Internal Critic? Or Internal Guide?




You are worthless.

You can’t accomplish anything.

Nobody wants you.

You have nothing to offer anyone.

Have you ever had these thoughts? Everyone does at some point in their lives. For people who come to see me for therapy, sometimes they even say that these thoughts are like their best friend, always present.

These thoughts are deadly, however.   Many of my clients who are suicidal deal with the stress that comes from an unrelenting barrage of these thoughts.

But where  do these thoughts come from? We know that we have to experience them, but sometimes we don’t know why why they show up like this, especially when there is ample evidence to the contrary of what they say.

One thing I know about in life when it comes to feelings is that all feelings are about five things.

Basically, do I feel safe and comfortable?, or, do I need to fight, flee, hide, or submit?

I base my argument that feelings are about this on simple evolutionary theory.   Two ancestors went down a forest path, and they saw a sabertooth tiger. The one who felt odd, like they wanted to run, lived to the another day.  The one who didn’t feel odd and stayed didn’t.  Why?  Because the one who felt odd did not feel like he was safe or comfortable, and his feelings compelled him to flee. After the one who had a flight response ran, he did feel safe and comfortable. He lived to the next day, met up with Mrs. Caveman, and produced little cavemen, our ancestors.   Back then, we had sabertooth tigers. Today we have spouses, bosses, and bills. However, we have the same physiological and emotional responses.  Feelings of joy, happiness, contentedness lead to feeling safe and comfortable. When we feel safe and comfortable, we know we are not under threat. We feel free to be creative and work for the greater good. When we don’t feel safe and comfortable, we often feel despair, anger, fear, and other negative feelings. These feelings are actually our allies. They help us to see that we need to work on addressing perceived threats so that we can again feel safe and comfortable and survive

All negative feelings are about helping you with feeling safe and comfortable in the future. All of them, if they are interpreted correctly, in the light of the fact that they are guides to feeling safe and comfortable in the long run.

So, why do we have these negative thoughts about ourselves, and why are they so critical, and why are we so crippled by them?

These negative thoughts come from when we oftentimes call our Internal Critic. This is the voice inside of us that tells us that we are worthless. It is the voice that has followed us from childhood and tells us that we can’t do anything. It is the voice that tells us we are unwanted.  It is the voice that tells us that we are not worth anything to other people.

My clients listen to the Internal Critic all the time.  For the most part it is why they come here for help. It causes them pain.  Their relationship with their Inner Critic is one that oftentimes is very dangerous, as they listen to thought stating that they would be better off dead. A lot of them live in fear of their own thoughts and feelings.   Worse, they identify with their own thoughts and feelings and fall into the idea that just because these thoughts are here, that  the thoughts and feelings expressed by the Inner Critic are actually who they are as a person, and the actual reality that they face.

In reality, the Inner Critic is simply a part of who they are, not the sum.  The Critic is an experience in response to something going on in their lives, either easily defined or not easily defined.  At the least, they are thoughts and feelings, but only thoughts and feelings.  I would argue that they actually represent parts of ourselves that we have pushed away, much like a kid who runs from his shadow because it is terrifying to experience.  It is a part of ourself that has been shunned by us and that wants to be reunited with us in a healthy way.  But, I’ll come back to that.

The Inner Critic, as I’ve stated before, is actually not your enemy.  It may tell you all kinds of things, up to and including that you would be better off dead.  But, it isn’t your enemy.  The Inner Critic is usually a representative of a part of yourself that does not feel recognized by the decision-making part of you.  Frustrated by this, it tries to get your attention by criticizing you into action, sometimes self-sabotaging or self-destructive action, in the hopes that you will change.  It criticizes, hoping you will respond positively. However, the mistake comes in misinterpreting its message.

When we don’t listen to what the Inner Critic is actually saying behind its yelling, we eventually become crippled, hiding and submitting to what we interpret as our own poor self-worth.  Work is undone, relationships are lost, we isolate, and eventually succumb to depression or anxiety.

So, this is what happens, but what are the mechanics of how it happens?

Usually anxiety and depression works like the following set of diagrams.

First, we experience anxiety about a situation, such as a fear about coping with a fear of being judged in a social context.  Then we notice the need and means to change, such as the need to go to a specific social event to meet people.

Guardian 1

This leads to tension, as one bounces back and forth between anxiety about a situation, and fear of the need and means to change.  A feedback loop develops between anxiety about a situation and the need and means to change, which spirals into either anxiety or depression.  Anxiety and depression lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Guardian 2

People come to psychotherapy for relief from two things, and two things only: pain, and the Catch-22 about how to deal with it when confronted with the need to change.  They find themselves facing a riddle, which is to answer the question of how to move through change.  The problem is that they are stuck in patterns of thinking that pingpong between fear of the situation and fear of change.  With each paddling of the pingpong, more energy is added to the tension, and the client eventually spirals into anxiety or depression as a result of the unspent increasing energy.

In good therapy, clients are encouraged to let go of the Catch-22 cycle by identifying how it works in a given situation and then they are then asked to answer the Catch-22 and relieve their pain by changing the way they perceive the questions brought up by their Internal Critic.

However, it is important to note that while the therapist provides counsel, the real work doesn’t involve the therapist.  The real work is done between the person who comes to therapy, their internal anxiety about a situation, and their internal need and means to change.

So, how do we deal with the Inner Critic?

First, as stated before, we need to realize that the Inner critic is not our enemy, but is actively trying to help us to first focus on a problem, and then finding the need and means of coping with it.

A good way to think of dealing with the Inner Critic is to see it as a frustrated guide to life.  If we actually just look at what it does as a gift, we can learn a lot.

The Inner Critic gives us a gift by identifying a problem and discriminating it as a priority compared to others.  For example, if it seems to say that you are a terrible person because of the way you handle a family problem, you can interpret what it says as simply saying that a possible threat is the family problem in question.  All the other emotional drama is its attempt to get you to focus on the threat as an area for action.  The family problem is the threat to focus on, and you don’t have to worry about the price of rice in China, the recent antics of a TV celebrity, politics, or a hangnail.  It says the family problem is what needs to be focused on.  That is its gift, singling out the issue to be focused upon.

The need for change also gives us a gift.  When we look at the need for change and look for means to change, the sense of the enormity of change simply reminds us to temper our intervention on the threat.  If the family problems look insurmountable, then we are are forced to narrow down our options for how to work on it until we come up with the most reasonable. We don’t have to cut down an entire forest, we just need a path through the trees. The anxiety about making a change with family issues, then, can either cripple us if we only listen to the frustrated part of it, or it can help us by encouraging us to discern between efficient and effective ways of coping and inefficient and ineffective ways of coping. So, instead of freezing in the face of a family issue, we can use the energy that comes from the fight or flight response to stop, look at resources, and talk to people in the family or friends who can be of help navigating through the issues, for example.

How do we know we have the best answer? We feel relief, and the solution is positive and it is ethically the best for all concerned, even if it is difficult. If we don’t feel this or see this, then we aren’t done with looking at the underlying reasons why our Critic is trying to get our attention.

In then end, then, pain and fear of change are not our enemies. They can be our greatest allies. Learn to listen to your Internal Critic as your Internal Guide, perhaps even your Internal Guru. You and your world will be better for it.

About Nate Prentice, MSW, LCSW, CAS-PC

Nate Prentice, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Pastoral Counselor who maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Drexel Hill, PA.
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One Response to Internal Critic? Or Internal Guide?

  1. Reblogged this on Psych Choices Blog and commented:
    Here’s a recent blog post by Nate Prentice, LCSW, a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor.

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