We all have an inner critic hanging out inside our heads that makes itself known every so often. Chances are that the inner critic says things about you that are far harsher than you would ever say about anyone else.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and compassion-focused therapy (CFT) both pay quite a bit of attention to self-criticism. One ACT exercise is to come up with a job description for your inner critic. What skills does it have? What are its day-to-day job tasks, and what are its working hours? Is it expected to work overtime?
The Compassionate Mind Foundation has a Forms of Self-Criticising/Attacking and Self-Reassuring Scale that you can try to see how strong your inner critic is. Actually scoring it is a bit labour-intensive, as there are three subscales (reassured, inadequate, and hated self), but you’ll get a pretty clear idea of your pattern just by going through and answering the questions.
I don’t have a particularly intrusive inner critic. While that may seem surprising given that I have depression, in my case, the role of my inner critic has a lot more to do with my personality than my illness. My first episode of depression didn’t happen until I was 27, by which point my inner critic was relegated to the backseat.
I think that had a great deal to do with how I was raised. Other than occasional flare-ups of my dad’s temper, things chugged along quite smoothly in the Peterson household. I received positive feedback from my parents, and they were very responsive and available. Even in high school, when I felt very different from the “in crowd”, I didn’t tend to interpret that as something being fundamentally wrong with me.
My years of university were a very positive experience, and during that time, I started to really solidify my adult personality. I was comfortable with myself, and I liked how I was living my life.
During my first hospitalization, I apparently had delusional levels of guilt, but I don’t have any memory of that, so I’m not even sure what it was about. For the most part, though, I’ve maintained at least some degree of separation between my illness and my core self. That separation has allowed me to attribute the various aspects of the depression to the illness rather than to my core self.
When there are situational problems, I’m more likely to attribute those to external factors rather than blaming myself. In a way that’s good, but it can also lead to a sense of powerlessness.
I’ll also experience distress sometimes over my functional ability. However, I attribute that to the illness rather than see it as a failing of my core self. I’m fairly self-forgiving, as I know I’m far from perfect but have no expectations of perfection. I’m also okay with not being “normal”, as, in general, I prefer quirky to “normal”.
I know that many people have a very loud and persistent self-critic, so I feel lucky that I don’t. A lot of it has to do with my upbringing, but I think it also helps that I had a solid chunk of time being well as an adult. When my thinking patterns changed when I got sick, I had a “normal” frame of reference to evaluate against.
Does your inner critic cause a lot of problems for you? Is there anything that helps keep it in check?
The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, including cognitive defusion and aligning actions to values. You can find it on the Resources page.