An Introduction to The Inner Critic: Mine and Possibly Yours Too…

Inner Critic Fierce Kind Self - Kind Woman punching arms

Did you know that the inner critic is why Fierce Kindness Exists? So it should be no surprise that one of the topics I’m most passionate about.

This is the first in a series of Inner Critic blog posts! In this introductory article I share how our critic is formed, and with this understanding what we should do instead of the usual techniques, plus some of my own personal experiences with the critic for context.

In this article:

  1. How my Inner Critic impacts me
  2. Our Inner Critic is simply a survival mechanism (and how this happened)
  3. Inner Critic techniques I tried—and how Fierce Kindness was born
  4. How we should really manage our Critic
  5. Summary and questions to ponder
  6. Wrap-up
How my Inner Critic impacts me

As far back as I can remember, I have been plagued with what I later came to realise was a strong inner critic. But I didn’t notice my critic until my early 30s.

How can you not notice your inner critic Emma-Louise?

Great question! Well, what made things challenging was that my critic didn’t ‘talk to me’—it was so deeply embedded in my thinking and being that it WAS me.

Until I began journaling, the only way my critic would show up was how I FELT: I would feel nauseous, a deep sinking feeling, a tight throat, weight on my chest, my face might flush, jaw tighten, and/or my pelvic floor muscles would contract while my shoulders lifted and tensed (to give me nasty headaches).

Those of you with more emotional awareness than I had will recognize those physical responses as variations on fear, shame and anger. More specifically I felt dread and terror, self-hatred, self-loathing, resentment, frustration, guilt.

All of these were emotional responses to my critic’s negative thoughts, self-judgements and criticisms.

It has since taken me years to unravel those automatic negative thoughts, to see/hear them and ultimately begin to take care of myself, instead of becoming consumed by them.

It sounds dramatic, and it was. And as I became increasingly self-aware and tuned into myself, I connected the dots to realise my extreme emotional responses were in fact a natural human response to the terrible things my critic thought—and the beliefs I had about myself.

Your critic is simply a survival mechanism

We’ll get into this in more detail in subsequent articles, but the critic is formed when we are young as a survival mechanism.

As children we know that we need our parents and caregivers—or we’ll (literally) die. So we learned to keep adults happy with us…

…by developing an inner critic that helped us avoid upsetting our caregivers, to be ‘good’, stay safe and loved.

How can this happen?

The sad thing is we made assumptions (with our childlike logic) about our caring adult’s behaviour toward us and turned them into beliefs which we still carry in adulthood.

Imagine you’re a child that gets regularly yelled at for crying. You don’t know that crying is a natural and healthy response. You don’t know that your caregiver is overwhelmed, tired, stressed and frustrated because they have no idea what to do. You don’t know they feel guilty whenever you cry. All you know is that crying = yelling = scary = bad. So your critic learns to say and do things to get you to avoid crying—and preserve that caregiving relationship.

Of course as children we made many, many similarly false assumptions about ourselves, and formed beliefs that we still live from.

So, part of our inner critic work involves stepping into ourselves as adults—taking a fresh look at what’s really going on, and letting go of those childhood-logic false beliefs.

I tried so many ‘inner critic’ techniques…

I began to journal in 2005. And as I got deeper into journaling I began to write out conversations with different ‘parts’ of myself. This unfolded naturally as I experimented with different ways to resolve my inner conflicts with the critic.

So it was journaling that helped me see that I had this part of me—that wasn’t ME—that was constantly criticising, judging, blaming and finding fault. Not only that, but I discovered it was abusive. Vicious. Mean.

Here are just a few of the many techniques, tools, resources I tried to ‘overcome’ my vicious critic:

  • I started out ignoring or blocking the critic. But it only got stronger and more insistent.
  • I read “Tame Your Gremlin” by Rick Carson—but it doesn’t tell you WHAT to do about it!
  • I tried to be super-strong and override my critic through a battle of wills. Usually I ended up more anxious.
  • I got a counsellor.

And as I read and taught myself more about psychology, neuroscience and therapy techniques I eventually found many things to help that worked in the moment or in the short term.

I now have a meditation and mindfulness practice, lots of visualisations and fun tools to play with, and of course I continued my journaling conversations.

But my critic remained. Yes, I got better at noticing and negotiating with it. But it wasn’t going anywhere.

A pattern emerges

As I journaled with my critic I began to see a pattern: my inner critic was scared. Sometimes terrified. And when I didn’t listen it would try anything and everything to get me to pay attention. Starting with a nagging feeling, it would turn to abuse and finally panic if I didn’t pay attention.

What I eventually learned is that our critic is really just a scared child, with outdated beliefs—and limited tools for expression.

And how do we treat scared children?

Ignore them till they go away? Yell at them? Lock them in a closet?

Er, No…

We soothe them. We are kind to them. We are firm and reassuring.

And so it is with our critic.

This is literally how Fierce Kindness was born

First, I realised I needed to be kind, and not to lose my temper or get frustrated with my critic. As I journalled with my critic I began to play the role of a “kind, wise self”.

But deeper still, I learned that for a entrenched critic, kindness on its own is not enough.

I learned that once our critic is active and has hijacked our nervous system it’s really hard to get it to pay attention. And as our body responds emotionally to the criticisms and judgements, it can be really hard for us to feel strong, connected and powerful.

So while I was endlessly kind to my critic, I found that the tirade and abuse would often continue.

How we should really manage our inner critic

I learned to envision and embody a Fiercely Kind Self—strong, courageous and kind—no matter what. And I learned to apply Fierce Kindness to both myself and my critic.

It takes extreme bravery to look within—and see what’s really going on. It takes courage (in our culture of logic and science) to recognize that a part of ourselves is (irrationally) terrified and acting out.

Our job is to 1) listen to whatever our critic has to say, 2) acknowledge and consider the input and 3) thank our critic. Finally 4) we must convince our critic (kindly, firmly and with Fierce Kindness when necessary) that we can handle it—we have received its message loud and clear and the critic can ‘stand down’.

Remember that our critic is (in an unhelpful, childish way!) just trying to keep us safe, protecting us from making mistakes and upsetting people.

So in summary…

…We need to be firm, kind, strong, respectful and open. We need to listen. We need to convince our critic that we’ve heard its concerns, that we’ve got this—and it’s not needed.

I hope you enjoyed this intro to the inner critic. And we’re going to look at all of this in more detail in future articles (and eventually a course, which I’m working on!).

  Some homework questions to ponder:
  • What resonated with you in this article? What do you agree or disagree with?
  • How enmeshed/separate (currently) is your critic from who you really are?
  • Have fun with this one: What does your critic think about this article?!
    • Is it scared/hopeful/excited/relieved/skeptical/apprehensive?
  • How do you feel about creating an unconditionally and fiercely kind, wise self?

Wrap-upFierce Kindness Logo

Fierce Kindness is a way of being that I learned after trying many, many other techniques to manage my critic and feel better. And while I have a number of short term ‘in the moment’ tools (which I am happy to share), learning to embody Fierce Kindness is the only tool I’ve found for lasting improvement and change.

Wouldn’t it be nice for you (and your critic) to be able to just relax? Are you ready to begin this journey?

In future articles we’ll explore the critic in more depth, looking at things like:

  • Knowledge is power: the Who, What & Why of our Inner Critic
  • What use is our Inner Critic? When to pay attention—and when not!
  • Why Inner Critic work is so incredibly important!
  • Why self-care is the key to Inner Critic work.
  • Create a Fierce Kind Self!
  • How to know when your Critic is active—and what to do.
  • ‘In the moment’ tools to manage our Inner Critic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts (or answers to the homework questions) in the comments below.

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

Change the world. Start with you!

Image of Confident person with kind eyes punching the air for the Inner Critic by krakenimages via Kraken Images

2 Comments

  1. Mehnaz Amjad

    What resonated the most with me was the burden-called “beliefs” we all have been carrying since our childhood to our present adulthood and how much of pain and trauma it takes to really heal.

    I do agree with you to an extent, however, what confused me was I still do not know how much impact my inner critic had on me in these years, because some where I feel I’ve lived a very unaware (lacking self awareness ) life, so perhaps the very concept of critic which must be prevalent was not in my awareness and knowledge.

    It’s a topic I found myself curiously exploring more to understand it in more in depth and I thank you for bringing it up here and also for the wonderful share.

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Dear Mehnaz, it sounds like you may have had a similar experience to me—where you have only become aware of your critic as an adult—even though it has likely been with you from childhood.

      On beliefs… Our beliefs influence how we feel about and enjoy ourselves and our lives. One definition of a belief is something we believe to be true—with no evidence. So a helpful thought is that if we have no (real) evidence for what we believe (or only false ‘evidence’ provided by adults when we were growing up), we could CHOOSE another belief instead: If there is no real evidence, why not choose a more positive belief about ourselves or the world?

      Of course, it helps to know what those limiting beliefs are. And that is part of the ‘work’ we need to do. Beliefs can be deeply embedded, so deeply embedded that it doesn’t occur to us to question them! We don’t even know they are operating…

      It can be good to ask when you notice your critic is active: What am I believing about myself/the world/other people right now that would make me anxious or trigger my critic? Then soothe your critic/yourself. You have this. You are an adult know. You know what you are doing.

      And keep a list of those beliefs – over time you will see patterns emerge.

      Emma-Louise x

      Reply

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