How Does the Inner Critic Get Started?

illustration of inner critic calling a person weak, lazy, incapable
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the blogging world have quite a strong inner critic. I don’t, and II find it fascinating when it seems like people believe that they should self-criticize in order to do things properly, or in order to avoid being a bad person. So let’s chat about it.

To start off, I would differentiate between self-criticism and critical self-reflection. Self-criticism knocks you down and makes you feel like crap. Critical self-reflection looks for areas where you could boost yourself up by doing better. I do a lot of self-reflection, and I want to understand myself, including the good and the bad. I’m at a stage of my life where I don’t particularly care about the bad, but even when I did care more, beating myself over the head with it doesn’t seem like it would be productive.

What makes you vulnerable?

Obviously, childhood makes a huge difference. I was lucky and had a very good childhood with lots of positive feedback from my parents, but I know others have had very, very different experiences. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if negative feedback outside of the home gives the inner critic something to go on, but perhaps negative feedback within the home setting sets that idea that one “should” self-criticize.

I wonder if modelling makes a difference, with learning coming from how significant adults in our lives treated themselves. If I had to guess about my parents, I’d say that my weak self-critic matches up pretty closely with my mom. My dad probably has a bit stronger self-critic, but I would guess not significantly so. My grandma was a significant figure in my childhood, and she was a strong model of accepting that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Perhaps part of why I don’t self-criticize as part of my depression is that my brain speed tends to slow down. It seems like that’s less common than people getting fast brain that’s busy with ruminating, worrying, anxiety, and the like. I don’t have a lot of brainpower to go around, so I budget it carefully. If I tried to fit self-flagellation in, I’d be pretty much comatose the rest of the time, but for people with busier brains, I can see the inner critic getting a lot more fuel.

Does the inner critic serve a purpose?

Let’s consider the question of whether the inner critic serves a purpose in terms of your best friend. Would you want them to have a strong self-critic? Do you think that they’re the person you know and care about because they’ve been heeding what their inner critic has to say?

Let’s also consider it in terms of being a “good person.” The Dalai Lama seems like a pretty obvious example of a good person. Did he get there by listening to his inner critic? Or did he come to be the person he is by ignoring it or shifting his focus elsewhere?

When it comes to “shoulds” around listening to the inner critic, I think it’s worth recognizing that it doesn’t serve the same purpose as your values or your conscience. Those steer you in the right direction; they don’t knock you down over and over and over again by telling you that you’re not good enough.

Inner critic vs. inner nurturer

In an article on the TED website, psychologist Rick Hanson (author of the book Resilient) explains that we all have an inner nurturer and an inner critic. The balance between the two has a lot to do with what was going on in our childhood, but it’s not set in stone. Some of the things he suggests:

  • notice when small accomplishments are downplayed by your inner critic, and validate those accomplishments
  • label over-the-top self-condemnation, like “I’m a bad person”, as “self-criticism” or something more creative like “nasty-ass beeyotch” (my words, not Hanson’s)
  • actively choose to turn away from that beeyotch of an inner critic and towards your inner nurturer
  • turn your inner critic into a silly monster (we’ll get to that in a second)
  • recognize the similarities between yourself and the decent people in your life
  • try to see yourself the way the people who care about you see you
  • try to find and recognize your own inherent value as a human

I see similarities between the inner critic and the concept of self-improvement based on the idea of not being good enough and needing to be better to be acceptable. The inner nurturer waters the tree of personal growth and gives it plant food to help it thrive.

The should monster

The should monster: the problem with "I should" - cartoon of a purple monster

This purple people eater-type situation going in for a butt scratch is the official (in my world, anyway) Should Monster. The Should Monster is your inner critic’s sidekick, and he likes to tell you what you should do, which is always better than what you are doing or are/will ever be capable of doing.

Should Monster, like the inner critic, is never satisfied. But if you imagine Should Monster and Inner Critic Monster as butt-scratching scraggly-toothed doofuses, might it be easier to take them just a little bit less seriously?

Moving forward

So yeah, childhood happened. But, as Rick Hanson says, the critic/nurturer balance isn’t static. The crap of yesteryear doesn’t have to keep fuelling the inner critic as strongly as it has been. The inner nurturer, no matter how tiny it is, is there and deserves some nurturing itself. And maybe with a little TLC, she’ll stand up and give Should Monster and the Inner Critic the ass-whooping that they deserve.

If you’re looking for a therapeutic approach that works on self-criticism, both acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and compassion-focused therapy (CFT) put a lot of emphasis on this. 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?

What’s your own relationship like with your inner critic?

47 thoughts on “How Does the Inner Critic Get Started?”

  1. On how the inner critic is started, from a social work and personal perspective:
    Generational trauma, unhealthy attachment patterns, unhealthy family systems, abuse and neglect and impossible societal standards. Voila….inner critic is born.
    My relationship now? The inner critic is still there but practicing self compassion and knowing I am human helps 🙂

  2. I had a good childhood I would say and I love my mum and know she loves me, but boys is she critical! Of herself, or everything and everyone around her … all the time! I have such a strong inner critic and maybe it’s because I grew up with that way of thinking. I try really hard to be aware when I’m doing it and to stop it. Not easy but not impossible either! Great post. X

      1. True. I try very hard not to model it to my boys. I catch myself doing it almost automatically. My husband has no inner critic 🤣 so he balances mine out!!!

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