Updated: Jul 1, 2021
“The inner critic is the voice, images, or feelings that tell us we are not good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough -- that we are inherently and fundamentally broken, and that no one else understands us. This inner critic repeats the harsh, aggressive messages that incessantly find fault in actions, thoughts, and feelings - both in ourselves and in others. The critic is the internal sense of doubt, blame, or disgust that undermines our relationships and our chances for authentic connection."
Many carry an inner critic within us. For some, awareness of this critic is already a conscious experience. For others, it is more insidious. Some say the inner critic can stay hidden so easily because it speaks to us in our own voice – it just seems like a “normal” part of our inner self-talk and our being.
Some people experience their inner critic as a nuisance . . . a part of us that can arise at times but seems to naturally fade quickly. Others experience their inner critic as a much more dominant, tormenting force in their inner world. If this, is you, then you probably already know how pervasive and unrelenting this part of us can be. In these cases, an inner critic can be incredibly painful and exacerbate mental health issues such as dissociation, depression, and anxiety.
Some believe dealing with the inner critic is as simple as replacing negative thinking patterns and beliefs with positive ones: “Just think happy thoughts.” From this perspective, a healthy dose of positive affirmations is the solution. They might additionally suggest casting away the inner critic, doing whatever it takes to distance oneself from persistent negativity. Some say this approach works for them – at least as a starting place.
Changing beliefs and perceptions through meditative practices
When I began meditating -- slowing down my mind and paying closer attention to my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations – I gradually became much more aware of my hidden inner critic. And to be clear, coming into this greater awareness can be a painful process. Initially, I saw my inner critic as an abuser, and I wanted to get as much distance as possible and banish it from my life. I took an aggressive stance. In time, however, I realized that by doing battle with my critic, I seemed to be feeding and strengthening it: “That which you resist, persists.” And through my own inner work, I’ve come to believe that no part of me is to be rejected -- and that includes the challenging, inner critical part (or parts) of me.
So, I shifted tactics. When my harsh self-talk would arise, I began setting internal boundaries or limits with a simple and respectful “No.” My goal was to take a firm but neutral tone with my inner critic (like one might do with a child). This approach began to work, and I was soon experiencing a greater sense of inner spaciousness and safety in my life -- some “breathing room.” Eventually, I started to become curious about my inner critic . . . why was it there, and where did it come from?
In time, it became clear that my inner critic had developed a very long time ago in childhood, and it had been with me throughout my life. I discovered that my inner critic activated my protection systems – that by keeping me small and scared, I would expose my vulnerabilities less and harden my various forms of armor (like people-pleasing, caretaking, achieving, etc.). But while this survival strategy served me in childhood, it also came at huge costs, -- emotional isolation and disconnection, both from myself and others.
Relating to your inner critic
Today, I have a much more conscious and respectful relationship with my inner critic. It can still be painful and disorienting when that part of me gets intensely activated (either towards myself or others), but I know its intentions are for my protection. I can now ask my inner critic to take a step back or turn down the volume, and more often than not, my inner critic will listen. And as the resulting sense of safety and peace grows inside me through this practice, I become more available to connect with others in deeper and healthier ways.
Lou Bardach 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 is also studying the Internal Family Systems psychotherapeutic model through the IFS Institute’s introductory Online Circle program. He believes that 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