How to Transform Your Incorrigible Inner Critic from Menacing Monster to Cuddly Caretaker

Written by Guy Reichard

February 14, 2024

The Inner Critic (or Gremlin or Saboteur) is the Voice in Your Head That Won’t Stop Criticizing You and Everything You Do (and Even Don’t Do)

  • Have you been struggling with critical, negative, draining, intrusive inner self talk?
  • Do you feel like your own mind is your worst enemy? Do you treat yourself worse than you treat anyone else?
  • Do you judge yourself harshly and hold yourself to unrealistically high standards?
  • Do you punish or torment yourself when you make a mistake? Sometimes for days?

If you said yes to any of these, you likely have a very active Inner Critic.

All that consistently critical and demanding self talk robs a person of their natural confidence, self esteem, and inner peace. Not to mention it gets in the way of our ability to experience a lasting sense of pride, pleasure or fulfillment in our lives.

Without our natural confidence, self-esteem and trust in ourselves, self-doubt not only creeps in but begins to predominate and interfere with how we show up in life, at work and in relationships.

If you suffer from an Incorrigible Inner Critic, and want to learn about an approach that helps you transform it into a Cuddly Caretaker, let’s start with some general definitions. Recognizing and understanding the Inner Critic is the first step towards transforming its role from adversary to ally in your journey of self-discovery and personal growth.

Psychological Perspective

From a psychological standpoint, the Inner Critic refers to the internalized voice or thought patterns that criticize, judge, or belittle oneself. It often manifests as harsh self-talk, focusing on perceived flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings. This perspective views the Inner Critic as a product of conditioning, influenced by societal standards, past experiences, and internalized beliefs about worthiness and adequacy.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Framework

In the context of Internal Family Systems, the Inner Critic is seen as one of the parts of our psyche that emerges to protect us from perceived threats or vulnerabilities to self-esteem and belonging. It operates from a place of fear, and often adopts a critical stance to prevent the pain of judgment and shame overwhelming our system. In this framework, the Inner Critic is recognized as a well-meaning protector that may have taken on a harsh or punitive role to shield us from emotional pain, humiliation and rejection from others.

Spiritual Perspective

From a spiritual perspective, the Inner Critic is viewed as the Ego’s voice – the False Self – the mind system that seeks to maintain control, uphold self-image, and defend against perceived threats to identity or security. It thrives on comparison, judgment, and separation, keeping individuals trapped in patterns of self-criticism and limitation.

First, Let’s Redefine the Inner Critic as a Benevolent Bully, not an Internal Enemy

I’ve been working with Inner Critics (mine included) for about 15 years. When I started out in coaching, I adopted the popular notion that the critic was like a gremlin or saboteur – an enemy inside our own mind that needed to be defeated or at least tamed.

Though we can be honest with ourselves and say that we hate this pattern within us, and it incessantly gets in our way, preventing us from living freely and authentically, seeing it as an enemy within our own minds, is just very bad advice. You do not have any enemies inside yourself, even though it may feel that way at times.

Believing that your Inner Critic (or any other Protective Part) is your enemy hurts you and prevents the beneficial and necessary effects of treating ourselves with acceptance and compassion. It only further perpetuates cycles of internal conflict, self-judgment, and even self-hate.

Because I couldn’t effectively conquer or tame my Inner Critics (yes, we can have multiple) and they still caused me problems years later, I kept searching for approaches to help me. I landed on several similar paradigms and approaches that altered the course of my life. These approaches gave me a completely different way to view and work with the Inner Critic. These three approaches are: Transpersonal Psychology, Voice Dialogue, and Internal Family Systems (IFS). I eventually gravitated more to IFS, and wish to share more about this approach with you.

Within IFS, the Inner Critic is often portrayed as a Benevolent Bully – a part of the psyche that assumes a protective, managerial role in an effort to protect our self-esteem and internal balance, so we can function and get our needs met in life. I share quite a bit about the IFS Self Leadership approach here and here.

Characteristics and Dynamics

Within IFS, we are believed to have an Authentic Self (known simply as Self) – our genuine core essence. It is not a personality or identity – it is a healing, integrative force within us. When we’re living from Self, we experience various qualities known simply as the 8 Cs and 5 Ps – 8 C’s of Self (Connectedness, Calm, Courage, Confidence, Clarity, Curiosity, Creativity, Compassion, Presence, Perspective, Patience, Persistence, Playfulness). In short, as Self, we embody qualities such as presence, wisdom and love.

IFS informs us that we have the capacity to experience life in so many ways, and we contain multitudes of potential personalities within us, each with their own capacities, talents, preferences, as well as unqiue quirks.We call these Parts or Subselves / Subpersonalities.

As life happens, we often get hurt, and sometimes we get hurt in ways that don’t heal. To prevent the hurt from overwhelming us and keeping us in states of pain and shame, our psyche finds ways to cope. It is our Parts that take on protective roles to keep the hurt part of us subdued and hidden away, so we can continue to function in life.

Without healing and the right kind of support from our caretakers, we often get stuck in these roles and the Self gets eclipsed – we lose access to who we truly are and to those wonderful qualities of being.

In a way similar to Newton’s third law – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – our parts find an artificial balance in the form of Triads.

The hurt part of us is the catalyst and since it is suppressed and hidden away, it is called an Exile.

A part of us takes on the role of a proactive Manager to tell us who and how to be to keep the hurt locked away and to prevent such pain from reoccurring.

At times, that proactive Manager, with strategies it learned years ago, is ineffective. The hurt part of us, the Exile, gets activated (triggered) by events in our life, and another part steps in to counterbalance and try to subdue and rescue the Exile and relieve our system from pain, shame and overwhelm. In IFS, this part is called a Firefighter as it douses the flames of painful emotions. I fondly call these parts Relievers and Rescuers.

Back to the Inner Critic

Our Inner Critic, as Manager, can be oppressive and controlling, as it attempts to uphold certain standards of behavior, performance, or appearance. It’s consistently telling us who and how we need to be. As such, it may adopt an extremely harsh or punitive stance to enforce these standards, believing it is acting in our best interest.

Over time, it can grow to insidious proportions, exerting a pervasive influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Its incessant criticisms erode our self-esteem, breed self-doubt, and hinder our authentic self-expression.

We may even come to identify closely with the Inner Critic, believing its judgments and criticisms to be reflective of who we are. This identification can lead to feelings of unworthiness, shame, and internal conflict as we strive to meet the Inner Critic’s unrealistic standards and demands.

Its persistent presence often inhibits us from embracing our authenticity and vulnerability. Fearful of judgment or rejection, we may withhold aspects of who we are, or put on a mask or façade to conform to the Inner Critic’s demands, leading to a sense of disconnection from our Authentic Selves.

The Inner Critic often fuels perfectionistic tendencies, setting impossibly high standards and berating us for falling short. This perfectionism can create a cycle of striving for unattainable ideals, leading to stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and even depression.

In response to the relentless self-criticism and painful pressure, when our system can no longer take it, and our Exiles begin to surface and destabilize us, the reactive Reliever or Rescuer steps in, seeking to numb or distract us from the distress and overwhelm our system is experiencing.

This is when we might see behaviors that are polar opposite to the masks and facades worn by our Managers. We may feel compelled to behaviors such as avoidance, procrastination, escapism, bingeing, drugs, sex, overwork, hyperachievement, over-exercising, angry or destructive outbursts, including self-harm and more.

I know, it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever get to cute and cuddly but what we must realize is how hard the Inner Critic (and all our Protectors) is working to protect us from the pain of shame, distress, overwhelm and turmoil within.

Cultivating Awareness, Acceptance and Appreciation

Recognizing and understanding the Inner Critic’s role within our system provides the foundation for compassionate exploration and healing.

By acknowledging its protective intentions, and learning to engage with it from a place of curiosity and compassion, we can begin to transform our relationship with it and reclaim a sense of inner harmony, ease and self-trust.

Awareness

The first step in transforming the Inner Critic is cultivating awareness of its presence and influence within our internal system. Through self-reflection, we can observe the patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior associated with the Inner Critic without getting entangled in its judgments or criticisms.

Acceptance and Non-Judgment

Instead of resisting or condemning the Inner Critic, we practice acceptance and non-judgment towards it. It may sound odd or unbelievable but if you approach any protector part with judgment, disdain and the aim to conquer it or eliminate it, it (and other parts) will resist and you will simply fail. Instead, embrace it with a sense of acceptance and curiosity rather than condemnation and contempt.

Behind the facade of criticism, the Inner Critic harbors benevolent intentions and that’s why we can see it as a Benevolent Bully. Behind its fierce facade lies the wounded part of us it seeks to contain, the Exile. Recognizing the presence of Exiles reminds us of the deeper layers of healing and integration that are needed within us.

Appreciating and Honoring the Inner Critic

When we really get a sense of the hard work the Inner Critic has been doing, for as long as it has, we often well up with gratitude. This is an internal signal that we’re shifting into Self and transcending our limited protective ways of being.

As we share this gratitude with the Inner Critic, we honor it like we would anyone who’s ever tried to protect us and shield us from harm. This fosters a sense of respect and collaboration within our internal system. By acknowledging its contributions, we create space for dialogue and cooperation towards healing and growth.

Empowering the Loving Self

As we cultivate a compassionate and accepting relationship with the Inner Critic, we empower our loving Authentic Self to take the lead in caring for our Exiles. The Self, characterized by qualities of compassion, clarity and courage (8 Cs and 5 Ps), serves as the healing integrative force in unburdening our Exiles from their pains and traumas, fostering inner harmony and integration.

When the Inner Critic, and other protective parts, begin to trust our Authentic Self to take the lead in our inner and outer lives, it is freed up to take on any role it wants – including that of Cuddly Caretaker.

We still honor it and include it as part of our whole authentic inner family, and can stand surprised and delighted to let it be what it can be.

Becoming Self Led

It’s incredible to think of how many problematic behaviors and aspects of ourselves we could dissolve, if instead of hating on ourselves and trying to conquer our demons, we aimed to heal our hurt and exiled parts through Self Leadership.

This work isn’t easy, and healing Exiles may require the guidance and aid of a trained IFS therapist with a high degree of Self, especially in cases of severe trauma and mental illness. That said, the loving wisdom in the IFS framework and processes is available to us all. (Learn more about Inner Critic Coaching)

Let’s imagine a world with more Self Led people and do our parts to unlock the profound potential within us to transform not only our inner landscapes but also the world around us.

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