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

We will continue the article (see the first part here), listing further the ways in which the inner critic manifests:

-harsh self-judgments – harsh judgments directed at oneself can come in the form of thoughts or beliefs that denigrate, punish, or discourage the person, often in unrealistic or excessively harsh ways. You constantly criticize yourself for your actual or perceived mistakes, impose unrealistic standards of perfection on yourself and then harshly criticize yourself when you inevitably cannot meet them, use a single negative experience or mistake as proof that you are fundamentally incapable or flawed, the way you talk to yourself in your inner dialogue is often negative and absolute - "never/always", "I am a loser", "I am useless", you maximize failures and minimize your achievements.

The inner critic can maximize any mistake or failure, making them seem catastrophic and defining for someone and can minimize or ignore accomplishments and success, no matter how significant they are. This can lead to feelings of unfulfillment and an endless pursuit of perfection, fear of trying new things, or avoiding situations where there is any risk of failure. Practicing the recognition and celebration of one's own successes and adopting a more balanced perspective, acknowledging that mistakes are a normal and necessary part of learning and growth can help us counter these aspects of the inner critic;

-imagining danger – the inner critic bombards our mind with thoughts and images that cause us fear. The critic is hypervigilant and sees disasters everywhere, as if it were addicted to observing potential dangers. The critic's process of imagining danger is similar to the process of making a horror movie that might have as its main subject: incurable diseases, dying alone, stark poverty ("I'll end up on the streets"), public humiliation, imminent attacks, etc.;

-the sensation that other people can attack you at any moment - the feeling that other people can attack you at any moment often reflects a state of emotional hypervigilance and can be a manifestation of the inner critic amplifying fear and insecurity in interpersonal relationships. This feeling can be related to previous experiences of criticism, rejection, or trauma, causing the person to be constantly on guard and to negatively anticipate interactions with others.

The constant sense of threat can increase the levels of anxiety in the presence of other people, even in ordinary or neutral situations, or may lead to avoiding social situations or withdrawing from relationships, limiting opportunities for connection and support.

You might unconsciously sabotage relationships through defensive behaviors or by negative interpretations of others' intentions.

It's important to recognize and validate the fear of attack as a real emotional reaction, even if it's not always based on objective reality. Most people are not a threat, and there are resources to protect yourself against those who are.

Practicing mindfulness  can help in noticing the moments when the inner critic activates this fear, thereby distancing yourself from automatic reactions.

Also, relaxation practices, such as deep breathing and meditation, can reduce the physiological response to fear and improve the ability to manage stress.

Improving self-esteem and confidence in one's abilities to cope with social situations can reduce the perception of vulnerability;

-negative focus, worry, obsessive thoughts - you may tend to disproportionately focus on the negative aspects of life, ignoring or minimizing achievements or positive aspects; you might have excessive concerns about the future or create negative scenarios and feel that certain thoughts or fears are constantly repeating, even though you realize they are irrational or exaggerated. The critic manifests in this way because it expresses the voice of your fears from childhood – the fear that something bad will happen because you are not "good enough" and deserve something bad to happen (for example, if you showed anger in the face of unfair punishments, you were even more severely punished), the fear that whatever you do, you cannot please others, and your behaviors are, thus, futile – "you're a loser, you're good for nothing", etc.

What can help is to identify, challenge, and reframe negative thoughts and irrational assumptions. This process often involves replacing these thoughts with more realistic and constructive alternatives;

-time crisis - the time crisis or the persistent feeling that there is not enough time to accomplish all tasks and responsibilities can be a manifestation of the inner critic amplifying pressure and stress. This feeling can be fueled by unrealistic self-expectations, perfectionism, and a need to meet all demands - real or perceived - to high standards, often to the point of impossibility. Essentially, the time crisis reflects not just effective time management but also how we evaluate our capacities, set priorities, and relate to internal and external expectations.

The time crisis can manifest as: trying to accomplish too many tasks in a limited amount of time, often without considering the realism of these expectations; procrastinating on tasks due to anxiety or fear of failure, leading to their accumulation and an increased perception of time crisis; wanting to complete each task to excessively high standards, consuming unrealistic time and contributing to the feeling of constant pressure.

It's important to analyze rationally the expectations you have from yourself and adjust the standards to be more realistic and achievable.

The feeling that you do not have enough time may stem from a lack of control experienced in childhood, and it's important to realize that now you can control how you manage your time, priorities, and also that you can say "no" to external requests, demands, and unrealistic expectations.

-exaggeration, catastrophizing – these cognitive distortions reflect the tendency to interpret and evaluate situations in excessively negative and unrealistic ways. For example, you anticipate the worst possible scenario, even though it is highly unlikely, or assume that any small problem or mistake will have devastating consequences. This thinking can paralyze action and induce strong states of anxiety and fear, but these feelings do not necessarily mean that there is a real danger. Asking whether there are real evidences to support these thoughts and if there are alternative or more nuanced explanations, as well as refusing to alarm yourself with catastrophic scenarios can reduce the power of the inner critic;

-hypochondria involves an excessive and constant concern for one's own health, a persistent fear of getting sick. This concern becomes so dominant that it can negatively affect the person's quality of life. In this context, the inner critic can play a role by amplifying fears and doubts, encouraging negative interpretations of bodily sensations, and promoting a cycle of seeking reassurances that do not bring long-term relief.

People with hypochondria tend to be overly attentive to their body, interpreting any unusual or minor sensation as a possible sign of a serious illness. The inner critic can intensify this focus, turning self-observation into self-accusation and fueling a cycle of anxiety and compulsive checking.

The constant need for medical reassurance or from those around is often an attempt to calm the fears generated by the inner critic. However, it remains unsatisfied, thus perpetuating the worry.

People with hypochondria can develop feelings of frustration, shame, or guilt related to their fears.

The impact of the inner critic

The inner critic has a greater impact on us than just the sensation of psychological discomfort; it shapes the reality we live in, our self-perceptions, and the relationships we create. Psychologically, the presence of a severe inner critic can be fertile ground for the development of anxiety and depression. These states are not just passing emotional responses but can become persistent states that affect our ability to function and enjoy life. Also, the inner critic can erode self-esteem, leaving us feeling insignificant and worthless.

In the professional life and in our relationships, the inner critic makes its presence felt through self-sabotage and avoidance. It can prevent taking risks or trying new opportunities for fear of failure or judgment. In relationships, it can create a protective wall, preventing the building of authentic and deep connections.

The inner critic is often closely linked to procrastination, perfectionism, and fear of failure. Perfectionism, fueled by the fear of not being good enough, can lead to delaying decisions or starting new projects for fear of making mistakes. The fear of failure, on the other hand, can be paralyzing, preventing us from trying new opportunities or taking risks.

There are certain steps we can take to manage the inner critic:

-awareness and identification of critical thoughts - the first step is to become aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that burden us. This means being attentive to the moments when we judge or criticize ourselves harshly, when we devalue ourselves, catastrophize, or focus on what "we can't do";

-countering critical thoughts – these are often exaggerated or distorted, and it is good to find realistic arguments or alternatives to counter these thoughts. Start developing an inner dialogue that supports and encourages you.

Changing the way we talk to ourselves requires practice and patience, as it involves seeing ourselves and our situations in a gentler and more realistic light. Once you begin to notice your negative thoughts, you start gradually replacing them with messages of encouragement and acceptance;

-thought stopping technique is an awareness and control exercise, where we use our will to distance ourselves and stop the wave of negative thoughts and images flooding our mind. An effective method might be to imagine, while telling the inner critic "no!", "stop!" or "be quiet!", a "STOP" sign or a powerful visual symbol that helps us stop this endless flow of negativity.

Saying a determined "No!" to our inner critic creates an essential boundary against its destructive processes directed against the self.

In the context of traumas caused by parents or caregivers, which affected the child's natural defense mechanism, namely the fight response, rediscovering and leveraging the anger related to this response become essential for healing. Therefore, we can use our anger to stop the critic or redirect it towards him by saying "stop!" or towards anyone who has helped form this inner critic.

This symbolic gesture works as a tool in building a safe internal space, strengthening the self-defense instinct;

-psychotherapy – working with a psychotherapist can help you explore and understand the origins of the inner critic. This may involve exploring experiences and traumas from childhood or other periods of your life that contributed to the formation and internalization of critical messages. It can help you in the process of understanding and modifying your inner dialogue, as well as your reactions and perspectives;

-developing compassion and acceptance - this can involve taking greater care of oneself, practicing gratitude, developing a healthy lifestyle, allocating time for activities that bring joy and fulfillment, learning to accept ourselves as we are, with all our imperfections, and treating ourselves with the same kindness and indulgence we would offer to a dear friend in their difficult moments;

-mindfulness practices can help us notice the presence of the inner critic without identifying with its messages. This allows us to distance ourselves from criticisms and see them as fleeting thoughts, not absolute realities.

As we work on developing a healthier relationship with ourselves, it's important to be aware of potential relapses. The inner critic can reappear, especially in times of stress or change, and particularly at these times, it's important not to blame ourselves for "not being good enough" and therefore relapsing (this is still the critic's voice), but to continue confronting the inner critic's negative messages ("I'm a loser") with positive ones ("I am good enough as I am", "I refuse to treat myself badly") and to correct or stop them. I also invite you to write a list of your qualities and achievements to revisit whenever the critic's voice causes you to lose yourself in feelings of shame or self-disgust. Positive visualization, remembering your past successes, and invoking images of those successes can also be helpful.

Every step you take towards understanding and softening this inner voice is a step towards a more fulfilled and authentic life. Remember, you are much more than your inner critic; you are a complex being, capable of growth, change, and learning. The journey towards self-acceptance and compassion is full of challenges, but it is undoubtedly one of the most valuable journeys we can make.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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