By Ernest Isaacs, MFT
There is a teaching story in the Sufi tradition about the Mullah Nasruddin, a combination wise person, fall guy, saint, and fool. It seems there was a couple in his village having troubles who came to him for help. The man got up and told his story, how he felt, and so on, and when he finished, the Mullah looked at him and said “You’re right!”. Then the wife stood up and said her part and what she wanted, and the Mullah looked at her and said “You’re right!”. One of their friends who had come along sat there scratching his head and said to Nasruddin “But they can’t both be right?”. The Mullah replied “You’re right!”.
If only we could be so accepting of ourselves. All of us, clients and clinicians alike, have an Inner Critic. It is also called the superego, top dog, or judge, but its function is the same under any name.
It is the part of our structure that tells us how bad or stupid or crazy we are. When it says “You idiot! How could you have said something that dumb!”, our self esteem goes down, and we wind up feeling inferior and inadequate. Assessment of what we have said or done is skillful and even necessary, but self judgment is both painful and useless. Careful reflection like “That was a mistake, wasn’t it” helps us do better the next time, but the Inner Critic adds the harsh and judgmental quality that creates a sense of worthlessness.
The Inner Critic becomes part of our character structure very early in our lives. Even in the most loving and supportive families, the parents are not saints and cannot be there 100% for their children 100% of the time. In the symbiotic phase, for example, mother is bound to be depressed or unhappy or angry at times. Since the infant cannot at this stage distinguish itself from its environment, there is no “in here” and “out there”, and so it internalizes the message that something is wrong and believes that there is something wrong with itself. Since the survival of the infant depends on accommodation to its external circumstances, this internalization process is an inherent part of the development process.
This core of self judgment continues to grow along with the child. Toilet training, for example, is a rich source of messages that we are bad or defective for not putting our waste products in the proper receptacles. When Dad says in the most loving way “Don’t put your finger in the wall socket,” the toddler can find it hard to distinguish the message “You are doing something wrong” from “You are a bad person for doing that”. When Mom says “Don’t run out into the street”, the child can find it hard to sort out the survival information from the self judgment for even having thought about doing it. As the child grows older and interacts with peers, he/she receives the sneering and jeering from the others (who have their own Inner Critics), which can embed the sense of unworthiness even deeper.
Children who are raised in homes where parents or caretakers blame, abuse, abandon, or belittle them are affected even more severely. However since all of us experience some of these environmental impacts, we all wind up with an Inner Critic as part of our ego structures. Its ferocity depends on our heredity, temperament, constitution, and the nature of the impacts. It continues to manifest destructively in our lives as adults, along with all the other parental messages about how to be that we took in.
There are external social structures that reinforce this internal mechanism. Freud’s model of the personality has penetrated deeply into our culture as a way of thinking about how human beings function. It postulates us as basically bad, made up of an Ego and an Id, a seething swamp of primeval impulses, barely kept in check by the Super-Ego, and thus supports the belief that the Inner Critic is a necessary and inherent part of ourselves.
Judeo-Christian religious traditions, with many exceptions, assume that humans are sinners, that is, bad people, who need to be redeemed. I have heard any number of clients talk about feeling shameful about themselves to this day on the basis of what a priest or pastor told them (with the best of intentions) when they were young. The question of whether these structures are projections of our Inner Critics I leave to the philosophers.
Theories of human moral structures fall into three basic categories. One is that we are inherently bad or evil, a second is that we are inherently good and virtuous, and the third is that we are inherently neither and learn to be bad or good. This Inner Critic work is based on the second model, that when we can live from our true natures, we are naturally kind and compassionate to ourselves as well as others.
The way to resolve an object relation is to externalize it so that it can be understood for what it is. The basis of the work on the Inner Critic is the process of dis-identifying from it. This requires both an intellectual cognition and experiential awareness of it and its effects.
Clients find it very useful to hear a little lecture on the development of the Inner Critic, with the emphasis on the part about it not being who they are, but something that was implanted as they grew up. “The moment you were born, you didn’t feel badly about yourself, so you must have picked it up somewhere along the way.” Just this understanding brings some degree of relief to many people.
To get to the felt sense of the Inner Critic as a separate entity and to experience the process of how it attacks, a guided visualization is very useful. Clients need to be protected from the Critic by telling them that there is no right or wrong way to do the exploration and that there is nothing that is supposed to happen, or else the Critic comes in and interferes.
The visualization starts with the client recalling an instance when they were being hard on themselves. To access their kinesthetic channel, they check into how their bodies react to the attack, maybe by a knot in the pit of the stomach, a headache, shoulders caving in, or some other physical sensation.
To begin the dis-identification process, they can move to the auditory channel and imagine that there is a loudspeaker in their head, and that the Inner Critic talking to them. They can listen to the content of the voice, what it is saying and if the words are repetitive or creative. They can notice the emotional tone of the voice, whether it is angry or scornful or bored. Clients may recognize the voice as their own, their parent’s, or just a generic voice.
Finally, they can be asked to stay with the body sensation and the words and come up with a picture or image that represents the source of the voice. Responses to this are often deep symbols, and have ranged from Mom or Dad (getting straight to the point) to vultures to looming black clouds to commissars. After the client comes back to the room, it is very useful to bring out art materials and ask them to make a drawing of the symbol that emerged.
Sometimes the client is willing to take their sketch home and put on the refrigerator where they can look at it all week. The image can be a touchstone that can be used later in therapy to good effect. (“Oh, I hear the Dictator speaking again.”) Even if the client doesn’t connect with one or more parts of the visualization, just doing the process begins the work of understanding that they are not their own worst enemies.
Once the Inner Critic has been nailed down and identified as a separate entity, the next step is for the client to learn to defend against it’s attacks. “If someone else told you what your Critic does, you would want to punch them out, right?”. The best description of what is needed comes from Fritz Perls in “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”.
“If there is a super-ego, there must also be an infra-ego. Freud saw the topdog but he left out the underdog which is just as much a personality as the topdog. If we examine the two clowns, as I call them, that perform the self-torture game on the stage of our fantasy, then we find the two characters like this:
The topdog usually is righteous and authoritarian. He is sometimes right but always righteous. The topdog is a bully, and works with “You should” and “You should not”.
The underdog manipulates with being defensive, apologetic, wheedling, playing the crybaby, and such. It works like this: “manana”, “I try my best”, “I can’t help it”, “I have such good intentions”.
To avoid falling into this underdog/victim trap, clients need to learn ways of defending themselves against the attacks of the Inner Critic. The essence of the defense is to respond to the process rather than the content. To argue back “I am not a failure” only feeds into the Critic’s game, to counter with “Stop criticizing me” undercuts the Critic’s basic position.
There are three main ways we buy into the struggle instead of stepping back from it. One is to fight back and argue with it, to try to prove the critic wrong. If the Critic tells us how stupid we are, showing it the Ph.D. diploma on the wall will still not end the attack.
Another mistake is to intellectualize the process, to explain or rationalize. The Critic tells us how worthless we are, and we try to point out how we could have done better in life if we had gone to the right schools and had met the right partner. This doesn’t stop the attack either.
The third and most common response is to collapse and believe that when the critic says that you’ll never amount to anything, we think the attack is accurate, that we really and truly will never succeed at anything in our lives.
For clients to really step out of the process and defend themselves involves three parts. First, they need to have the awareness that an attack is happening, which is where the body sensation, loudspeaker, and image are useful. Second, they must muster the strength of will to dis-identify from the Critic, to defend themselves, and to refuse to accept the attack. Sometimes they need to be reminded of how painful their self judgments are for them to rouse the energy to fight back.
The third part is to help them develop creative tactics for dealing with the Critic. No holds are barred in this process, and there are many basic strategies which can be used.
“Get the hell out of here and leave me alone.”
“Can you say that again in Pig Latin.”
“Thank you for sharing.”
“You sound like you are serious!”
“You’re not so bright yourself.”
“I’m busy right now. Check in with me after work and I’ll see if I have time for you.”
“Your voice sounds peculiar today.”
“I don’t deserve to be treated like this!”
“Who do you think you are, anyway!”
“Thank you for trying so hard to help me.”
“All of our agents are busy serving other customers.”
A useful device, assuming a good rapport, is for the therapist to play the Critic and keep repeating the client’s favorite line, such as “You’ll never make it”. The client can practice out loud with various responses, and can actually have a lot of fun playing to see what works best for them. As the process becomes internalized, clients will find that self defense starts to come naturally.
This can be expanded into a great game to play in groups. People break up into triads, A defends, B plays the Critic using a line given by A, and C coaches A when he or she gets stuck. After ten minutes, they rotate roles so each gets a chance to experiment with defending themselves.
Since the Inner Critic is a response to early parental directives, moving out from under its tyranny brings up issues of separation and abandonment from mom and dad, and clients will actually be reluctant to let go of it. “Be it ever so crazy, there’s no place like home.”
This can manifest in a belief that without the Critic to goad them into action, they will become inert vegetables and never accomplish anything. This comes from identifying with the underdog, and deeply believing that nothing can happen without pushing from the topdog. In reality, when they abandon the topdog/underdog battle, they will take actions based on true impulses, which are much more appropriate and life fulfilling. It may also be necessary to explore a passive aggressive layer that has been covered by the Inner Critic, and find out who they are rebelling against.
Clients can also imagine that if the Critic is not there to control and punish them, they will become totally amoral and go around stealing and killing. If they have religious associations with the Critic, they may think that they are sinners for defying its edicts. Since it is an internalized version of early external coercive forces, people (who are not sociopaths) need to learn that they don’t need it any more and will be kind and loving as a natural expression of themselves. A layer of anger and resentment that has been covered over by the Critic’s injunction “Don’t be angry” may emerge and need to be dealt with.
This process is useful to clients on many levels. It gives them a tool for feeling better about themselves as they go through their daily lives. They get a model for understanding their inner process and how they create the pain for themselves. Sometimes a lot of early parental material arises which can be usefully explored. Most important is the meta-message they get from their therapist that they are wonderful people just the way they are.
This Inner Critic work is for some clients an on-going struggle, others find a mere introduction of the concept enough. In the past few years, I have been doing some form of this work with more and more of the people I see, and they almost invariably find it very transformative.
Ali, Hameed, The Work on the Super-Ego (monograph). Berkeley: Diamond Books. (1977)
Brown, Byron, Soul Without Shame. Boston: Shambala Publications (1999)
Perls, Fritz, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayette, CA: Real People Press. (1969)
Stone, Hal and Sidra, Embracing Your Inner Critic. New York: HarperCollins. (1993)
I am indebted to my teacher Hameed Ali (who writes under the name A.H. Almaas), for some of this material, and to Elizabeth Warren, MFCC, for the title.