What Is the Inner Critic?
The inner critic has been given numerous different labels. Various theories, ranging from psychoanalytical to neuroscientific models, describe its origins and suggest strategies for how it can be silenced.
Most psychologists agree that the roots of our inner critics are to be found in childhood. The founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, explained the formation of our superegos as a process during which we internalize external views of ourselves – predominantly those of our parents (Freud, 1915/2001).
At the same time, we accept wider social expectations and ethical norms, and start to generate ego ideals – of which we then regularly tend to fall short.
Freud’s superego can be a cruel and self-flagellating force, which sadistically punishes and tyrannizes the ego. If our superego is in overdrive, we spend most of our psychological energy on inner warfare and have little to give to the outside world (Freud, 1915/2001).
We may deem ourselves unworthy and despicable, and expect the world to see us that way, too. We may be more prone to abuse substances in order to numb this relentless torturer in our heads.
The brain and the inner critic
A more scientific explanation of the origins of the inner critic locates it in particular parts of our brains. More specifically, scientists have argued that we have a primitive “survivor brain” that encompasses the brain stem, the older part of our brain that is tasked with physical survival and the fight-or-flight response to danger. This part of our brains is highly attuned to danger.
Hyper-vigilant, it is constantly on the lookout for threats. It relentlessly compares and contrasts and finds us wanting. It also involves the limbic system and the amygdala, which regulate our emotional responses, and can trigger the emission of the stress hormone cortisol (Chamine 2012, p. 211; Peters, 2012).
Originally, our inner critic had a positive function: to ensure our survival. This includes not just spotting danger in our environment but also inner work in the form of psychological sense making.
In particular, it involves the construction of narratives about ourselves and others that are bearable. For example, children who feel unloved, are constantly criticized, or the victims of abuse will tend to blame themselves rather than their parents.
As the child depends completely on their parents for survival, the conscious acknowledgment of the parents’ unfairness, cruelty, or incompetency is simply too devastating. It is much safer for the child to turn the criticism inward rather than outward and to blame the self for the suffered misfortunes.
But what might be a sensible survival mechanism in childhood can turn into a truly debilitating handicap in adulthood (Chamine, 2012).
In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the inner critic is not given a particular gestalt or name but is reduced to its output: automatic negative thoughts.
ANTs, in turn, are driven by our core beliefs. We can think of our automatic negative thoughts as the situational expressions of our dysfunctional assumptions and negative core beliefs about ourselves (Beck, 1979; Beck, Freeman, & Davis, 2015; Beck, 2005; Beck, 2011).
The original function of our core beliefs is to help us make sense of our experiences, but they can become unproductive or even harmful later in life. Harmful common core beliefs usually come in the form of rigid “I am …,” “People are …,” and “The world is …” statements. It is in that sense that they are intricately tied up with our inner critics.
We may, for example, think that we are unlovable – or bad, evil, not good enough, incompetent, ugly, stupid, or existentially flawed in other ways. Our inner critics will then constantly broadcast messages that can be traced back to these problematic core beliefs. Limiting core beliefs set the rules by which we live and, most significantly, determine the tone of our self-talk.
To challenge our inner critic CBT-style, we must seek to oppose what it tells us rationally by confronting it with objective facts (Burns, 1980). This entails taking seriously what the inner critic tells us and trying to convince it logically that it is wrong. This method resembles a journalistic fact-checking exercise, designed to counter and discredit fake news.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a very different approach. It focuses not so much on changing our negative cognitions and beliefs but recommends instead that we accept them and then try to let them go (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). An ACT approach to disempowering our inner critic accepts that we have far less control over our thoughts and feelings than we like to think.
Russ Harris (2008), for example, suggests that we simply observe and accept what our inner critic has to say and then try to let it go. He treats the inner critic like mind-chatter and seeks to shift attention away from the content (what it has to say) to the form (insignificant noise in our head).
Most importantly, we must observe and label our inner critic by recognizing when it is speaking and how it colors our cognitions and shapes our emotions. That way, we separate the voice of the inner critic from our true essence. We are not these negative thoughts.
Once we start to pay attention to our self-talk and the critical voice in our heads, we may be surprised by their negativity and even cruelty.
The inner critic may say things like, “You are a big, fat loser, and you will never achieve anything in your life.” It may say, “Nobody likes you. You don’t have any friends.”
It may constantly draw attention to our perceived faults and shortcomings. It may tell us we are stupid, ugly, deeply flawed, and unlovable at our core. It may belittle our achievements, dismissing them as luck, mistakes, or accidents. It may be contemptuous, arrogant, or hateful.
It may badger us for past mistakes or paralyze us with disparaging remarks in the present. It is the reason for our regrets, anger, anxiety, guilt, and shame.
What our readers think
Amazing article!thank you!
Thank you for such a helpful and well-organized article! The different approaches give many tools and opportunities for effective use of them. Well done!
This is a great article and resources I thought you might be interested to read my book Beyond threat which I use in my teaching at Oxford and covers a lot of this ground. I thought you might find useful.
Thank you for authoring this excellent article Dr. Schaffner. I found the presentation of the different techniques for understanding and approaching the inner critic to be really helpful. The presentation of the origin of the critic as a protective mechanism, that can become maladaptive later in life, was also very helpful. I also appreciated the links to the YouTube videos. Thank you!
Thank you for such valuable information !
Veru useful, I loved the difference between self-esteem (on condition of….) and self-compassion (in spite of….).