Vanquishing the Inner Critic By Pete Walker, MFT on 3/19/13 - 4:37 PM

In my work with clients who were severely traumatized in childhood, I sometimes feel hopeless in helping them to address and deconstruct their inner critics. I feel daunted by the viciousness and incessancy of their self-attack.

When a child is relentlessly rejected by contemptuous parents, she mimics them and learns to obsessively scorn herself. Like them, she focuses only on her defects and deficiencies; like them she radiates hate and scorn at herself. Her superego grows into an outsized critic as she, like them, blames and shames herself in a thousand different ways. Over time, she so thoroughly identifies with her aggressors that her critic rebukes her in the first person.

In her first session she may tell me: “It wasn’t disgusting. I’m disgusting!” Her inner critic virtually is her Self. In such cases standard tools, such as interpretation, mindfulness and unconditional positive regard barely make a dent in the critic. After numerous futile attempts to stir the client into resisting the critic, my urge to give up sometimes feels irresistible. Early in my career, I would think: “This critic stuff is so Psych 101. I have addressed the client’s critic issues so often that we’re both clearly sick of it. If I don’t back off soon, she’s going to leave. She’s just not going to get it. Her critic’s just too big for her to see. It’s a forest of self-hate camouflaged by the trees of this particular moment’s worries.”

Eventually, I learned that nothing would change for this type of client until we reduced the totalitarian hold the critic held on her psyche —until we eked out some psychic space for her ego to grow into a user-friendly manager of her psyche. Until this was accomplished, we would never awaken her developmentally arrested need to cultivate an attitude of self-support.

I now rely a great deal in early therapy upon psychoeducation and family of origin exploration. Out of an ongoing elicitation of the client’s childhood trauma, we weave an accurate narrative of how she was inculcated to habitually attack and scorn herself. I help her see that she was a tabula rasa as a child, and that her toxic “care”-givers brainwashed her into routinely hating, shaming and abandoning herself.

Psychoeducative interpretation about the genesis of the traumatizing inner critic is, in my opinion, a step that cannot be bypassed, and with such clients, I do it as much as they can tolerate. Sometimes, I derive motivation to persist with this very slow, repetitive process by garnering the energy of other countertransferential feelings that I have. For example, I now typically feel guilty and neglectful when I let the inner critic—the internalization of the parents’ contempt—get away with abusing my clients. At such times, I feel derelict in my human and professional duty to bring attention to how they are hoisting themselves on their parents’ petard.

I find now that I can no longer passively collude with the internalized parent by failing to actively notice it, as various adults typically did while he was growing up. If an adult does not protest when a child is being attacked with destructive criticism, s/he tacitly approves it. The child is forced to assume that contempt is normal and acceptable, as the witnessing adult forsakes her/his tribal responsibility to protect the child from other adults who perpetrate child abuse.

When I label the traumatizing behavior of the client’s parents as egregious, I begin the awakening of his developmentally arrested need for self-protection. I model to him that he should have been protected, and that he can now resist mimicking their abuse in his own psyche. With most of my clients, this eventually encourages disidentification from the aggressor and weakens the internalization of the attacking parent as the locus of the critic.

In my own case, I felt loved by my grandmother who lived with my family, but she failed to tell that my parents’ vitriolic rages were wrong and not my fault. In retrospect, I believe that her neglect crystallized my belief that I totally deserved their abuse. The stage was then set for me to morph their contempt into self-loathing, chapter and verse, for nearly two decades.

I have also noted that clients, who had one influential adult in their childhood who helped them to see that the destructive behavior of a toxic caregiver was wrong and not their fault, do not seem to develop such a ferocious, self-annihilating critic.

As therapists, we often have the unique opportunity to become the first person in such a client’s life to help him see how horribly and unfairly he was indoctrinated against himself when he was too young and impressionable to resist. Let me paraphrase Milton Erickson’s challenge to us all: We must remain resolute, brave and creative about repetitively confronting key deeply imbedded pathologies that do not easily resolve from our attempts to treat them.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy