The Internal Critic: Friend or Foe? By Matt Barnes, MSW on 1/4/19 - 11:58 AM

Harsh, hurtful, degrading and depleting are just a few ways to describe the all-too-powerful words of our internal critic. We all have a critic, but the ferocity and loudness varies. As an EMDR and EFT-oriented psychotherapist, I am privileged to have a front and center view of just how universal and common the internal critic can be and the opportunity to confront that voice with my clients.

“You’re so stupid, incompetent and useless.”
“Why would you do that? You can’t do anything right.”
“That was a huge failure, you should have walked away.”
“You’re so ugly and fat.”
“You’re just not good enough.”

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Not surprisingly, my most compassionate and caring clients will say these things, never to others, but often to themselves. To put it simply, the critic is one component of our personality. The critic is also alternately referred to as an ego state, or a state of awareness. It is one member of our internal system presumably developed to help us make decisions, keep us safe and progress in life. The cohesion and integration of our system of parts varies depending upon our life experiences and relationships. Our attachment to our caregivers, experiences in school, successes, failures, mistreatment, trauma and adverse life experiences all impact the growth and development of this internal system.

Fortunately, the critic isn’t the only player on the internal mental team. Other characters may include the professional, nurturer, survivor, child, friend and parent, to name a few. The list is potentially exhaustive and unique to the individual. When working with my clients, I often reference my own rebellious teenager part that most mornings tries to induce me to skip work and sleep in. It takes a lot of energy from this professional part to push (or pull) me out of bed, but this daily internal struggle pales in comparison to the battles we have with our critic.

Through therapy, my clients begin the daunting challenge of identifying these core negative messages from the critic and discover what makes them tick. Often, I find that the critic develops at a young age, and often results from an internalization of negative messages from parents, coaches or other authority figures. I often find that the critic has good intentions and often has the same goals as the adult which is happiness, success, and safety from potential threats. Unfortunately, the critic’s approach to helping to meet these goals is ultimately misguided and damaging. After the all-too-frequent and ongoing critical barrage, my clients weaken, feel less confident, safe, secure or motivated to do the things that could otherwise propel them forward in life. The critic’s initial good intentions are inevitably thwarted, leaving clients feeling stuck, insecure, unmotivated and depleted.

So what is the therapist to do in order to befriend and redirect this formidable foe? My own therapeutic efforts begin with the practice of mindfulness—I ask clients simply become aware, to notice the voice. It helps to ask them to move to a different chair and speak the critic’s words out loud. In EFT we call this “chair work” and through this practice the client can begin to separate the critic from that part of their inner system that is not critical. By doing so, clients can better connect with the critic and begin to identify the triggers and needs of the critic that give this voice its power.

My clients notice that the critic often raises its voice prior to a challenging task, after they have made a mistake or when they fail to achieve a goal in their life (referring to when they notice it outside of the therapy office). When my client and I can hone in on those times when the critic is using a megaphone, so to speak, we are able to identify and tap into more supportive parts of their inner chorus. This often has the effect of subduing the critic—removing its bully pulpit. Doing so makes room for these other characters—the nurturer, the advocate, the cheerleader and all of those other softer and kinder empathetic elements of self that are crucial and necessary for healthy emotional survival. Calming, motivational and compassionate messages and affirmations are helpful tools which over time and hard work in therapy have helped my clients to manage, quiet and even befriend their inner critic.

By assisting my clients to increase their capacity for self-compassion, kindness and self-empathy, I have been able to help them move closer to the therapeutic goal of self-acceptance. I often ask them to consider that if self-kindness seems like a foreign concept, they think of something their nicest friend or family member might say to them, in other words, “What would ___________ tell you in this moment?” My clients will often laugh and say that they can picture their sweet grandmother comforting them during these times. In EMDR therapy, we would identify this as a new resource and the image of the grandmother’s comforting presence would come along for the therapeutic journey towards healing. Regardless of the therapeutic modalities utilized, identifying, connecting and working with the critic is crucial in helping our clients find inner peace and acceptance.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections