Befriending Your Inner Critic

Why is it that we are often our own worst enemies? The harsh voices of reprimand and admonition can leave us feeling stuck and depressed, or afraid of attempting anything new. We cringe to consider using with others the language these voices aim at us. They cut us down with expletives telling us we’re stupid, can’t do anything right, a loser, will never succeed, etc.

These scripts can be set off at the slightest provocation, like following the encounter with the barista, having changed the order mid-sentence and making those lined up wait a few seconds longer. The voice springs to action at the invitation to join coworkers for lunch with endless scenarios for which you have not prepared or have left you embarrassed in previous similar situations. 

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The more you try to ignore these thoughts, the louder they become. You accept the invitation but they plague you with warnings that distract you from participating in the conversations at the restaurant. As you leave, the voice ramps up with reminders of the inane statements you made and poor impressions you must have left. If only it had left you alone, you might have been able to focus on the discussion and participate like you do with close friends. You decide to turn down future invitations to lunch.

Psychology Today recently published an article with the title “Silence Your Inner Critic.” What would life be like unencumbered by this incessant voice telling us we’re doing it wrong? Imagine the freedom to act spontaneously without the din of chatter full of warning and prompts. You may have tried everything in your arsenal to ignore or silence these directives. 

But who would heed the neurotic, nagging voice of a helicopter parent - especially now that you’re an adult? The last thing you want to do is acknowledge such a voice, as this may only encourage it to continue communicating that it’s working, that you’re listening, and its words are taking effect. Ignoring or fighting against the voice only seems to aggravate it and it redoubles its attempts to get you to listen.

How do you remain in relationship with family members you know love and care about you, but attempt to protect you by commandeering your freedom? Find a way to acknowledge the benevolent motive, letting them know that you’ve heard and appreciate that they don’t want you ridiculed or to lose your job, or fill in the blank, while firmly asserting your freedom. This generally has the effect of soothing their concern and softening their approach, in the knowledge that you also care about what’s important to them and are not entering the situation blindly or irresponsibly. This may give you the space to make the decision you need to make. 

What if the scripts that play, the voices that plague us, those inner critics are not unlike such family members? What if rather than ignoring, arguing with or attempting to silence them, we foster relationships with them? As parts of our psyches they are parts of us, and are therefore not going away. Further, what if there is something important, some deep wisdom beneath the harsh verbiage that we silence to our peril? Perhaps beneath the self-flagellating thoughts is the intention to keep us safe, connected to others, and moving towards growth and success. What if there were some loving motive underlying those harsh words? 

To ignore or silence the voice may mean to miss the meta-message and keep us in unhealthy patterns or situations, lonely, or stagnating. While this seems like a damned if I heed the voice and damned if I ignore it scenario, perhaps there is a way to listen beneath the words.

Richard Schwartz, developer of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, suggests that we are a complex of various, discreet, inner parts or sub-personalities, each with intentions, desires, emotions and perspectives. Conflict between these parts results in stress and can take the form of anxiety or depression. Just like a real family needs a leader to ensure that all members are heard, respected, and have needs fulfilled, so the internal family of parts needs a leader to do the same. You can be that leader.

Just as the leader of any group needs to have relationships with its constituents and exemplify strength to instill trust and respect, it is necessary for a person to do this with internal constituents. Rather than dismissing the critical messages of these voices, why not spend some time getting to know why the parts hold these views? Perhaps there is something they see or know that would be helpful to consider. Perhaps the message stems from fear that some past painful event will happen again. In such cases we can assess whether we really are in danger and take appropriate action, or if not, soothe the part of us that is afraid. The crying child that is ignored will cry louder and longer.

You, as the leader of your parts, have the ability to accommodate all the various perspectives of your parts. As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I would contend that each person has this ability when acting as the leader of her parts.

That so many of us struggle with ourselves in this way and have often faced debilitating mental health issues like depression and anxiety, treatments have been developed over the years to address the self-flagellatory scripts that play in our heads. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps people challenge the validity of these critical voices and find new ways to dialogue with them. Mindfulness is a method of observing internal experiences like thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without judgement or intervention. Mindfulness and CBT have been wedded in many therapeutic approaches such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), to name a few. 

If you would like to learn more about how to address your internal critic, we at Sojourn Counselling and Neurofeedback would love to help. We are Registered Clinical Counsellors with Masters Degrees in counselling and mental health and have specialized training to help you get to know these parts better and develop strategies to work with them. 

We’ve made it easy for you to schedule an appointment online with the therapist and at the location of your choice. We serve Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley from offices in Surrey and North Vancouver with easy access from Burnaby, East Vancouver, Cloverdale, Langley, South Surrey, and White Rock. Please contact us if you have questions about our services.

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