Updated: Nov 25, 2021
“No one can beat up on me more than I beat on myself.”
I’ve written previously about the inner critic and how tough it can be to live with its harshness running our lives. The inner critic can be a relentless enforcer of self-doubt and self-blame. It can find fault in what we say, how we feel, and what we do. And it can leave us feeling anxious, exhausted, and alone.
Some of us can easily identify childhood criticisms from our caregivers that we absorbed and embodied as our own inner critic. For others, the source of our critical voice is less obvious. Either way, those of us who live critic-driven lives tend to depend heavily on that part of ourselves. In some sense, we might see our critic as the part of us who “pushes me to do better,” who can be “harsh for my own good,” or who keeps us vigilant, aware, and alert to external danger. From this vantage, it can be challenging to imagine living without that part of us. So ironically, we tend to cling to our inner critic – even as we recognize how limiting, exhausting, and damaging it can be.
So, if we are going to start relieving the inner critic from its “protective” duty, then we must trust something else within us to replace it. One approach to learning new self-talk and self-care practices, and moving away from old habits of self-abuse, is called reparenting.
The Inner Loving Parent
We can choose from a variety of terms to describe what we turn to instead of our critic, such as inner compassionate caregiver, inner healer, highest purpose, healthy adult self, true self, or even just “Self.” Traditional reparenting language uses “inner loving parent.” For some, this will produce an immediate woo-woo eye roll, and that’s OK. When we have lived critic-driven lives, then suggestions of non-critical alternatives to guide us can seem impossible and produce resistance. Reparenting doesn’t have to be woo-woo, though. The approach suggested here is based on the same principles as modern-day
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). And getting started is quite simple.
Reparenting in Four Steps:
Step 1: Identifying the Inner Critic
The first step towards discovering our inner loving parent is to identify how our inner critic shows up, which can vary for different people. For some, the inner critic manifests as a voice, or words and phrases in our self-talk, such as loser, stupid, ugly, lazy, worthless, fat . . . “not good enough,” “you screwed up again,” or “can’t you do anything right?” Another way our inner critic can show up is through sensations in our body. For example, we might feel burning in our stomach when our critic is active, tension in our chest, or tightening in our throat. Still, others experience their inner critic through imagery, such as memories from childhood, or as a visual representation in our mind like a cave or being lost at sea or floating in space, or seeing specific colors.
By recognizing when our inner critic is activated, we create opportunities to pause, or for a gap to appear – where something different can happen. We open a door for a more affirming part of ourselves to step in – our inner loving parent.
Step 2: Setting Boundaries with the Inner Critic
Confronting the inner critic with more harshness can be like pouring gas on the fire. “That which we resist persists.” However, to suggest the exact opposite – meeting the critic with love and compassion – can be a big ask. So instead, as a starting place, try approaching the inner critic with neutrality and see what happens. We can do this by taking a deep breath and setting a simple internal boundary - “No.” Or we can ask the critic to take a step back or turn down the volume.
Setting boundaries in this way is an act of self-love. Through this practice of gently, yet firmly, creating some breathing space with our inner critic (or critics), we grow our ability to access our inner loving parent. With some practice and patience, the qualities of this inner healer naturally emerge – what the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapeutic modality refers to as “The 8 C’s” - confidence, calmness, creativity, clarity, curiosity, courage, compassion, and connectedness. Some may doubt that they embody these qualities, but they are within all of us, and they have always been there. You can discover this for yourself as you begin to set boundaries with your inner critic. In the process, you may even get to understand your critic in new ways.
Step 3: Affirming Ourselves
While our inner critic lives in the extremes of all-or-nothing thinking, our inner loving parent brings our focus into the vast middle ground of “ok-ness” – into the present moment where life can feel a bit more do-able. “It’s OK,” asks us to relax our gripped fists, to ease our clenched jaw, and to soften our shoulders ever so slightly so that we can breathe a little more easily.
Our inner loving parent tells us it’s OK to feel whatever we are feeling . . . sadness, loneliness, fear, anger, frustration, or overwhelm. We tell ourselves it’s OK when we get tired and need rest. It’s OK to set limits with other people – to tell them no. It’s OK to have needs, and trust we can learn to meet our needs in healthy ways. It’s OK to ask for help, and learn to let others help us in healthy ways. It’s OK not to know all the answers, to make mistakes, and to give ourselves a break.
“It’s OK” allows us to affirm ourselves in the present moment. And from a place of greater compassion, we can more consciously and attentively find the next best steps to take care of ourselves in that moment.
Step 4: Tending to Our Feelings and Needs
Everyone has fundamental human needs, such as for safety, nourishment, stability, honesty, respect, connection, belonging, freedom, authenticity, and purpose. Our feelings can tell us when our needs are or are not being met. When we experience feelings we “like” (such as happiness, gratitude, or joy), our needs are most likely being met. When we feel uncomfortable emotions (such as anger, fear, loneliness, or sadness), some of our needs are most likely not being met.
So, the ongoing practice of reparenting involves recognizing our feelings and tending to our needs. For example, if we feel sad, we may need to cry and grieve a loss. If we feel angry, we may need to safely release the anger and determine how a boundary (either internal or external) may have been crossed. If we feel scared, we may need to remove ourselves from a situation or affirm our fear as we move forward, or ask a trusted friend for support. In time, as we patiently practice acknowledging our feelings and addressing our needs, we learn the compassionate practice of emotional self-care – the cornerstone of reparenting.
Our Younger Selves
Those having some familiarity with reparenting might be asking, “What about all the inner child stuff?” Like the term reparenting suggests, an inner child is traditionally at the heart of reparenting. However, the purpose of this article is to demonstrate that we can begin a reparenting practice even if we have some resistance to the idea of an inner child. If at some point we become more open to connecting with our inner child (or inner children), then our reparenting practice will likely grow stronger.
Humans seem to have an innate tenderness towards a child’s innocence that naturally evokes our compassion. Some may think of this as maternal or paternal instinct – something hardwired in our mammalian DNA. Others perhaps view this from a more spiritual perspective. Regardless, putting faces of our younger selves on our natural feelings and innate needs can be referred to as inner child work. And when we begin opening to the vulnerability of our younger selves, profound shifts can happen in both our inner and outer worlds.
Reparenting is about healing old wounds that manifest in our lives today. If, as adults, we have a robust inner critic, it is likely one or more of our childhood caregivers had difficulty accepting their own internal vulnerability. And in rejecting their own tender feelings and needs, they would have been uncomfortable when we, as dependent children, brought our feelings and needs to them. Thus, we learned to stuff our emotions and needs to protect ourselves from the shame of parental rejection. Through reparenting, we discover that our inner critic, as an old protection strategy, is often “beating up” on the most tender, vulnerable parts of us – our inner children. Recognizing this painful dynamic can strengthen our self-compassion and help us to stop our self-abuse.
A one-hour workshop by Lou Bardach providing a complete introductory overview on reparenting (free on YouTube): https://youtu.be/y746NGhZTeg
The Loving Parent Guidebook – a comprehensive reparenting workbook (now available on Amazon): https://www.amazon.com/Loving-Parent-Guidebook-Softcover-Spiralbound/dp/1944840141
Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families – A Twelve Step trauma recovery program where “The Solution is to become your own loving parent”: https://adultchildren.org/
Lou Bardach offers Coaching services and is currently a student intern at Cypress Wellness Center working toward LCSW licensure as a Master’s in Social Work student at the University of Central Florida. He has also studied the Internal Family Systems psychotherapeutic model through the IFS Institute’s Online Circle program. He believes health and well-being are cultivated through self-care -- by learning to become one’s own compassionate caregiver. As a gay man experienced in working with LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults, Lou is particularly interested in helping others heal from the effects of homophobia, transphobia, and other types of social oppression (ProjectNoLabels.org). Contact him/them at Lou@cypresswellnesscenter.com