Transforming the Inner Critic

It is not uncommon in my psychotherapy practice to work with people who have very strong and severe inner critics. Sometimes I am just amazed at how prevalent this phenomenon is. In the course of our work, a client’s inner critic often reveals itself and its judgment is harsh and severe. In such cases a client often notes that he is much more harsh, much more unforgiving, towards himself than he is towards others.

Some thoughts about the inner critic. It is not uncommon, especially in situations where someone is extremely harsh towards themselves, to discover that this person has had a significant person in their lives who was also very critical. Often this person may be a parent, though in other times a teacher, a grandparent, a relative may have been severely critical. It is as if in these cases the client has internalized that person. Now the critical father, the critical teacher, resides within. It is as if that person is speaking, continuing to criticize, within the client. Only now the voice of that person is the client’s voice.

I have come to find that this critical part of the person’s inner world often serves as a kind of protector. In situations where a person’s anger, particularly as a young child, was not welcomed or seemed too scary, that person may have learned to direct those feelings in a safer way: towards oneself. If that person as a child grew up in a hostile or volatile environment, she may have learned that expressing her feelings of anger only contributed to the hostility and sense of pending doom and chaos. That person would by necessity have to learn to do something else with those feelings: repress them and direct them at herself. It is a truly sad and ironic state of affairs: by trying to protect oneself, this part of the psyche tears down and destroys oneself.

Clients with this severe inner critic often have harbored an unconscious assumption when it comes to anger. They believe that directing anger towards themselves allows them to do something “productive” with those feelings. Often a client, even now as an adult, will exclaim when we are working with anger, “Well, what’s the point? What is there to do with it?” Feelings of helplessness often accompany anger. A client will remark: “It would do no good to tell him I’m angry; he won’t change.” The unconscious assumption is then that to effect change the feelings need be directed at oneself.

And in some cases the internal critic functions as a motivator. Here again there is an unconscious assumption: if I can push myself through finding fault, I can better myself. When working with clients with this and other underlying assumptions about anger, there can be great ambivalence about change. If a person has motivated himself throughout his life through criticism of himself, he will be unwilling, even scared, to replace that mechanism for fear of stagnating in his life.

The goal when working with the inner critic is to come to understand the origins of its creation and finding ways to replace it with a more benevolent, compassionate part of the self. This is not easy work. Often the factors that contributed to creating this critic were quiet severe and occurred during a person’s early and vulnerable development. The habit of criticizing oneself is well formed. But I have seen people transform this part of themselves and replace it with a steady sense of self-compassion. When this occurs, the work of psychotherapy, though difficult and painful, is so well worth it.

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