A group of us therapists recently enjoyed a good discussion over a pot of coffee. It was a longish discussion, with a good case to be made for each side of the argument. Then one participant stood up and said ‘I should be getting back to work; I don’t want to get into trouble’. This was a joke. We counselling folk do like a little therapy humour although this particular attempt was met with more groans than laughs. The reason for the joke; the point of expressing the feeling that we might get in trouble was that the discussion was about our inner critic; that sometimes loud and harsh; sometimes quiet and encouraging inner sense or inner voice that plays an essential role in regulating our personality.
Tuning in to Our inner Critic
Tuning in to our inner critic plays a part in every therapy. In some cases it is a central theme with long, painstaking, almost archaeological sifting through the layers backwards through time. This is where therapy digs into the deeper issues as we undertake the work of getting to know our own internal critic. The questions are about this inner critic’s origins; its effects and how it might be challenged and changed. One of the characteristics of it seems to be the severity by which it is experienced. And this leads us towards the reasons for its presence and how it can be either a positive and creative force or a negative and destructive one.
The Need for the Inner Critic
That part of our personality which becomes our inner critic has its origins in our early experiences. It is the result of the day to day routines of life which are governed by minor rights and wrongs. Our parents may admonish us or try to steer us gently in particular direction; maybe a direction we don’t want to go in. The result can be either a tantrum or desire to please by doing the right thing. The two sides of the compliance/defiance coin are played out energetically during these times and often are revisited again years later in therapy. An important part of how these experiences effect us seems to be how well they sit with us at the time and also how lightly or not the regulations are introduced and enforced.
The Inner Critic and Depression
In dealing with depression it is quite common to find an inner critic or internal parent that has turned against the self. In this case the harshness of early admonishments are revived and relived with a real and destructive ferocity. We can experience strong feelings of self reproach which can result in reduced self esteem and feelings of utter worthlessness. These self reproaches are echoes of criticisms received over time from others which become a part of how we regard our own self. Often we defend ourselves against them; maybe even for years but at times when things seem to be going wrong for us on different fronts they can assert themselves and leave us feeling overwhelmed. This cruel self reproach from internalised rebukes is central to the feelings of low self worth which often accompany depression.
A Healthier Inner Critic
We do however need an internal critic. Its purpose is to regulate the personality, particularly in a social capacity. We benefit by becoming masters of our own fantasies and impulses and by channelling these energies into creative rather than destructive endeavours. If the regulation behind the internal critic is aimed at achieving a certain standard in a particular field of life; if it is benignly learned and compatible with how we would like to behave and like to be regarded then it can be a positive and creative force. In this way too in therapy we can tune into our internal critic; its effects and the obstacles it can erect. We can consider these in the light of how we would like to be. In this way we can learn to realign it to revised personal standards and goals, freed up from old blockages. We can replace a harsh internal critic with a more benign one of our own choosing.