Where are you when you notice that inner voice saying how much better you’d be if only you’d ______ (you fill in the gap). Are you at home with the kids, at work in a meeting, looking in the mirror, or just alone with your thoughts? That nagging, repetitive, negative self-talk can strike anywhere, but particularly when you’re stressed, depressed or run down. You need to recognise this voice when it’s there, know where it comes from and then either modify accordingly or just simply put it in its place (outside your head).
What is the inner critic?
“I’m ugly, I’ll never get anywhere in life; I’m worthless, I’m not as good as others; no one could love me; I’m useless if I make mistakes; I’m boring, I’m going to stuff it up again, I’m just not good enough” and all sorts of other harsh words are all the voice of the inner critic. It is your voice speaking, your inner dialogue, the words or phrases you say to yourself in a tone and manner that is judgemental, demanding or nasty. But you weren’t born with these thoughts, they were all learned, directly or indirectly from your earlier experiences. Your inner critic comes from messages you received from parenting and other early life events like bullying or other forms of social learning (including mistreatment). They come from learning around how you were treated and valued (or not valued), and the things you saw in other people’s relationships when you were a little person. We all, depending on our own temperaments, internalised or introjected these ‘messages’ during our formative years and they became woven into the fabric of our evolving personality. That’s why we don’t tend to question them – because by adulthood, they are a fundamental part of our identify.
Who is my Inner Critic?
In schema therapy we divide the inner critic into two types: one is a fear-based part (we call this the “demanding parent”), and the other is a nasty, mean part (we call this the “punitive parent”). This distinction is important because in therapy we target these parts in different ways and they can affect a person’s mental health to different degrees.
The demanding parent part (or mode) is fear-driven because it tells you that if you don’t do something or be something, then everything will fall apart. This part is unrelenting in its effort to get you to be better in some way. “Don’t stop studying because if you do you’ll fall behind and then you’ll fail and then you will be unemployable and have no money…….” “You have to look perfect all the time because if you don’t you’ll never meet anyone and you’ll be alone forever!” “Whatever you do don’t make a mistake because if you do others will see that you are an imposter and that you don’t have what it takes!” Basically, if you don’t follow the ‘advice’ of your demanding parent then you are doomed to failure or loneliness or some other sort of misery. People who are very perfectionistic have a strong demanding parent mode. They have huge amounts of anxiety which they manage by attempting to control every outcome with all sorts of coping behaviours (eg, being a ‘workaholic’; a ‘control-freak’; doing all the work and not delegating anything; checking their work excessively and countless more). If you’re a perfectionist you may have already realised that you’re inner critic never shuts up and you’re always listening in for its updates. You may have also realised that perfectionism is highly correlated with mental health problems and is a big risk factor for depression. I like to remember this: we live in a very imperfect world. This world is full of people, all of whom are imperfect and operate within countless imperfect systems. Imperfection is all around you, so why should you expect yourself to be perfect?
The punitive parent mode is not fear-driven and it’s not trying to frighten you into doing something because it believes (albeit flawed) you need it. Punitive parent is a nasty voice that is demeaning and tells you that you are worthless, useless or defective in some way. This voice is often formed from direct and blatant verbal/psychological abuse from care-givers or others who hurt you in some way. It can also be formed because you did not receive positive messages about being valued, ‘seen’, respected & loved. It can often come about from a combination of early experiences where the child felt unseen and worthless because their emotional needs were not met. It’s important to remember that we are not born into the world with a sense of self-worth (psychologically speaking). We develop this sense of worth only if we are cared for in a way that makes us feel emotionally understood and validated. We need to be seen as a separate person with our own needs – physical, emotional and social. Someone with a strong punitive parent mode may believe deep down that they don’t deserve good things, that they are worthless and unworthy of love. Sometimes the punitive parent voice can be extremely strong and can cause people to hurt themselves or try to take their own lives. Generally speaking, the louder this voice, the more at risk a person is of suffering from recurrent or persistent depression. It is the presence and strength of the punitive parent voice which often predicts how people cope over time and how much they struggle with persistent low mood. Do you have a Punitive Parent inside your head? Please don’t believe it.
Fortunately, we can do something about both these types of inner critics! The goal of working on the demanding parents is to tame it, to dilute it down to an acceptable level where it helps you instead of hindering you. Because the punitive parent voice does not help you in any way, the goal is to override it in therapy with proven strategies using Schema Therapy. We use all sorts of creative ways to destabilize the punitive parent, so that it’s ‘presence’ is either fully eradicated or reduced to an insignificant level.
The key antidote of both these forms of inner critic is of course self-compassion and self-love. In Schema Therapy we refer to this as the ‘Healthy Adult’ mode. In schema therapy we want to heal the childhood vulnerabilities that believe the negative critical voices and also bolster the self-compassionate part of the person – their Healthy Adult.
You can start by being more aware of those critical thoughts that you may have been taking for granted. Those voices are not truths about you, they are simply learned parts of the self, no matter how real they feel. You ultimately need to see them for what (or who) they are and begin to view yourself through the lens of self-compassion. Just think how refreshing that would be and how lighter you would feel.
Good luck with taming your Inner Critic!
This Blog was written by Dr Gemma Gladstone.