Disarming the Inner Critic: Five
Raughton, MFT ©2020
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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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struggling and start living: A guide to ACT. Boston, MA: Trumpeter
Hayes, S. C.
(2005). Get out of your mind and into
your life: The new Acceptance Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New
(2007) Body-centered psychotherapy: The
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