People think self-defeating and self-critical thoughts all the time, and they are typically unaware of this process. These thoughts revolve around familiar themes, they tell us that we are not good enough; that we will succeed only if we try “really really hard”; that we should feel terrible if we do not work hard enough, or that what we have achieved so far is insignificant. Gradually, these self-critical thoughts form narratives, stories that we tell ourselves every day—all the time. By living these stories from morning to evening, we lose awareness of the fact that these stories are not true—they are not real.
“You are not good enough.”
“You are fat. Fat, I tell you. Look at yourself!”
“You are a terrible mother/father. Shame on you!”
“Everyone in the office will find out that you are an impostor. Just wait and see.”
“You should not be vulnerable. You will only get hurt.”
“You are f* stupid!”
“Nobody cares about you.”
These are some examples of self-critical thoughts. When we think these thoughts occasionally, and when we are aware of this mental activity, they do not cause much psychological harm. However, when their frequency increases, and when they start to connect into well-organized narratives, they tend to trigger very unpleasant emotions, lower our self-esteem, negatively affect our self-image, and can even contribute to depression.
Critical voice is a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others. The voice can become dominant in our daily lives, continually transforming itself into inner dialogue, where we split ourselves into two parts: the Critic and the Listener. Soon we catch ourselves doing things we have never done before, like binge eating or drinking, to soothe the mental pain. Instead of being led by one’s core values, the person who obediently listens to this voice no longer acts in their own self-interest, simply because the Inner Critic stubbornly discourages them to do so. One no longer lives a fulfilling life inspired by one’s values. Distancing herself from a life of purpose and meaning, the person might also distance herself from their partner, or threaten relationships with significant others. She could also have problems with everyday performance and productivity at work, suffer from low self-esteem, become increasingly distrustful of herself and others, turn to alcohol and substance abuse, etc.
Self-criticism is probably a learned behavior and its roots are hidden in early childhood. In the beginning, the critical voices were “outside” and belonged to others e.g. our parents. Over time, these external voices were internalized and have become our own inner reality. Through the process of integration of these internalized voices, they become an important part of our psyche, influencing everyday behavior. In fact, internal self-critic can harm our own self-interest, values, and goals; by and large, then we are talking about self-sabotaging behavior.
In the case of severe childhood neglect, abuse, and trauma, the voice of the Critic can become very strong and destructive, having detrimental consequences on the mental health of the person in question.
How can someone heal from the deleterious effects of the Inner Critic?
Self-compassion is a concept very often associated with a mixture of New Age philosophy, neoliberal capitalism, and practical advice for life success. But self-compassion is also a very important concept in psychotherapy, an integral part of the path to healing. This path includes developing a kind attitude toward yourself, a deeper understanding and warmth when making mistakes (e.g. succeeding or not succeeding in a specific endeavor), and perhaps most importantly—a recognition of our common humanity, the road for every human being to take, which is always replete to a certain extent with pain and suffering. The practice of self-compassion begins with mindfulness of one’s thoughts and welcoming all emotions (including negative ones). Radical acceptance of every mental process eventually leads to an understanding that there are no “right” or “wrong” thoughts and emotions.
Instead of constantly fighting the voice of the Inner Critic, one can begin to accept this aspect of their personality, as frightening and challenging as this acceptance might be, to heal their own wounds. These critical voices were part of “external reality” back in the day—but that is not the case anymore. Now, these voices are an integral part of your personality and they should be treated that way. The best you can do is to acknowledge them and accept them as they are. That does not mean that you should allow these voices/parts to control your behavior. On the contrary—if we try to understand the depth of the Inner Critic, usually s/he does not have bad intentions at all. If s/he is hypercritical about your eating habits, maybe s/he wants to help you sustain good health and body weight. If the Critic is trying to say that you will not be successful if you do not work hard, usually s/he is trying to motivate you and protect you from potential failure. His/her voice is a voice of someone who attempts to motivate you to keep trying, so s/he is quite successful in doing so short-term, although long-term it might have very negative ramifications. People who come to therapy for the first time usually fear they may not be able to motivate themselves to do anything at all if they try to “get rid of the Inner Critic.”
By deliberately practicing self-compassion, we intentionally develop a kind attitude toward the Critic, while being aware of all the bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts, making connections between these inner events and specific behaviors. The biggest problem lies in the identification with the Inner Critic’s voice, so distancing yourself from the Critic may help you to develop a deeper understanding of the Critic and many other aspects of your personality.
By detaching yourself from your Critic, you engage in a dialogue with them on different grounds, which is essentially a negotiation process. For example, if the voice tells you that you need to work much harder to meet the deadline and that you’ll fail if you don’t, while you know that you are facing burnout and are not capable of working harder at this time, then you may come to realize that the situation may not be so black and white. First and foremost, you could come to a profound realization (an understanding that takes place at the level of feeling and bodily sensation and not merely as a cognitive understanding) that the almost compulsive demand of the inner critic to work harder is in fact not helping you be more effective and produce higher quality work. Rather, the voice of the inner critic is making you feel paralyzed. Then you come to accept the fact that you now need rest and you manage to set aside several days to charge your batteries and have some downtime, during which the inner critic stays quiet. Once you’re back to work, you realize that these several days were critical to your ability to get the work done. This negotiation process means that you are no longer simply re-enacting unconscious behavioral patterns, which were usually rigidly “rehearsed” in the same way for decades.
In the beginning, when we first detach from the self-critical voice, we can be full of hate toward our inner critic. But slowly, over time, if one is persistent, the Critic’s energy will transform. Every so often the Critic can become the wise counselor, mentor, or sage, someone who can help us on our life journey towards a more fulfilling life, without judgment and self-sabotage.