Disarming the Inner Critic: Five Therapeutic Approaches
David Raughton, MFT ©2020
The Inner Critic is one of the most prevalent challenges with which psychotherapists engage. In my own therapy as a young man, my therapist, with her warmth, acceptance, and gentle questioning of my self-perceptions, helped me realize the negative impact of my harsh and unremitting self-criticism. Since then, I have incorporated in my work as a therapist several approaches for disarming the Inner Critic, which I will explore in this article.
Humans are unique in that they have a highly developed verbal language. The advantages of this trait are innumerable, including the ability to connect, create, and adapt. However, a negative effect of language is that we have a running internal commentary about ourself, often of a negative bent. Such negative self-talk can result in a great deal of emotional distress, inhibition, or acting out. A critical self-narrative has been referred to as the Inner Critic, the Pathological Critic, or an aspect of the Superego.
There are numerous ways the Inner Critic can develop. They include: blaming ourself for the failure of parents or others to meet our fundamental needs; taking on the hostile attitudes of others toward ourself; comparing ourself unfavorably to others; attempting to win the praise or approval of others through achievement or perfectionism; protecting ourself by criticizing ourself before others can; or inhibiting risk-taking because we believe we are inadequate to achieve certain goals, or that failure to reach our desired outcome would be catastrophic.
Drawing on several therapeutic approaches, I will discuss five strategies for disarming the Inner Critic. They are: Defuse; Dispute; Dialog; Displace; and Deepen. Depending on the individual and the nature of a particular Inner Critic attack, one or the other of these approaches may be most helpful.
Defuse: Defusion is a term from Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach developed by Steven Hayes, et al. Defusion refers to the observation of our experience, without being swept away by our reactive thoughts or feelings. When we believe our negative thoughts or over-identify with our feelings we put them in the driver’s seat. Negative thoughts can become more obsessive and painful feelings intensified. We then make decisions and act on those thoughts or feelings, rather than our core values or best interest.
The fundamental approach for cultivating defusion is mindfulness practice – the observation of our moment to moment experience. Or, more accurately, coming back to our present experience when we notice that we have been carried away by chains of thought. A common mindfulness practice is to concentrate on the moment to moment sensation of our breathing, such as the rising and falling of our diaphragm. When we notice that we are caught up in thoughts, daydreams, or other mental activity we bring our attention back to our sensations of breathing.
Besides mindfulness practices, ACT has developed other exercises to promote defusion. Techniques include visualizations, such as picturing thoughts sailing down a river on floating leaves. Another effective technique is simply to add the phrase “I’m having the thought that…. ” prior to an attack thought. This helps us recognize that thoughts are not the same as reality.
Let’s imagine a situation where defusion might be helpful. Jake is a young man who is attracted to a woman we will name Jennifer. Jake has the thought that “Jennifer will not want to go on a date with a schmuck like me.” Such thoughts may result in feeling discouraged or depressed, and lead to not finding out what Jennifer actually wants. By adding the phrase “I’m having the thought that…” Jake can recognize that the negative expectation is a thought, rather than a foregone reality. When we are not fused with the negative thought, we can be freer to take a risk and find out the truth.
Also, by not fusing to the negative thought, we can be more receptive to information that contradicts our preconceived belief. Possibly Jennifer really has sent signals that she has some romantic interest in Jake. But, of course, fusing with the thought, “Jennifer definitely wants me,” could also lead to problems.
Dispute: Disputing is another way of not buying into our self-defeating thoughts. The technique of disputing with negative thoughts is most associated with Cognitive Therapy, developed by Aaron Beck, et al. CT involves becoming fully aware of what we are telling ourselves, and then challenging negative automatic thoughts. We challenge them by questioning their efficacy, evidence, or rationality.
Questioning the efficacy of thoughts is simply to ask yourself, “What is the effect of this thought on my emotions or motivation?” or “Is this thought helpful?” At some level we believe self-criticism’s intent is to help us, such as to protect us by avoiding risk. Recognizing self-defeating thoughts as counterproductive, we can more easily disengage from the negative thoughts. A good follow-up question we can ask ourselves could be: “Is there another way to see this situation?” Having disengaged from the negative thoughts, this question can invite a larger or more helpful perspective.
Examining the evidence supporting or contradicting a negative thought can also be helpful. The intent of any of the strategies discussed in this article is not to convince ourselves of something that is not true. The truth is that the Inner Critic is nearly always distorted or unfair in its perspective. In the example of asking Jennifer on a date, the Inner Critic may tell Jake “She could never have any romantic interest in me.” Although that may be true in this case, Jake can’t really know until he asks her on a date, or at least gathers more information.
Making use of rationality is another way of disputing negative thoughts. CT has identified several cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are thoughts or beliefs that do not stand up to scrutiny. Three common cognitive distortions are: Mindreading, Catastrophizing, and Generalization. In our example, Jake would be mindreading if he assumes without sufficient evidence that Jennifer would not want to go out with him. He would be catastrophizing if he believes it would be devastating to his well-being if she says no. And, he would be generalizing if he accepted the Inner Critic’s conclusion that if Jennifer says no, he is unlikely to ever find a romantic partner.
We can dispute distortions by asking what is a more fair or accurate assessment of the situation. Jake might tell himself more accurately: “I don’t know what she might want at this point. It will be disappointing, but not catastrophic, if she says no. I might even feel better about myself for taking the risk of asking. Besides, although Jennifer may not have romantic interest in me, she is one individual, and not a barometer of all women in whom I might be interested.” If we challenge automatic Inner Critic distortions in this way, we are less likely to feel discouraged and less likely to avoid reasonable risks. This technique is most effectively done by writing the distorted automatic thoughts, noting their cognitive distortions, and then writing the more fair and accurate version.
ACT has taken the position that since automatic negative thoughts cannot be eliminated, it is better to defuse from them rather than dispute them. An approach that synthesizes ACT and CT is to use the meditation technique of labeling our thoughts. Once we have become familiar with our common cognitive distortions, when a negative thought occurs, we can label it in the moment by the name of its distortion. Labeling the thought in this way can help us more quickly recognize the counter-productiveness and unfairness of the thought, and disinvest from it.
Dialog: The approach of dialoging is intentionally facilitating communication between various parts within ourselves. Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz emphasizes dialoging. A premise of IFS is that all parts of ourselves, including the Inner Critic, have a positive underlying motivation. The Inner Critic might lurk in the background ready to pounce upon the occurrence of any perceived mistake or shortcoming. In so doing the Inner Critic might push us to exercise obsessive caution to avoid risk and at the same time work hard to gain approval.
IFS also posits a core referred to as the Self. The Self is able to observe and compassionately engage with the various parts. Through such dialoging, inner conflicts can be resolved, and we can then act in a way more congruent with our best interests.
The Self is often obscured by the cacophony of other parts. But with the intentional practice of mindfulness and compassion we can access the Self more fully. In Jake’s situation, after listening to the criticisms and self-doubt, Jake’s Self might say to his Inner Critic, “I understand you don’t want Jake to feel rejection. Would you be willing to step aside so that I can help Jake not experience a rebuff as something so awful? Then I will check back in with you. Together we can help Jake not take unreasonable risks, and engage with life more fully so that more of his needs may be met.”
In this approach no parts are banished. Creative resolutions are sought that acknowledge the needs and perspectives of all the parts. In some therapies the Inner Critic is seen as a nefarious force to be vanquished. Such approaches have made use of imagining destroying the Inner Critic. I question if such approaches weaken, much less destroy the Inner Critic. However, there is a place for forcefully standing up to the Inner Critic. For example, internally shouting “Enough!” when being harangued by the Inner Critic can quiet it. At other times, compassionately dialoging, as described above, is called for.
Displace: Displacing the Inner Critic is to intentionally bring compassionate attention to your pain when under Inner Critic attack. If we are able to recognize that the attacks are counter-productive, it can help us withdraw investment in the criticisms and self-doubt. Mathew McKay in his book Self-Esteem suggests adopting a philosophy of the inherent worth of each human. We are each human, therefore each of us is of value and deserving of love even with our shortcomings.
A way to practice this philosophy is to recall a person, real or imagined, who is wise and loving, and invite them to bring their kind attention to our hurting self. This brings clear contrast to the distorted and unfair attacks of the Inner Critic. Or, we can ask ourself, “If I were responding to a young child or a dear friend, what would I say or do?” Nearly always, we realize the harsh criticisms of the Inner Critic are not how we would want to respond to someone we love. If we intentionally love ourself, the appeals of the Inner Critic are weakened.
A more somatic approach is to place a hand on the heart and a hand on the belly. This physical gesture of cradling or embracing ourself is a way of accessing loving presence toward ourself. This is a type of mindfulness practice. However, rather than simply observing our experience, we are also intentionally bringing compassion to it.
An essential aspect of the caring attention being discussed here, is accepting our somatic/emotional experience exactly as it is. With our attention we study our experience with care and curiosity. Attempting to get away from our painful experience can be a subtle form of attack – non-acceptance of what is. Paradoxically, by staying with our experience, it is more likely to shift. As the common aphorism states, “The only way out is through.” Radical Acceptance is a term used by some Buddhist teachers to name the practice of being exquisitely with what is, noticing with as much detail and tenderness as we can, our moment to moment experience.
If Jake were to apply displacing as he contemplated asking Jennifer out, upon noticing he is predicting a negative outcome to himself, he might place his hands on his heart and belly, and be with his fear of rejection. He could study with his attention the heaviness in his heart and tightness in his throat. He might imagine sitting with a dear friend who is feeling discouraged and insecure. After directing kind attention to his experience, a loving message might come to him – “No matter how Jennifer responds, I can be there for myself.” He might then recognize that although he cannot control her response, his well-being need not depend on her. If she says yes, he can celebrate. If she says no, he will feel disappointed, but know he can be there for himself and not be devastated.
You may ask, does displacing the Inner Critic with love, then give us a pass on any behavior? Our conscience and the Inner Critic are not synonymous. When we act out of alignment with our values in a way that is harmful, healthy guilt occurs. Love toward ourself will help us reflect on our behavior, take corrective measures as needed, and forgive ourself. Also, if our relationship with ourself is a loving one, we are less likely to act in a hurtful way in the first place.
You may also ask, will I lose my motivation to achieve goals or apply myself in difficult situations if I adopt unconditional positive regard toward myself? We have an inherent desire to act on our needs and values. Loving ourself does not result in becoming unmotivated. Loving presence toward ourself not only provides comfort when in pain, but also guidance and encouragement for our next steps toward our goals. This is just as a loving parent would do. Skillful parents provide comfort, guidance and encouragement. Margaret Paul and Erika Chopich, in their book, Healing Your Aloneness, discuss many of the ideas I have included as part of Displacing. They have developed a six step process, which they call Inner Bonding, for cultivating a more healthy relationship with the Inner Child.
Deepen: In discussing the approaches so far, I have not emphasized understanding the core experiences which led to the development of the Inner Critic. While the strategies discussed thus far can be practiced on one’s own, deepening into core wounds is most effectively done in psychotherapy. The primary approach I use to deepen into core material is mindfulness based somatic psychotherapy. The particular approach I practice is the Hakomi Method, developed by Ron Kurtz.
Hakomi involves emotionally contacting and connecting with the client, then directing the client into mindfulness, and finally evoking and deepening into core material with gentle experiments. Skillfully conducted, this allows the emergence of core experiences. Core experience includes memories, body sensations, emotions, and beliefs associated with early wounds. Often vivid memories arise and strong emotions are released as one deeply connects with core experiences. Old self-defeating strategies can be unraveled, including the Inner Critic, which no longer serves us well.
Coming back to Jake, as he is encouraged in therapy to deepen by mindfully immersing himself into his insecurity about asking Jennifer out, painful tensions and other sensations may arise in his body. By staying with those sensations, associated memories may surface, such as memories of neglect he suffered as a child. In Jake’s early life perhaps both parents worked long hours, and had little attention to respond to his needs, and insufficient child care was provided. His prolonged neglect left him with a core belief that his needs for affection or attention are not welcome, and that he is not deserving of love. A simple statement by the therapist while Jake is mindfully immersed in his fear and insecurity that “your needs are important” might evoke strong emotions connected to what he experienced as a neglected child. Although one therapy session would not heal a deep-seated wound, over time bringing caring attention to the wounded inner child, Jake can build trust. Having established a relationship with the wounded inner child, Jake’s adult self and the therapist can help Jake to have new corrective experiences of closeness and emotional nourishment. Discouraging or self-defeating thoughts about relationships will be less likely to occur, or be taken less to heart.
Conclusion: You may have noticed that these five approaches are not completely distinct. For example, when we practice displacing or deepening, dialoging is also engaged. Or, when we use any of these approaches, we are less convinced by the Inner Critic, in other words, defused from it. However, each strategy emphasizes a different aspect of disarming the Inner Critic.
Because of the prevalence of the Inner Critic it is essential psychotherapists have strategies to contend with it. Every client I have known has exhibited an Inner Critic. The Inner Critic may vary from occasional unfair self-blame, to a persistent nag, to a belligerent bully, to a raging tyrant. It is a uniquely human characteristic, which goes along with our language skills. However, as has been elaborated in this article, our ability to Defuse, Dispute, Dialog, Displace, and Deepen can all be used to disarm the Inner Critic. All of the approaches include the intent to cultivate a more loving relationship with ourself, which expands our willingness to pursue our aspirations more freely.
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