Who, What & Why: A New Understanding of Your Inner Critic!

Woman with arms out to embrace her inner critic

In this second article we look more deeply at the who, what and why of your Inner Critic and how it came to be. This understanding is crucial for learning how to manage our critic effectively, becoming ourselves—and transforming our lives.

If you haven’t already, check out my introduction to this series of inner critic articles, the Inner Critic is WHY Fierce Kindness Exists.

In this article:

  1. How the Inner Critic is formed?
  2. The role and hidden cost of shame
  3. What parts of your ‘self’ have you lost?
  4. A quick recap
  5. A new understanding and way to be with our Inner Critic
  6. Homework questions to ponder
  7. Wrap-up

What is the Inner Critic and How is it Formed?

The feelings rollercoaster…

Did you know that when we’re young (until about 7 years old) we’re literally unable to tell the difference between how we feel—and who we are. That’s because the relevant brain circuitry has not yet developed.

This means that until then our feelings ARE us. So, if someone shames you. You ARE that shame. If someone scares you, you ARE that fear.

This is why, as a child, strong ‘negative’ emotions feel so terrible—and strong ‘positive’ emotions make us so incredibly excitable!

An Inner Critic—a recipe to ‘fit in’

As we grow up our caregivers teach us the ‘right’ way to be in the world—and how to be in relationship with others: there’s so much to learn, to get wrong and so much we don’t understand yet!

But the sad thing is that—for most of us—our experience is one of continuous criticism and fault-finding. It starts with our parents and quickly expands to most of the adults in our lives—who all know better than us! Then we head to school, and our teachers take up the mantle of criticism, pointing out yet more faults, misdemeanours and mistakes.

And because it’s so scary to upset our caregiving adults, we mould ourselves to fit the people around us.

Our inner critic helped us ‘fit in’ by teaching us how to reduce and eliminate our ‘faults’, and therefore remain safe, loved and protected.

Add a dash of shame…

Shame is a universal human emotion that serves an evolutionary purpose: it helps us follow rules and do the right thing by each other. It’s intended to make us feel terrible.

And shame really works.

In the past, it was a powerful tool to use on anyone who put the ‘tribe’ in danger to ensure they didn’t do it again.

And many times as children, we weren’t just criticised, we were (often unintentionally) shamed too. So not only did we do something wrong, but now we feel like a terrible person as well.

The hidden cost of shame

Shame feels so terrible to humans—and especially children—that we are driven to hide, cover and deeply bury the ‘faults’ (behaviours and qualities) that get us into trouble with our caregivers and lead to being shamed.

But we’re too young to understand that mom is over-reacting because she’s had a terrible day, or that granddad doesn’t know how to deal with tears and sadness so he makes you wrong instead.

We simply don’t get that sometimes when our caregivers are angry it’s because they’re frightened for us, not angry with us. Instead, we blame ourselves.

And then along with all those behaviours that do need correction (like taking all the pie, bullying or swinging a cat around by its tail), we can also bury—and lose—our:

  • Unique personality traits
  • Spirit and aliveness
  • Talents and unique skills
  • Self-confidence and Resilience

What parts of yourself did you lose?

So, while many of those “faults” and impulses we had as children needed correction…

…we were also discouraged from many of the very things that make us who we are.

Here are some common examples of parts of ourselves that get squashed:

  • Your passion for art (you can’t make a living as an artist!)
  • Your love of performing (don’t be a show off! your head won’t fit through the door!)
  • Our need and desire to love and trust others (“stranger danger”)
  • Our quest for adventure (that’s dangerous, you might hurt yourself or get killed!)
  • Free thinking and asking difficult questions (caregivers might have to rethink their behaviour, acknowledge uncomfortable truths or admit they were wrong)
  • Your weird and wonderful qualities (what will other people think of my parenting/my child? Or perhaps I don’t want them to get bullied like I did!)

And there’s more…

Later as adults, if and when those lost parts of our ‘self’ do surface (our love of performing, challenging authority, a personality quirk etc.), they surface with that shame, guilt and a sense of being bad.

And these feelings can (depending on your experiences growing up), range from simple discomfort to downright terror.

So it’s no wonder we avoid ourselves!

It’s easy to see how we end up with a strong critic. And it’s easy to see why people are scared to do the work of uncovering who they are: because first we have to confront those unpleasant feelings…

Here’s a quick recap
  • Our inner critic developed to help us fit in, ‘behave’, stay safe—ultimately to protect us.
  • Because our critic formed before we were old enough to understand the real reasons adults did and said what they did, we blamed ourselves.
  • Over time we learned to hide or train ourselves out of our ‘faults’ to fit in, be loved and accepted by others.

But crucially

  • Some of the ‘faults’ we hid were also our unique and special talents and qualities.
  • And all of this can dent our spirit, confidence, resilience—and even our experience of life.

A new understanding of your inner critic…

So now you know that your inner critic is simply the guardian that developed to keep us safe, alive and in the loving bubble of our parents—and tribe.
Its role is to question, check and warn us of potential danger, to ensure we don’t do things that upset other people—and keep us from making costly mistakes.

It means well. But our critic’s legacy is one of fear, and it impacts our ability to be ourselves—and enjoy life itself…

And now you need a new way to be with your critic

Yes, you guessed it, we need to be kind. Fiercely Kind…

Because it’s easy to get swept up by the critic and its fears when we’re merged with it: when we don’t see the critic as separate from us we worry about—and feel everything it feels. And it’s extremely hard to think straight when adrenaline is pumping through our body and we’re in fight/flight/freeze mode.

But dismissing, ridiculing or blocking our critic’s thoughts because we know it’s over-reacting just makes the situation worse: because when we don’t pay attention, our critic gets increasingly worried and stressed. And if we don’t pay attention, it can threaten, shame and even terrify us into doing what it wants.

So what we actually need to do is pay more attention to our critic, not less!

We need to lean in to our critic and its fears—without merging with it.

And we need to do this from a place of strength, compassion and understanding.

In short, we need a Fierce Kind Self

The Fierce Kind Self’s job is to reassure our critic that we have this. The Fierce Kind Self needs to listen without being swept away by the critic’s fears and outdated beliefs: it needs to be firm, kind, strong and respectful.

The Fierce Kind Self’s goal is to convince our critic that we’ve got this—that it can relax and isn’t needed any more because we know what we’re doing, and can handle whatever might go wrong…

Of course, as always, there’s a little more to it than that, but that’s the essence.

  Some homework questions to ponder:
  • What resonated with you in this article? What do you agree or disagree with?
  • What qualities, talents and skills might you have repressed or cut off from to please your caregivers?
  • How confident do you feel to speak up, make mistakes or stand out from the crowd? And where might you have learned that?
  • When your critic is activated, are you a ‘blocker’ or a ‘merger’?
    • Do you ignore and override your critic?
    • Or do you lose your self and get swept up in the fear and criticism?
  • Lastly, what does your critic think about this article?!
    • Is it scared/hopeful/excited/relieved/skeptical/apprehensive?

Wrap-upFierce Kindness Logo

Doing inner critic work is about much more than just feeling better or more confident. It’s about becoming who you areall of you—without apology, shame, fear or anxiety. And this changes not only how we approach life, but our experience of life.

Inner Critic work is literally life-changing.

So now that we’ve nailed the basics, we’ll be exploring more in this article series—so keep reading!

Share your thoughts (or answers to the questions) in the comments below.

If you liked this article on the Inner Critic, you may also like:

Change the world. Start with you!


  1. Mehnaz Amjad

    I’ve been always criticized for my low scores in math, more than criticism it was shame and even now the fear of numbers grips me.
    As a result, more than repressing my skills, I often find myself to be a people pleaser and wonder, why on earth did i behave in this way?
    This was also into my early years as a coach where I would struggle to set a price fee for my coaching and often times would be needy towards my prospects. It was when I lost my father and other uncle and aunt in the past years that gave me a new perspective to my life. Which also include my in depth reading on trauma, therapy, neuroscience and self development concepts.

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Hi Mehnaz, our early years can have a big impact on how we feel about ourselves and how we moderate our behaviour to please others and not “get into trouble”. And for many, it is so deeply hardwired into our neural pathways that it takes work—and a lot of bravery—to look within and heal. It seems like you are on that journey. Courage and Compassion. Kindness toward yourself to heal and grow your inner strength. A counsellor can also be very helpful, depending on how things go, and how hard/scary it is to do the work. Something to think about. I wish you well on your journey. Emma-Louise x


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