The inner critic – what is it, how does it manifest, and how can it be managed? (I)

The inner critic is that voice voice within us that seems to always have something to say about our failures and weaknesses, which doubts our worth, underestimates our achievements, and amplifies our fears.

The inner critic is often associated with the concept of the Superego, but a rather malign version of it. The Superego is a part of the personality that internalizes values, norms, and social standards, as well as prohibitions, rules, and constraints imposed by society and our parents to gain their approval.

The voice of the critic, often painful and limiting, has its roots in our past experiences, especially in traumatic childhood events or situations where we felt repeatedly vulnerable, insecure, or unaccepted.

A childhood filled with dangers (abandonment, neglect, abuse), where the child does not feel safe and does not receive positive feedback from his parents, creates a fertile ground for the development of anxiety and fear among children. In an attempt to navigate these challenges, the child's Superego develops an excessive perfectionism.

Perfectionism becomes a survival strategy in a desperate effort to gain parental approval, but if these efforts fail to secure the desired approval, the inner critic becomes increasingly aggressive and hostile, constantly blaming the child for perceived flaws believed to cause parental rejection. It becomes difficult for the child to realize that their treatment is not a reflection of their own failings, but rather the shortcomings of their parents. This dynamic leads to a state of constant vigilance, where the child is always on alert, anticipating danger and failure, and viewing themselves through the lens of perceived inadequacies.

Parents who adopt a critical and rejecting attitude can encourage the development of a perception in children where their own feelings and opinions are seen as alarming imperfections. This "programming" manifests in situations where even the slightest attempt to share an idea or express a feeling can trigger an internal reaction of fear and shame. This harmful mechanism is fueled by the belief that any form of personal expression could expose the so-called lack of value or stupidity of the person, leading to even more pronounced rejection.

The continued experience of neglect and abuse solidifies the inner critic’s role, transforming personal thoughts and desires into catalysts for intense emotional responses. The elusive chase for parental approval can amplify the child’s perfectionist tendencies, which, in extreme cases, may evolve into obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In this scenario, merely imagining a mistake is enough to provoke a a virulent attack from the critic.

 A child controlled by the inner critic cannot develop a healthy sense of self or ego because they end up identifying with that critical voice inside them that focuses on the ways they fail to meet parental expectations.

Thus, the inner critic develops as an adaptive survival strategy to cope with a hostile or abusive living environment. Children living in an environment where they are subjected to physical, emotional, or psychological abuse may internalize the critical messages and negative judgments of their abusers. This can lead to severe self-judgment and self-hatred and contempt.

It's important to recognize that this inner critic does not reflect the absolute truth. It is the voice of abusers and critical authority figures from our past. Learning to differentiate between the inner critic and our authentic voice is the first step towards freeing ourselves from its limiting influence and towards building a positive relationship with ourselves.

The essential distinction between the inner critic and healthy self-assessment is how these internal voices influence us. Healthy self-assessment is balanced and can guide us towards improvement and growth, offering a realistic perspective on our weaknesses and areas we can develop. The inner critic, on the other hand, operates from a place of judgment and self-sabotage, focusing on negative aspects and ignoring our achievements, qualities, and potential. It tends to exaggerate, generalize, and demoralize us, causing us to lose hope and believe we cannot succeed.

The inner critic is perpetuated into adulthood even when the individual is no longer in an abusive environment and can prevent us from feeling safe, valued, or loved in the present.

It manifests in the following ways:

-through perfectionism – which initially forms as a coping strategy to gain safety and support from one’s parents: "if I am good, the best in school, the most obedient, etc., mom will not be mad at me, will not punish me, will be kind to me". The effort to be perfect is also a way for the child to acquire a sense of control because it's as if it provides direction or meaning, and imperfection becomes synonymous with shame and fear.

This belief can be countered with thoughts like: "I don't have to be perfect to be loved and to feel safe in my current relationships," and "making mistakes doesn't mean I am a failure." Accepting imperfection as part of the human condition and practicing self-compassion can help us overcome the barrier of perfectionism;

-through all-or-nothing thinking: "I'm never good enough," "I always mess up." In this case, it's necessary to start rejecting extreme judgments and criticisms or those based on generalizations – do you really always mess up?;

-through toxic shame and self-contempt - toxic shame arises when a person internalizes the belief that they are fundamentally flawed, inadequate, or unworthy of love. When shame becomes toxic, it's no longer just about specific actions or behaviors but turns into a fundamental belief about oneself. Abuses, abandonment, and the contempt of parents towards their child generate toxic shame. Thus, the inner critic comes to mimic the contempt of the parents.

Shame is often a social emotion, but in the case of toxic shame, it can be triggered even when we are alone – when we make a mistake or fail to perform a task efficiently, the resulting anxiety can be so intense that it feels like we are being watched and criticized, as if in the presence of our parents. This reflects the internalization process of our parents, who become dominant presences in our psyche, bringing with them their beliefs and criticisms about us.

Shame can also be perceived as guilt turned against oneself. Children often see their parents as omnipotent and perfect. Faced with negative behaviors or abuse from them, children may feel that the only option is to blame themselves to maintain the positive image they have of their parents. This is a form of emotional survival, a defense mechanism that helps us maintain a coherent view of the world in which "parents are good," even if it means perceiving ourselves as "bad" or "flawed."

As adults, we have the opportunity to reassess relationships and perceptions formed in childhood and redirect undue self-blame towards those who abused us, thus interrupting the flow of shame from the critic. Redirection does not mean blaming them in a way that creates conflict, but rather acknowledging that their negative actions and behaviors had an impact on us, and it's not our fault for those actions.

Behind feelings of shame, there may lurk a fundamental fear of rejection, loss, or failure. Often, shame hides a deep fear of not being good enough, of not living up to our own or others' expectations. This fear can be linked to the desire to be loved, accepted, and valued by those around us. It's often surprising to discover that behind harsh criticism lies a deep need for security, acceptance, or love;

-through devaluing comparisons with others - often, these comparisons are not realistic or fair, as people tend to compare their worst aspects with the best aspects of others, ignoring the unique context and circumstances of each person. Everyone has a unique journey, with their own challenges and victories, and comparisons with others are irrelevant and unhealthy, especially since we only see a small part of their reality. For instance, most people post on social media their happiest moments, achievements, and positive aspects of their lives, leaving aside difficulties, failures, or mundane moments. This creates an unrealistically positive image of their lives, which can be mistakenly perceived by others as representative of their entire existence. Constantly observing these idealized images, we can develop unrealistic standards for our own lives and achievements. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-devaluation, and chronic dissatisfaction, as real life rarely matches these idealized standards;

-through guilt – guilt as a manifestation of the inner critic reflects an internal struggle where the person feels responsible or guilty for events or situations not necessarily within their control or for which the responsibility is exaggerated. As a child, you might have felt guilty for how others treated you, even though you were not to blame for their toxic behaviors. The inner critic can amplify these feelings of guilt, turning them into a constant source of stress and self-reproach. For instance, you may feel overwhelming guilt for minor mistakes or commonplace events, interpreting them as much more severe than they are in reality, or you might feel guilty about certain events or situations over which you have no control, like others' behavior or certain unfortunate events. However, the inner critic uses these occasions to reinforce the belief that you are fundamentally flawed or bad – "if I hadn't said that, I wouldn't have provoked them, I can't do anything right." Guilt can distort the perception of relationships, causing individuals to withdraw or overly sacrifice themselves in an attempt to "make up" for their presumed mistakes.

Learning to recognize when the inner critic activates feelings of guilt and to challenge the validity of these automatic thoughts, being compassionate and gentle with yourself, acknowledging that mistakes and imperfections are part of the human experience, and understanding that you are not to blame for the reactions and behaviors of other people (often guilt is induced through manipulation and emotional blackmail), understanding that feeling guilty does not equate to being guilty, and rejecting decision-making based on guilt are important steps in the healing process;

-through "should" – the phrase "should" is often a clear signal of the inner critic's activity, reflecting imposed internal standards and unrealistic expectations on oneself. The repeated use of this expression can indicate a tendency to live according to rigid and often unrealistic standards adopted from outside, standards so high they become impossible to meet, leading to constant feelings of failure, disappointment, guilt, inadequacy, and anxiety.

When people guide themselves by a strict set of internal rules marked by "should," any deviation from these can generate intense feelings of guilt and self-criticism. This can lead to a cycle of self-sabotage, where the person feels stuck between unrealistic expectations and their own reality.

Moreover, "should" can limit the exploration and authentic expression of the self, as you might feel compelled to act in ways that do not reflect your true desires or values, but rather what you believe is expected of you. Paradoxically, the pressure generated by "should" can lead to procrastination and avoidance. The fear of not meeting these expectations can be so overwhelming that it becomes easier not to try at all than to try and "fail."

The first step in reducing the power of "should" is to be aware of when we use this expression and to challenge its necessity. By asking ourselves "why should I?" and "what happens if I don't?", we can begin to deconstruct unrealistic expectations. Replacing "should" with softer and more flexible formulations, such as "I could," "I want to," or "I would like to," can reduce internal pressure and help us realize we have more options than we thought;

-through the need to be always busy – the need to be always busy can be a manifestation of the inner critic, often reflecting an internal struggle with feelings of inadequacy, fear of not being good enough, or trying to avoid confronting painful or uncomfortable emotions. This behavior pattern can serve as a defense mechanism meant to distract us from thoughts and feelings that might be perceived as too difficult or painful to address directly.

Thus, continuous activity provides us with a temporary illusion of control and purpose, masking our inner wounds. Additionally, personal worth is often tied to productivity and success. Therefore, the inner critic can use this cultural norm to push us towards being constantly busy as a way to validate our own worth in our and others' eyes – "you're worthless, you have to work hard and prove that maybe you're good for something."

Learning to say "no" and establishing healthy boundaries between work and personal life is essential in reducing the need to be constantly busy.

Practicing meditation and allocating time for personal reflection can help understand the deep reasons behind the need to be always busy and process repressed emotions.

Working on separating personal worth from productivity and external achievements can help us realize that self-worth comes from who we are, not necessarily from what we do.

Practicing self-compassion can reduce the impact of the inner critic, giving us permission to rest and be unproductive without feelings of guilt or shame.

In the second part of this article, we will continue to discuss how the inner critic manifests, its impact on our lives, and what steps we can take to manage it more effectively.

Dr. Ursula Sandner



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