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How to Effectively Work with the Inner Critic

At the time of writing, the majority of the recent research points to the importance of externalising and befriending your inner critic, not to fight with it,  or try to repress it, but to get to know it (eg D. Siegel, 2021; Yapko, 2021; NICABM Inner Critic).  It may be appropriate to acknowledge a time in life when it was useful, but perhaps this inner criticism is no longer necessary, or perhaps it has become too toxic and suffocating. Perhaps recognising the Inner Critic is trying to help, or has a function, but may be getting things wrong. 

Harrell (2021) discusses the importance of normalising the inner critic. She states "I feel that when we try to silence a part of a person's internal dialogue, that actually can be counterproductive" (video 3 NICABM; Working with a Client's Tough Inner Critic).  Clients may believe the Inner Critic is what keeps them on the straight and narrow, what keeps them achieving, motivating them to be productive.  This might be true, the Inner Critic may be a survival mechanism and the Inner Critic can have an important, healthy function.  For example, to motivate a client to act in the interests of achieving more, behaving in ways that allow us to align to our values, sometimes for survival, to be accepted by the group or community we live in, e.g. “doing the right thing”.  However, there are times when the Inner Critic becomes too critical, even toxic or shame-inducing, and can cause problems for the client. 

The Inner Critic can manifest as a fear response (Lyons, 2021; NICABM How to Work With Clients Who Struggle With an Inner Critic video 2), which berates the client too harshly, leading to shame, doubt, guilt, self-loathing, and can even render clients immobile or stuck, avoidant, contributing to anxiety and depression, unable to move on from perceived mistakes.  Preventing our client's from achieving their goals.  Sometimes we can get stuck believing our Inner Critic is our inner voice, our "true self" and if too harsh, this can make the client’s inner world an unhappy place to be.  As Pluralistic Counsellors, we might wish to support our clients to find the psychological adaptability to allow themselves to listen to the Inner Critic, but perhaps respond to it more softly.  To allow the space to be human, practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness for mistakes (eg Lyons, Parnell, Siegel 2021, NICABM Inner Critic).  Clients can feel guilt, shame, humiliation, even quite wounded for making mistakes and there can be an element of the perfectionist around this for some people.  Sometimes a "common humanity" element needs to be introduced (Neff 2003a).  Some clients do not recognise what self-compassion feels like and may need help to feel safe and loved in their internal worlds.  Smith (2022) notes "self compassion is not letting yourself off the hook constantly.  It is focussing on the specific mistake as an isolated event so that you are free to learn from it and shift direction back towards your values.  This is the path to continuing to improve and moving on from mistakes.  Shame, on the other hand, immobilises and paralyses us" (p. 271).  Guilt may be reframed as the less destructive emotion that is "remorse" (I made a mistake but I will do better next time) (Dryden, 2021).  Shame can be worked with pluralistically.  It may be appropriate to refer to a trauma specialist, although pluralists may be able to go some ways to supporting the PTSD client with the tough Inner Critic, reassuring them this is not their fault, perhaps using techniques to draw attention to the Inner Critic and soften it with a self-compassion approach.

I would like to propose a three-step programme for pluralistic practitioners and their clients  to work with the Inner Critic.  Although I propose some tasks and methods, pluralistic practitioners will want to collaborate with and empower their individual clients, and find their own ways of working.  As Cooper & McLeod (2010) discuss "Within the pluralistic framework, tasks occupy a space between 'goals'and 'methods'.  The goals of therapy are defined by the client and are linked to more general life goals.  The methods of therapy are much more specific, concrete and fine-grained... Broadly speaking, these are all ways of referring to the same fundamental activity of breaking down the effort of therapy into achievable/ digestible chunks." (p. 92).   I hope this programme allows enough space for the individuals involved to work in a way that is meaningful for them, bringing in their own creativity and skills, to work with the individual to find meaningful ways for them, and softening their tough inner critic.

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