Making Peace With Your Inner Critic

The idea of making peace with your inner critic isn’t a new idea and there are already whole books written on the topic. However I’ve found it to be such a transformative aspect of the therapy process that I wanted to write a blog about it.  My approach isn’t unique; it falls under the framework of Internal Family Systems (IFS: founder is Richard Schwartz PhD). This is the framework I use overall in my work with clients regardless of the issue since it is amazingly applicable to virtually any challenge or struggle.

In a large nutshell, here’s the paradigm: It’s a bit more complicated than what I can include in this blog, but hopefully this will give you a general idea about what the process involves.

*Most of us have inner critics (not just one either!). Think of them as actual people living inside of you. We can call them “parts.”

*These parts have been with us since childhood and operate in response to adverse childhood experiences and messages, emotional neglect, or other interactions with primary caregivers. Sometimes even seemingly benign words or situations that don’t seem “that bad” can have a profound impact on our own self-image and we carry those effects into adulthood.

*These critical “parts” are actually trying to help us, though it may appear to be the exact opposite at first glance. Even parts that are extremely mean to us or even tell us that we don’t deserve to live have good intentions. A lot of clients have trouble buying into this part. However…

*What I’ve found to be 100% true in using this method with clients is that if we approach these parts from a place of kind and genuine curiosity, rather than judgment, we inevitably discover that they have our best intentions at heart. 

*The critical parts are completely dedicated to us. They believe that the best way to help us and protect us from harm is to shame us (or scare us) into “getting it together so that we will be okay.”  Imagine a drill sergeant whose tactic is to yell loudly in your face so that you obey orders. This drill sergeant is behaving in the way s/he has been trained and believes this method will be the most effective for keeping order and a sense of unity.

*When we can form a caring relationship with these critical parts and really get to know them, not only will we think of them very differently, but we will FEEL very differently toward them. I’ve seen clients go from hating an inner critic to (eventually) having respect for it and even thanking it for working as hard as it does.

The process of transformation that can happen looks something like this: The critical part shares what its job is and how it is trying to protect you. The reasons it feels the need to do this are always related to childhood experiences and/or traumatic experiences. I’ll give you a real example from a client. I’ll call her Isabelle.  As a child, Isabelle’s parents were very focused on her mistakes or shortcomings rather than her successes, and also on achievements rather than efforts. If she got 5 As and 1 B on a report card, their response was something like: “You almost got all As.  What happened with that B?” The unspoken message here is that she didn’t really succeed since she didn’t get all As, and also that she didn’t live up to her parents’ expectations. Even though parents meant well, over time, there was a negative message communicated and reinforced for her. 

It makes complete sense then, that as Isabelle grew and developed, she internalized her parents’ messages and ended up with an inner critic that sounds a lot like this: “You have to be perfect.  If you make a mistake, you’re a failure.”  and “You’ll never be good enough.”  On the surface, these statements sound mean, harsh, and nothing but negative.  However, if we dig deeper, and we ask the critical part the following question: “What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t talk to Isabelle in this way?”  the answer is something like: “I’m afraid she will always disappoint people and that they will abandon her.” So there’s the core issue motivating this critical part: fear that she will be judged and rejected  by others. What it really wanted is for Isabelle to be accepted by others and to have emotionally satisfying relationships. That sounds pretty healthy and positive, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, Isabelle didn’t feel completely emotionally safe with her parents because their love felt conditional (that is, dependent on certain factors), and she was always worried she wasn’t living up to their expectations. The critical part’s motto is always “never again!!”  It is invested in doing whatever it can to prevent a recurrence of the original wound. It doesn’t quite understand that the past is over and that you aren’t a kid anymore.

Once we start to form a trusting relationship with the critical part, we will come to a clear understanding of what it is trying to do for you (or prevent from happening to you).  Then we can start to negotiate with it and provide reassurance that you in fact will be okay even if it doesn’t continue its behavior.  Once we can convince this part that there is another way to help you be safe, this part will eventually allow us to access directly the original emotional wounds related to the neglect or hurtful experiences. Accessing the original emotional wounds can be a slow process and sometimes emotionally intense, but it’s absolutely vital to healing and transforming the critical parts. Once these past hurts have been healed, then you aren’t as vulnerable to being hurt again, so the critical part doesn’t feel the need to protect you nearly as much. The goal of this work is never to eradicate a part or make them unnecessary.  Instead, the idea is to help that part revise it’s job description so that it can still help you but in a way that uses positive motivation and supportive methods rather than through a “shame and fear-based” approach. Imagine that the drill sergeant decides to retire, and instead becomes a motivational speaker.  It is then able to channel its good intentions in a different direction, and the impact is even more effective since  shame and fear aren’t depleting your energy anymore. A transformed inner critic sounds something like this: “Wow, I see how hard you worked on that project!  Are there any aspects you feel especially good about?  Are there any aspects you’d like to work on for next time?”

I encourage you to give some thought to your own inner critical parts and explore a bit.  See if you can figure out what their positive intentions are.  The next time you hear a critical part speaking to you, you can ask it: “What do you really want for me?” and “What are you trying to do for me right now?” See if you can listen to the answers with curiosity instead of judgment and you may be surprised at what comes up. You can also check in with yourself and ask “What do I need right now?”  Usually the answer has something to do with seeking comfort such as a hug, talking to a friend, taking a walk outside, playing with a pet, or listening to music.  Anything that is soothing to you (and not harmful in any way) is a good thing. And of course, seeking professional help from a therapist trained in this approach (IFS) will further deepen your journey not just of self-reflection but of transformation.  Feel free to read another blog on Internal Family Systems for additional information. I never cease to be amazed at the complex and intricate inner world that lives inside each of us. If you are curious to explore more about the various aspects or “parts” of yourself, feel free to reach out to schedule your free consultation.