Ever caught yourself in a cycle of self-blame? Ever felt like procrastinating, under-performing, and then pushing yourself even harder, forcing yourself into doing stuff and failing to keep up with your own demands, then hating yourself, spiraling further into feeling not worthy. Failed projects, failed plans to follow the diet or exercise, failed attempts to change something or achieve – all of this is a great source of food for your inner self- critic. Self-critic is that little (or huge) unkind part of you, that sits in your brain, ready to offer judgement to everything you do/fail to do, just for the purpose of judgement.
People, who did not have fortunate childhoods, who faced abuse or neglect from their caregivers, often develop strong self-critics that thrive throughout their lives.
Often these people are high achievers that nevertheless never happy with their achievements and forever chase and demand more of themselves.
How is the critic born and why? Do we all have a critic in our minds? What role does the critic play? Is the critic someone that we should eliminate altogether?
The critical parts of our selves are usually born in our childhoods, when we are often subjected to blaming and shaming from our caregivers.
Unfortunately, it is often believed that if you don’t punish your children, they will grow up to become lazy people.
Even most caring parents sometimes say that criticizing their children is necessary to motivate them. They do it as a way to get their children to notice that they can do better. They call it “encouragement”, failing to recognize that encouragement in a form of criticism does nothing, but damage. When a child hears that her/his drawing/reading/homework is not good, all they remember and take from it is that they are not good enough. If anything, it squashes the child’s enthusiasm and undermines self-esteem. And when criticism from parents is frequent and persistent, it gets internalized later in life as a self-critic, that is very much alive in our minds, arresting our creativity and passion.
People often say to me that their critic is good. Having a critic in their heads, ensures that they are doing their best and the critic motivates them. I suppose, people, who grew up in homes where they received a lot of encouragement in a form of criticism often begin to see criticism as a positive agent in motivation. In a sense they internalize same believe as their parents: if I don’t push myself, I won’t get anything done.
It is a popular belief out there. It is a reactive approach to be pushing yourself, motivating yourself, fighting procrastination and ensuring your own productivity is in check. There is a certain fear of letting go and letting yourself be, as there is a fear that once you do that, you will find yourself lying down, putting your feet up, and doing nothing. Hence to many people it might seem like the self-critic is our helper that ensures we don’t let ourselves down.
I invite the clients, who are convinced that their critic is their helper, to listen to the critical voice in their head and really start listening to it and notice what it says and how. A critic is a critic! It may want to motivate you and encourage you, but it also says pretty horrid stuff about you. When people start actively listening to the critic (rather than letting its messages run in our unconscious minds) they notice all the negativity. For example, along the motivational push to go to gym, they may hear unpleasant judgement about their bodies. Or when things get out of hands at work, they may hear critic blaming them for not being hard working or smart enough.
It is often shocking for people to identify how much self-judgement and self-criticism is happening in the back of their minds daily, judging everything they do or don’t do. On a close look, these messages from self-critic don’t seem positive or encouraging at all. In fact only listening to it and noticing, we can identify how much damage had it been doing to our minds and our sense of self-esteem. In fact, this is why the cycle of task-procrastination-failure-criticism is can be running like a record in our minds.
So should we eliminate the critic altogether? Is that the negative part of our selves that is blocking us from reaching our potential? If we were to eliminate the critic, what would motivate us?
These are the questions that each of us should answer individually. What works best for one person might not be suitable for another. Firstly, I should say, that getting rid of the critic is nearly impossible. We all are multiples. We consist of different parts of self that form us as complex human beings.
In a way, our minds are meeting rooms for a board of directors, who sit at the round table and sometimes argue and sometimes cooperate quite well.
The aim of psychotherapy is to facilitate the communication between parts of self and make sure each part is heard, validated and they all co-exist peacefully.
Often, working with self-critic forms a substantial part of psychotherapy. If we learn to communicate with the critic, we diminish its malice and we stop the damage it is doing to our self-esteem.
For most people, who begin their psychotherapy journey, recognizing self-critic is the first step. In the first few sessions it becomes apparent that the messages that run in their unconscious minds are those of pure and strong self-criticism and self-judgement. Strong self-critic, like an ugly toad, sits behind many cases of depression, anxiety and almost always the inevitable consequence of the traumatic childhood.
I always start examining the critic with my clients to try and identify its nature, its quality and its messages. It is good to think (and perhaps) visualize the self-critic as a little person that lives in ourselves. Rather than getting rid of it, I would rather suggest we welcome it and make friends with it. We learn to respond to the critic in a cooperative manner, rather than fighting it and being quiet and defeated by it. As strange as it may sound, it makes sense in a context of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, when most of the work is around making unconscious conscious, so that gradually you feel more in control of your psyche and, later, hopefully life.