MH@H Mental Health

How Does the Inner Critic Get Started?

How does the inner critic get started? - cartoon of a person weighed down by negative thoughts

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 as 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 self-acceptance.

Perhaps part of why I don’t self-criticize as part of my depression is that I tend to get slow brain. It seems like that’s less common than people getting faster 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?

Well, let’s consider it 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 or shifting his focus elsewhere?

When it comes to “shoulds” around listening to the inner critic, I think it’s worth recognizing that the 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 nurtuer

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 the author’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: a purple monster with wings weighing you down with "shoulds"

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 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 like 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.

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

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

  1. That’s a great blog post about a very important topic!!

    My inner critic has impossibly high standards for me to follow! It’s awful! It’s gotten worse of late! I don’t know what the deal is! I expect myself to be perfectly well-adjusted, which is, of course, impossible. I think that this is brilliant:

    “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.”

    Yeah, that’s genius. Oh! You know what comes to my mind? Freud’s id, ego, and superego. I worry that if I were to turn off my inner critic, I’d give into the id all the time. I need the inner critic to motivate me or nudge me into productive action! I’m not sure it’s the same thing, but that’s what came to mind!! Or the inner critic’s upset when my superego chose the id! “Really, Meg, you had to eat all that junk food?” Huh. But I also would posit that my mom had a huge role in my having an inner critic!

    1. I just took a look at the Freud connection, and he saw the superego as having two parts: the conscience tells you what’s wrong, and the ideal self tells you what’s right. So the inner critic would fall under the conscience, but even if the power got cut to the conscience, the ideal self is still there making you want to do good.

  2. I love my mom and miss her every day, but she was extremely critical. Nothing I did was ever good enough. If I got a 95% on a test… why wasn’t it 100%? Like that, with everything. Why am I so pale? Why not wear lipstick? On and on. I absorbed it all and eventually my inner voice began to ask those questions too. I became intolerant of any error I made, any perceived “defect.” It propelled me into anorexia and I’m still not over criticizing myself for eating “wrong” and not exercising “enough.” It’s really tough. I try to work on saying positive things to myself, but sometimes it simply doesn’t work. It drives me crazy that there are mistakes “out there” I’ve made on the internet…

    1. I wish parents would realize just how much lasting damage can result from criticizing children. I can see how mistakes “out there” could be hard, since it’s pretty much impossible to avoid.

    2. Sigh. I wish I didn’t relate to this comment so much. My maternal grandmother was extremely critical. My mother less so with me, but hugely so with the outside world. Add in some anxiety and like you, voila, an eating disorder. And yes, existing mistakes are dire.

  3. Great post Ashely – your comparison got me thinking about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. One says you are what you are – that if you fail it’s because you are one, the other says you can always improve – that failure is simply an opportunity in learning. I love the idea of turning your inner critic into a silly monster. The more we can laugh at ourselves the more resilient we become. Wishing you well Ashley πŸ™

  4. Funny how I just wrote a post mentioning my inner critic and then saw your post right away. πŸ˜€ This is a great post! πŸ™‚
    My inner critic’s name is Maggie aka Stinky Maggie and I do like to imagine her as some half-human, half-monster thing or sometimes a monkey, which sometimes helps me to see her less seriously and care less about whatever she says. She can actually be quite funny sometimes even without looking like she does, but is also extremely snarky and sarcastic in a mean way and can ruin absolutely everything. I guess – well, that’s at least the impression I have from what I hear when people talk about their inner critics – that most people tend to have a very perfectionist inner critic, while Maggie is not. She doesn’t “should” too much or doesn’t really care about pushing me to do anything. What she does most often is simply talking about all the things I’m bad at/did wrong/she doesn’t like in me etc. I don’t think she actually cares about me being a good person or not being a bad person, there’s nothing in it for her I suppose. πŸ˜€ She just likes making me feel awful in whatever way she can. Although I don’t really know what’s in it for her either. I think it’s a good thing that she’s not a perfectionist on top of all the things she is. I don’t know if it’s also technically an inner critic function or if she simply isn’t happy enough having only one job in my Brainworld but she also loves saying negative things about other people as well, for example that they’re lying when they tell me something nice, when rationally there’s no valid evidence that they do. I hate that because I really don’t like thinking things like that about other people.
    I haven’t really ever thought much about how my inner critic developed, although it’s very interesting how things like that start out. I’m not sure if my home environment played a significant role in feeding Maggie and making her as fat and bulky as she is, as my parents weren’t overly critical of me so I think it’s mostly outside, although maybe some genetics as well because my Mum’s inner critic was very strong when she was a child and teenager. These days you’d never think that about her and she says she doesn’t have as much of a problem with that anymore, but just recently we realised that we both share that “PEOPLE ARE LYING!” line of thinking.

  5. People throughout my life have been very critical of me for having what apparently is a really huge inner critic. They always tell me that I’m being “too hard on myself” and whenever they do so, I always think it is THEM who are being too hard on me. People should leave me and my inner critic alone, because I get along better with the internal critic than I do with all the external ones.

  6. Ugh i use to have a huge inner critic that i think i got from childhood when i felt the pressure to be perfect. I do think it’s gotten better but still rears its ugly head when I’m depressed or get paranoid.

  7. I grew up with extreme negativity at home and great gooey gobs of approval outside the home – I’m sure it confused the hell out of me BUT it seems I internalized the approval and not the criticism (I don’t think there was one day of my childhood and youth that my mother did not say straight out to my face “You are a useless piece of shit” sometimes, when I got older, she would add “Why don’t you kill yourself” – Yeah, my mother was a sweetheart.) While I can stay awake nights re-living every embarrassing thing I ever did it doesn’t register as self-criticism and I don’t beat myself up over it, sometimes I can laugh ruefully at my people-pleaser younger self.

    I do not have a Should monster. But I do have an 6 year old named Lizbeth who is just a hoot in hell – she’s always up for a little goofy crazy fun! And she is the protector of the inner 6 year old me…

  8. I notice that I am not the only person here that had a problem with a parent being overly critical.
    My father was always telling me that I am no good.
    I do not pay much attention to my inner critic when it comes to demeaning myself. However, I can be critical when it comes to wanting to write better. It really kicks in when I am trying to learn to play a new song. I want it to sound great because when I traveled I could only do “cover” songs that everyone usually knew.
    It is great that I have someone who does his best to keep me from my destructive inner critic.

  9. I remember as early as grade school having this all or nothing perfectionist mindset – either I was the very smartest in the class or I was a complete moron who knew absolutely nothing. Either I was the most talented prodigy or I the most talentless person who walked the earth. I have no idea how this started because my parents are actually wonderful loving parents. Maybe I thought that by thinking of myself as the worst, I’d be more prepared for someone else’s negative reaction? Anyway, this mindset was even more toxic than I described here and it continued for a really long time.

    I think maybe in college some of this chipped away. Like I graduated with a science major even though my grades were mediocre. I’m glad I stuck with said major because it had a positive impact on my career later, but back in high school, I never could have coped mentally with getting the grades I got in college. Also, I went to a college with a great performing arts program. Even though I wouldn’t have been talented enough to pass an audition (including the audition for the Jewish a cappella group, which was the best audition I’d ever had in my life and for which I thought I’d be a shoo-in…) my talented musical theatre friends would hear me sing and say “actually, you’re pretty good”, and I’d start to believe them, sometimes without the need to add “but not good enough” in my head (even “but not good enough” was a considerable improvement from my previous mindset of “my voice is atrocious and I should just stick my head in the sand so no one will hear it”) . And then I got to working and karaoke league and poetry workshops and life outside of the heavily-tracked atmosphere of school over time, I think I got to a point where I was able to more realistically assess my skills and abilities.

    That said, I must still radiate something of the old inner critic me, because I recall trying to describe my skill in some area to a friend and she was all like “You’re just suffering from imposter syndrome” and I was thinking, “No, actually, I objectively don’t think that is the case.”

    1. It’s interesting that that voice would get so strong without any clear source.

      I think university is a good place to get a sense of oneself as a fish in the sea, neither better nor worse than anybody else. I remember I got a failing grade on my first quiz in Math 100. That was definitely a small fish, big sea moment, in a good way (mostly).

      1. Definitely. I think part of that strange perfectionist voice was naivety. I was remarkably naive growing up and I really didn’t have any idea what other people were like, or that they wouldn’t all think the same way that I did. College was a good way to open my eyes by actually meeting other people

  10. Great post Ashley! We are alert in our home to β€˜should -ing’ ourselves! Love the imagery too – I do that with my clients – make the critic into someone or something you can’t respect so you pay less attention – a silly voice can help too! πŸ’žπŸ’ž

  11. I think that is has to be a combination of inner critic and focusing ones attention elsewhere. I try to do the latter, but because of my diagnosis, I catch it from both sides. Anyhow, I appreciate this write-up!

  12. Unfortunately, if a child is harshly criticized or abused it will stay with them for the rest of their life. It’s a pattern that gets set in the formative years of the thinking brain. It takes a lot of strength and training to overcome it. At least that’s been my experience. πŸ’

  13. I’ve a really harsh inner critic that’s basically my parents combined. It’s tenacious in how relentless it is, and it definitely hampers my healing. It always returns even when we figuratively kick it out in therapy with imagery. Sometimes I wonder if my system contains introjects of my abusers’ due to how absolutely relentless my inner critic is.

      1. Good question! It mostly attacks me. None of my other system members have mentioned hearing it at all. It’s an adult voice which basically shreds me and laughs mockingly (like my actual dad), or it’s shaming and guilt trippy (like my actual mother).

  14. 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 πŸ™‚

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