Listening to our inner critic
Michael is a bright and sensitive man in his 30s. He is the youngest of four siblings and grew up in what, from the outside, seemed like a happy and stable home. In many ways it was indeed happy, but Michael always felt like an after-thought to his parents. He struggled to feel seen and loved, and tried very hard, in many unspoken ways, to find his place in the family. The weight of this longing and the intensity of his efforts became overwhelming as a teenager, when he abruptly fell into a deep depression.
After college he had a number of jobs and romantic relationships, all of which left him feeling drained. For a long time he struggled to recognize his value and skills, doubted his capacity to love and work, and felt flawed and inadequate. Unsurprisingly, Michael felt constantly reminded of all this by a very loud and active inner critic.
We all have a voice in our head that is critical, judgmental, and disapproving of ourselves. That voice can be mild and not always present. We may hear it in specific situations or with specific people. Sometimes, however, that inner voice is constantly giving us unsolicited commentary and incessant chatter, becoming part of what Buddhists would call our Monkey Mind.
A quick Google search for “inner critic” results in advice on how to silence, get rid of, overcome, or ignore this voice. This advice usually entails a number of steps that promise quick relief. They include becoming aware of the self-criticism, conducting reality-testing to check it against the evidence, separating ourselves from the critical voice, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, and having a realistic appraisal of the criticism’s implications and consequences.
These are basic cognitive-behavioral tools sprinkled with some mindfulness, which can definitely be helpful for some people in certain situations. I understand that if people feel their inner critic is a nuisance, they may want to shut it down. However, there is something about the notion of disproving, silencing, or reasoning away our inner voice that doesn’t feel right to me.
Not all criticism is created equal
When I hear the inner critic from people like Michael, or myself for that matter, I wonder what that voice is really saying. The messages we are aware of might be “I could never start a conversation with a stranger” or “I don’t know how to ask for what I need,” but what they really say is “I am broken and don’t deserve to be loved” or “my needs don’t really matter.” I believe that it makes a big difference whether the judgment is about our actions, or about who we are as human beings.
When the latter happens, the voice in our head is carrying a message of shame. It tells us we are not smart enough, attractive enough, funny enough, or good [fill in the blank] enough. That voice is abundant in “shoulds”, telling us that we should behave, should think, or should feel differently, and that there is something fundamentally wrong about us if we don’t or can’t.
To make things more complicated, our inner critic is not only active when we hear it and it doesn’t only manifest verbally. Michael’s depression during his adolescence, for example, could be understood as a massive expression of his inner critic. Those years were embedded with feelings of helplessness, hopeless, and worthlessness. The connection between depression and self-deprecation is not new; Sigmund Freud discussed it eloquently a hundred years ago, in his paper “Mourning and Melancholia.”
From trauma to self-criticism
I am not sure the messages from Michael’s inner critic, as a teenager and as an adult, were distortions that could be corrected with reality testing and cognitive reframing. Michael tried those things before I became his therapist, and in a way they set him up to feel more shame. There had to be something wrong with him, he told himself, if he couldn’t get better by thinking better. He started developing acceptance and feeling more compassion toward himself once he started understanding that his inner critic was an expression of the trauma he had experienced, and the feelings he had learned to ignore as a result.
The trauma Michael experienced did not require a specific event. His parents had a relatively stable marriage without significant economic difficulties, and he didn’t recall anybody being verbally, physically, or sexually abusive at home or elsewhere. However, he grew up experiencing emotional neglect, not feeling seen or loved unconditionally. He learned that no matter how hard he tried, he would remain invisible and his needs for connection would not be met. As a result, there were parts of himself that remained invisible and disconnected from his own awareness.
This is part of what is called fragmentation, which is one of the key features of trauma. Our sense of self is split and we may lose contact with some parts of who we are. These parts may hold overwhelming feelings that are too hard to tolerate, let alone accept, such as pain, hatred, terror, or desolation. Some of these feelings might turn into anger, which we may then direct at ourselves. That is often times what is behind our inner critic, anger that is really masking sadness, fear, pain, or emptiness.
Move toward, not away
If our inner critic is a part of ourselves that we disowned, seeing it as the enemy means seeing ourselves as the enemy. Trying to silence or ignore that voice means trying to silence or ignore a part of ourselves that is suffering, a part that may have already been struggling to find its own voice for a very long time. Feeling ignored, silenced, or invalidated was precisely part of the problem, as it contributed to give birth to our harsh inner critic in the first place.
Because of this, the question I try to answer with my patients is not so much how to silence that critical voice, although that might be important to address, but why is it there? What happened to them, first to feel so angry, and then to direct that anger to themselves? And, more importantly, is it possible for the two of us to keep a curious stance and an open mind toward his inner critic, to be able to listen to it with compassion and kindness, and to become willing to accept it, embrace it, and love it?
Listening doesn’t mean agreeing with what it says. Accepting it doesn’t mean taking on its criticism. Embracing it doesn’t mean believing that its judgements are fair or accurate. But unless we do those things, that part of us will remain unseen and unheard.
The judgement, criticism, and negative self-talk can be very harsh, cruel, or even hateful, but they are usually symptoms of old wounds that run very deeply. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Within ourselves, only love toward our inner critic can begin to heal the wounds that hide behind its harshness.
It is true that self-criticism can sometimes get in the way of our accomplishments, boycott our relationships, and put a hurdle to our growth. However, the main challenge is not really to eradicate, tame, ignore, or disprove our inner critic, but to be able to hold it with love and make space for the feelings it carries within. The more difficult and upsetting it becomes, the more patience and kindness it probably needs. Our inner critic is a part of who we are and it deserves, like every other part of us, our unconditional love and regard. The journey toward a fulfilling and wholesome life is long and worthwhile, but we cannot really take it if we cut off a part of ourselves.