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Pluralistic Tasks for Befriending your Tough Inner Critic: Some Examples

Psychodynamic Perspectives

McLeod (2019) said the "main distinctive features of psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic approach are an assumption that the clients' difficulties have their ultimate origins in childhood experiences; an assumption that the client may not be consciously aware of the true motives or impulses behind their actions; the use in counselling and psychotherapy of interpretation of the transference relationship" (p. 95).  Therefore, the client and counsellor may wish to be very open and honest in the therapy space and see how they experience each other.  For example, the client may experience the Counsellor as critical when they are trying to display the core condition of unconditional positive regard.  It would be interesting to hear how the client's tough inner critic interprets how the counsellor feels towards the client.

It could be important for the client to identify what were the circumstances that led to this “part”, “ego state”, “system” being triggered and taking such a dominant role.  This could involve looking at the client’s attachment patterns (see Bowlby, 1971; Ainsworth et al, 1978) .  Pluralistic practitioners might use the timeline to track when the Inner Critic really came into play, the preceding events that led to this, and what keeps it going.  Also, to see how the role of our attachment styles might keep the Inner Critic impeding our lives and relationships. "For example, those with attachment anxiety may learn that if they are “perfect,” they will be more likely to gain others’ love and acceptance (Wei, Heppner, Russell, & Young, 2006; Wei, Mallinckrodt, Russell, & Abraham, 2004). Conversely, those with attachment avoidance may drive themselves to be perfect in order to cover up their hidden sense of imperfections. They may think, “If I am perfect, no one will hurt me” (Flett, Hewitt, Oliver, & Macdonald, 2002). Unfortunately, perfectionism is associated with greater depressive symptoms (e.g., Chang, 2002, Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Therefore, potential clinical interventions can focus on modifying these individuals’ perfectionistic tendencies.

Second, [pluralistic counsellors] can help those with attachment anxiety and avoidance find alternative ways to meet their unmet needs. Most people who seek help want to learn how to cope with dysfunction in their daily life and modify their dysfunctional or ineffective coping strategies. However, merely focusing on modifying the dysfunctional coping strategies does not guarantee that people will eventually cope well" (

The Adult Attachment Interview (Main & Kaplan, 1984) could be a task that gives insight into the client's attachment styles and could be a useful starting point in supporting the client to externalise and befriend their Inner Critic through understanding.  Tasks to gain understanding of the function the Tough Inner Critic plays in client's lives, and how and why it was born could be achieved through Inner Child work.  Jackman (2020) in his book "Healing Your Lost Inner Child" proposes Inner Child work as a "reconnection with the unhealed part of you that keep showing up and playing out the same dramas until it is acknowledged and healed.. your unhealed emotional pain"  (p.1).  His workbook  has many exercises breaking down where, when and how the wounding shows up. For example, identifying an "age of wounding" (which he states should not be hard to remember as the subconscious mind will tap into it) and writing healing letters to and from that inner child (p. 39-44).  This can draw attention and deeper understanding to the Inner Critic, particularly  when early childhood traumas have led to maladaptive thought patterns and negative core beliefs.  This is only one example of Inner Child Work and there are many examples of this the individual client and Pluralistic Counsellor can adapt and collaborate on together.


Freud (e.g. 1910, 1923) identified the Inner Critic as the superego. The part of the conscience that developed to acknowledge morality and social acceptability. This ego state is often in opposition with the id, the unconscious pleasure seeking part of the consciousness associated with eating, drinking, sex, attachment, using the bathroom.  Negotiating between these is the "ego" state which is the voice of self-compassion.  Society does not want us to behave impulsively at the cost of everyone else's needs to fulfill our desires and pleasures, but what would be a good compromise between the two? And identifying defense mechanisms at play, such as denial, projection and so on.  Clients may wish to work with the critic by looking to the messaging of the client's past and the repression of emotions and unmet needs in childhood.  Cozolino (2004) notes "Although  clients do not have conscious memories of early relationships with their parents, Miller posited that these learning experiences are recorded in how they think of and treat themselves (self-image and self-protective behaviours).  The strictness and negativity of how clients talk about themselves (superego) betrays their parents'negative attitude towards them years before.  These implicit emotional and behavioural memories, in the form of attitudes, anxieties, and self-statements, contribute to the continued repression of real emotions and the conscious awareness of one's own needs (p. 168). Therefore, the Pluralistic Counsellor will collaborate with their client to draw out these memories, attitudes, anxieties and self-statements and defense mechanisms, in an attempt to reduce the negative criticisms and reframe it with understanding and self-compassion. Williams (2022) discusses defense mechanisms and notes that the inner critic can be unexpressed feelings turned inwards. Klein (1932) and other object relations theorists felt the inner critic or superego developed at 3 months old. The theory that babies idealised their parents, because to realise they were human and fallible when they relied on them for everything was too anxiety-provoking.  However, some parents could not soothe their children, perhaps because of past trauma and an inability to self-soothe.  The baby felt anger at this, but could not aim this at idealised parents, and so this anger turned inwards as shame and is expressed as a tough inner critic (e.g. Higdon, 2012).  Discussion around this may result in the externalising and befriending of the tough inner critic, and hopefully greater understanding of its protective function.  Another theory is that the Inner Critic is deliberately negative in a protective way, to prevent any surprises or recourse from other people, usually parents.  So, the child berates themselves before they are berated. The idea of "if I criticise myself first, I wont be hurt by someone else criticising me".

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