critic enables us to listen to it objectively, understand its concerns and choose whether or not to act on its imperatives. The more we can embrace and care for the vulnerable parts of our personality that our Inner Critic is trying its best to help protect, the less it will be driven to do this for us.

As we take more conscious charge of our vulnerability, we can begin to view our Inner Critic with compassion, respect the job it has been trying to do, and even be thankful for the light it has shone on aspects of our personalities that hitherto we might have been unaware of.

As this happens, its voice becomes less strident and absolute. Instead of our foe, our Inner Critic can transform into a trusted adviser and friend – an intelligent, perceptive and supportive partner in our lives.

Using the Voice Dialogue Process

One way of getting to know and understand our Inner Critic is to allow it to speak directly. In the late 1970s, groundbreaking therapists Drs Hal and Sidra Stone developed a process that enables us to give voice to the different parts of our personality, or 'selves'. Called Voice Dialogue, it provides an effective tool for developing a healthy relationship with selves like our Pusher, Pleaser, Perfectionist - or Inner Critic.

The form is quite simple. The facilitator sits opposite the client and asks them to move their chair to a place in the room where a particular self - in this case the Inner Critic - feels most comfortable to speak. The facilitator then interviews this part in a totally accepting and non-judgmental way. Here is an example with a client called Mary.
Facilitator (Fac):  "Hello, do you have a sense of who you are?"
Mary:  "Yes, I'm the Critic. My job is to criticise her."
Fac:  "I'm pleased to meet you. Have you been doing this job for a long time?"
Mary:  "Ever since she was a very little girl. I took over from her parents."
Fac:  "Really? Were they critical of her?"
Mary:  "Yes, especially her mother. There are lots of rules to follow and I make sure she follows them!"
Fac:  "It sounds like a very important job. What kind of things do you criticise her for?"
Mary:  "The list is very long!"
Fac:  "I'd be interested to hear the top five."
Mary:  "Only five when there are so many? OK. She is basically ugly. She's too short, her nose is too long and her ears too big. She should pay more attention to her appearance and the clothes she wears - they are old and unfashionable. She looks ridiculous. She's getting old. She's lazy and should work harder. She says stupid things and should think before opening her mouth. She's forgetful. She's selfish and should care more for others. She's really a fake and someday everyone will see it....."
Fac:  "Wow, you have a big job to do! Does it take a lot of energy?"
Mary:  "Lots. I'm on her case 24/7."
Fac:  "That's amazing. What would happen if you weren't around doing this great job of criticising her?"
Mary:  "She'd be a basket case and she'd be laughed at. No one would love her and she'd be alone in the world."
Fac:  "Does she appreciate what you do for her?"
Mary:  "No. In fact, to be honest, I don't do such a great job. I should be more critical of her and make sure she listens to me and acts on what I tell her."
It becomes clear that Mary's Critic is working overtime to try and have her look and behave in ways that will be acceptable to people around her. Her Critic's ongoing anxiety is that she will be unloved and alone. The rules about how to do this have been inherited from her parents. In Mary's case her Critic is trying to enforce the worldview of her Pusher, Physical Perfectionist, Pleaser and Rational Mind. The Critic's intentions are honourable, but its methods feel painful. Notice that it is even critical of its own performance!

The facilitator's skill lies in helping the client experience fully and then separate from a self. After talking to her Critic, the facilitator asked Mary to move her chair back to where she started the session. From there, with some space between her and her Critic, Mary could begin to objectify it and develop a relationship with it. She could then start to appreciate the job it was trying to do for her.

It must be stressed that Voice Dialogue is not a technique for getting rid of any part of us. Rather, it is a natural and inclusive process that enables us to respect and embrace all of our many selves without making any of them wrong. Each part has a gift to bring us - including our Inner Critic.


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About John Kent

John Kent BA LTCL was born in London, and has lived and worked as a communication trainer, seminar leader and facilitator in Europe, South Africa, SE Asia, South America and USA. He has over 30 years experience in developing and delivering intensive seminars that help participants improve both intra-personal and interpersonal communication. He has worked with corporate, academic, medical and scientific organizations as well as many private clients.

John has studied Voice Dialogue with its creators, Drs Hal and Sidra Stone in the USA and Europe. From 1991 to1995 he co-founded the Voice Dialogue Centre of Tucson, Arizona and taught Voice Dialogue in San Francisco.

He is now based in London where as the director of Voice Dialogue UK he conducts workshops and facilitates private sessions with individuals and couples.

For more information about Voice Dialogue or to contact John about his workshops and private consultations go to: John may be contacted on Tel: 07941 141377;

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