The inner-critic can be experienced as an internal voice that is critical, judgmental or demeaning. This inner-voice is often experienced as thoughts, feelings and stories about yourself. It can sound like “I can’t believe you did THAT, ” or “you’re so stupid” in response to messing up at work or saying something awkward in a social interaction. When you make a mistake, your inner-critic may be the first to tell you the story of, “this is what you always do, ” or “you’re hopeless and everyone knows it!”. The inner-critic is not only harsh when you make mistakes, but often tears you down when you accomplish a goal, “you could’ve done better” or, “don’t be too proud, don’t get too comfortable.” With a harsh inner-critic, it can seem as though nothing you do is good enough.
We often believe that everything the inner-critic says is true; we think we’re inherently flawed, or not good enough. We may blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong in our lives, and start believing that something is wrong with us. On the inside, you might feel that other people are more worthy than you; you might feel shame about who you are. The inner-critic runs a steady stream of commentary about your life, blaming you for life’s natural peaks and valleys- the ups and downs of being human. The inner-critic may use anything in effort to keep you on your toes, criticizing yourself, not allowing you to feel satisfied with who you are and what you’re doing. The inner-critic blames and shames you, but for what reason? Why is this happening? What is it trying to do?
In this article, we will discuss the origin of the inner-critic and what it’s trying to accomplish by making itself present in the psyche. We will begin to explore ways in which you can get to know your inner-critic, and perhaps you can begin to find a hint of compassion for this misunderstood part of yourself.
Where did it come from?
There are many ways in which the inner-critic comes into existence. For the sake of this article, we will focus on the influence of our primary caretakers in early childhood. Primary caretakers could be parents, extended family members, adopted parents, foster parents or anyone else that was responsible for you in your early childhood. Your primary caretakers were the people whom you relied on for survival when you were too little to care for yourself. We learn how to treat ourselves based on how we were treated in early childhood. If we were criticized in early childhood, we learn to be hard on ourselves. If our parents fail to soothe us, we may grow up with a deficit in ability to calm ourselves down during emotional upheaval. We internalize messages from early childhood about self-worth, we learn how to relate to ourselves from those closest to us. Our inner-critic may be the voice, or take on the persona of a highly influential figure from our early childhood.
When you were young, you could not walk out of the house and obtain a therapist if your household became hostile, toxic or abusive. You couldn’t stay with a friend, or rent a studio apartment if things were overwhelming at home. You had little choice because you relied on others. So, you had to come up with strategies in order to survive the unbearable. One of those strategies might have been the development of your inner-critic.
Past influences Present
As children we have so little control over our environments, we often turn inwardly and try and find ways in ourselves that we can change the environment around us. If the environment is bad, our survival is threatened. To deal with our survival being threatened, we may begin to blame ourselves for the problems around us. If it’s our fault, we can find a solution within. It gives us the illusion of control. If you were being abused as a child, you may have started to believe the abuse was happening because “you were bad,” or “you deserve it.” Then, you have a chance at changing “the badness” in you, and ending the abuse. Your inner-critic came into existence as a protector. It’s trying to keep you in line, or elicit change in order to prevent you from being hurt.
Below are more examples of early childhood relationships and their attributes to the development of a harsh inner-critic. These are just a few examples of how the past influences the present.
Your primary caregivers were emotionally reactive, unpredictable, stressed out, unable to find stability in themselves. They lashed out at you for “age-appropriate behaviors” i.e., being fussy as a toddler, being moody as a teenager because it felt like too much for them to tolerate.
You may have learned to “over-regulate” yourself by denying your emotions in efforts to stay under the radar, to keep yourself safe from your parent’s reactions. In adulthood, you may beat yourself up when feelings arise, trying to dampen them so they don’t “inconvenience you.”
You came from a high-conflict household. Your parents fought all the time, and often blamed you for fighting. You began to believe “you are bad, and that’s why they’re fighting.” You adopt the false belief that if you can change yourself and “be better,” the world around you would calm down.
You may have learned to blame yourself for things outside of your control. You may feel as though there’s something inherently wrong with you. Your inner-critic may be over-burdened with responsibility in close relationships. You might feel like a people-pleaser, or a peace-maker.
Your caretakers asked you to take on responsibilities outside of your developmental abilities. Maybe you were asked to “care for your Mother’s emotions” or, “help Dad get to bed when he’s drunk.” Yet nothing you did was enough.
Your inner-critic may be saddled with the belief that “you are not enough as you are.” You may feel like no matter what you do, it’s never enough, never adequate. You may feel like a failure, always striving to do more and do better. It feels like there’s no point of which you will feel like enough.
Your caretakers told you that you were worthless, stupid, incapable, “a mess”, a disappointment, etc. You were told you weren’t good enough. And you believed it, because if you could somehow “be good enough.” Then you would’ve gotten the love you needed.
You can hear your inner-critic using the same insults as your caretakers once did. You feel you have to prove your self-worth. You are hard on yourself when you make mistakes, believing that mistakes prove your unworthiness. Deep down you question if you deserve the life you want. Your inner-critic is quick to remind you that “you’re not smart enough.”
The inner-critic comes into existence in effort to protect you, however, it’s tactics are outdated. When we were powerless in childhood, we may have needed an extreme inner-critic to help ensure safety. If we needed to stay quiet to avoid an abusive caretaker, our inner-critic may have helped to silence us, ensuring more safety. In adulthood, we can learn to meet the inner-critic and understand it; we can spend some time getting to know it. Pain is always a call for self-compassion, and even though this critical voice can feel like a nuisance, a downer or an inhibitor to your happiness, it doesn’t exist without valid reason. When the reasons go unquestioned and the inner-critic’s voice is taken as truth, we begin to believe that “something is wrong with us. ”When we meet it with curiosity and compassion, the story can change. Getting to know even the most difficult parts of yourself allows you to make sense of the past and feel valid in the present. Rather than pushing away difficult inner-experiences, self-compassion helps us to move towards and transform them into love.