Question: “My question is, how do we silence our inner critic? How to change the voice in our head that isn’t always helpful?”
First, Thank you, reader, for sharing this question with me for the purposes of a broader audience. I am excited to be able to respond to this exploration because it is an essential part of the work I do with many people as so many of us struggle with this part of ourselves. Especially in these times of self isolating and being quarantined into our homes for an extended period of time, I can imagine so many people are having to “meet” many parts of themselves, including the inner critic or conversely they are finding themselves doing everything they can to not face this uncomfortable experience through distraction and avoidance..Hello Netflix!
I will preface this article with referencing the theory that I have been recently working with not only in my own practice as a therapist, but in my own personal therapy as well. Internal Family Systems was developed in the 1990s by Richard Schwarz that gives a specific, evidenced based approach to working with various parts of the psyche.
Three intentions guide this approach; including, freeing ourselves from extreme roles that keep us suffering, restoring trust in our self, and coordinating and harmonizing all parts of ourselves so that the whole being can work together in a way that is empowering.
It is a quite profound and beautiful practice that syncs up with the more Jungian approach to the Shadow work that I have been facilitating for many years. It also incorporates many tenants of yoga and mindfulness that allows it to be a truly holistic and transformative approach towards acceptance and love not only to oneself but towards others and all experiences.
In IFS (Internal Family Systems) there is a belief that we all have many various parts of the self. We see these “parts” as sub-personalities and treat them as “separate but a part of the whole” aspects of ourselves. Some of these parts attempt to protect us from feeling pain. Other parts are aspects of ourselves that have experienced wounding or pain in the past. This is often in the form of an inner child and can be experiences that are recent as well. Then there is the Self. The Self is represented as the part of us that is truly, at the core, who we are – connected, centered and whole. In this process, we work to develop trusting relationships with all of these parts and to become intimate with all of our self. Through this way we can collaborate, knowing who at any given time is speaking and become more conscious as to who is “driving the car” of our inner landscape and responses to the outside world.
The inner critic is one of these parts. Although it may manifest uniquely for each person, this part is often categorized by by a belief that something is inherently wrong with us. It is oftentimes responsible for feelings of not being worthy enough, shame, doubt, overwhelm and even obsessive thinking or addictions.
In IFS, we can further name the inner critic into possible seven types. These include:
- The perfectionist
- The guilt tripper
- The underminer
- The Destroyer
- The molder
- The Task Master
- The inner controller
Most of these are pretty self explanatory, but they each have their own motivations, fears and points of origin. Through the work of IFS and the process that I will outline in this article, we can begin to develop a more intimate relationship with each type of inner critic and come to understand what it needs from us (the Self) and what we (the Self) can harness from it. It is important to remember, that despite it creating challenges and painful feelings, the inner critic truly desires the best for us. In fact, every part of our self has our best interests at heart. Oftentimes, the inner critic is just not able to support us in a way that is helpful. In our work with it then, we can begin to collaborate with our inner critic consciously which will then only enhance our ability to respond to ourselves and our lives with empowerment and joy. We can turn the inner critic into a resource.
Approaching the inner critic (and all parts of ourselves) with an “open stance” is the first thing I would like you to remember in this work. If we are critical of our inner critic, it will only perpetuate and deepen it’s protective and harsh stance. Jack Kornfield, a mindfulness teacher, offers a technique in meditation called the “THIS, TOO” technique where whatever arises, he does not react or judge it, he just simply welcomes it all by seeing it and saying “this, too”. I suggest incorporating that as you begin turning towards your self, the thoughts and the feelings that might arise in this work. Another technique that we often see in the mindfulness and yoga world is that of Metta Meditation, or Loving Kindness. I suggest practicing this, as well, as often and consistently as possible alongside this work so that you can cultivate your “compassionate muscle” in the brain. I assure you will find that the journey to work with your inner critic will be a bit easier if you can simultaneously develop and strengthen the relationship you have with your SELF, which is ultimately compassionate, kind and open.
Oftentimes the inner critic is based on a lack of trust with a natural unfolding process that is occurring around us. I call this “spirituality” but you might have another name for it (God, Nature, Love, True Self, Universe, etc.). Further, the inner critic also has a loss of trust in the Self, as well. So in this work, developing our relationship with both our True Self and the connection we have with Faith is important. There are many ways we can do this, as simple as finding five minutes each day to turn inward and breathe, walking in nature, reading a devotional or anything else that allows you to be in the space of open curiosity or even wonder.
Naming and developing an understanding of the inner critic is the first step. But there is oftentimes another part, behind the protective role of the inner critic, that also needs to be seen and heard. This part is the one that is “hearing” the inner critic. The part that believes it’s messages to be true and the part that internalizes the feelings of shame, worthlessness and doubt. We lean into this part as well. This might happen easily and organically for some, but usually it takes some time to first develop a more trusting relationship with the inner critic so that it can move aside even just a bit for the Self to access this more wounded part of ourselves. This part can sometimes originate from the “criticized child” inside of us. Our parents and other adults in our lives did the best they could, but they too have their wounds and inner critic that may have been projected onto us. This might be a good time to note the dynamic of Trauma and the IFS process. When we have experienced Trauma in our past the pain and fear from the experience can become trapped inside the body. IFS is a somatic process that is dynamic and deep. It is important that we do not rush the process and/or force any of our protectors out or access the pain too quickly before we are truly ready to feel and open to what might arise.
Go slowly. Stop anytime. Access support.
The IFS process can be done on one’s own, but I highly suggest beginning with the support of a therapist and accessing one throughout the work as it can be beneficial not only in times of Traumatic experiences but in the general IFS work as well. Navigating the subconscious is like hunting a shadow in the dark of night. Having another trusted and skilled person alongside of you can help you navigate the periphery of your psyche and release even more tension and/or blockages that prevent you from moving forward.
Let’s return briefly to the wounded part that receives the Inner Critic messages. I want to outline three possible ways this part can end up responding to the voice of the IC. These three responses were outlined by a woman named Barbara McGavin who also studies and practices IFS. These three responses include Collapsing (surrendering to the negative and shameful messages of the IC “You’re right, I am bad.”, Rebelling (an overreactive resistance to the IC’s messages, often expressed as inner and/or external anger) and Escaping (this is an avoidance of the IC’s voice within through the form of addiction, obsessive thinking and escaping into the external world). I name these in this article, as I hope it will offer you a threshold to begin naming what is within you. Please note that your parts may not fit these molds and that is ok too. This is a curious and open experience that allows you name what is true for you.
As I mentioned earlier, the IFS process is a somatic experience, meaning a major part of it is exploring what each of these parts feel like inside the body and allowing that to be a portal to a deeper knowing. The body becomes the landscape in which we search out these parts and meet them. It is the place in which we feel our way toward them and become more intimate with our whole self. The body becomes the compass, the vehicle and the destination of our work.
So, how do you silence the inner critic?
WE DON’T. We turn towards it and listen to what it is truly wanting to say. What is underneath it’s messages. Below is what we have discussed in a more linear form, but please know that this is less “this then that” approach and consider it more of a relational, fluid journey. And remember, BEING PRESENT with our parts and just simply BEING WITH them versus turning away or being overly critical of our parts is, in itself transformative.
- Cultivate your compassion and presence practice by exploring mindfulness techniques
- Identify the Inner Critic through the “Feeling Exercise” listed below
- Begin to dialogue with it either through mediation, talking out loud with the part or through journaling
- Get to know it’s motivation. What is the inner critic afraid of? Allow it to reveal to you what it IS NOT wanting to happen and what IT IS wanting to happen. Learning to get to know and work with our fear is also an essential part of this practice. Developing Emotional Intimacy is a powerful ally in this work.
- Once the Inner Critic has softened some towards the self, perhaps you can now access what part is believing the inner critic to be true or is the one receiving it’s messages. You can do this by engaging in the “Feeling Exercise” listed below.
- Be present with it all. Explore the messages you are receiving from both parts. “I hear you.” can be a very powerful response.
- Stay open, curious and compassionate.
- Stop anytime it becomes overwhelming and again having a facilitator to help guide the conversations with these parts so that you can truly unburden them from their “duties” and develop a trusting and collaborative relationship with the Self can be very powerful.
If you have experienced an interaction with your Inner Critic or really any moment where you are experiencing reactivity within, you can pause and ask yourself:
- Where am I feeling this sensation in my body right now?
- What does it feel like?
- Name it and/or describe it. Give it a texture, a temperature, a color, etc.
- Ask yourself: When is the very first time I ever remember feeling this way? Then let this be the door that opens you to further dialogue and exploration with the various parts that might be activated in this time. Developing Intimacy is key.
There are further aspects to this process to really develop a loving relationship with the whole of yourself. Unburdening techniques and ways to release oneself from the patterns that might be keeping you stuck in your life. I am happy to assist and support this work for you if any of this spoke to you. You can read my bio and connect with me if you wish to schedule and or discuss this further. Sometimes, even just one or two sessions with a therapist can set you on the right road for further work that you do on your own or with the support or your own community.
Ultimately, I invite you to cultivate CURIOSITY, study COMPASSION and stay OPEN to it all.
By: Jackie Paulson, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered 500 Hour Yoga Instructor. She has over a decade of experience in the helping field and offers holistic therapies that combine and east meets west approach to therapy.