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Pluralistic Methods and Tasks to Allow the Tough Inner Critic to Express Itself: Some Examples

Pluralistic Practitioners may draw on a number of tasks, to help them allow the Inner Critic to express itself. A few examples include:

Antique Den

Chair- work 

Using chair work, to externalise the critic and grow an understanding of what it wants, where it comes from, what it hopes to achieve and what is motivating it to behave this way, can be extremely informative.  For example, you may discover what the Inner Critic believes, what its fears are, if there is something from the past that is influencing it to worry in the present.  What it hopes to achieve.  We can address the Critic's fear and see how to bring self-compassion or inner nurturing into the equation. To allow space to be human, to make mistakes and express forgiveness, self-compassion, support, common humanity (Neff 2003a).  Is there a balance to be had?  In my client work, the critic evolved as a protector, to protect my client during a time where she felt out of control of her behaviour, but had become problematic as it was continuing to berate her for something that had long since been resolved. We worked to problem solve and respectfully see what the Inner Critic would accept, in order to avoid tearing the client apart emotionally with constant criticism, berating, resulting in shame and self-doubt.  We were able to identify the Inner Critic’s function, goals and work to achieve these whilst softening the Inner Critic using different tasks and methods.

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Psychodynamics perspectives


Freud (1910), the Father of Psychoanalysis, would have referred to the Inner Critic as the "Superego".  He pointed in his theory of personality, to the mind having three states. The Id is the part of the primitive self that seeks pleasure, food, sex and is completely unconscious, present since birth.  The Superego exists to counterbalance the Id, maybe even suppress it's urges, so it becomes more socially acceptable.  Sio when the Id od hungry and seeks food during the  working day, it is the superego that stops the individual leaving in hte middle of a meeting to get food, as this would be socially unacceptable.  The superego influences the third personality state, the "Ego", to behave morally rather than realistically. The Ego negotiates between the Id and the Superego. It is a more realistic agent and perhaps the part of the mind that allows for common humanity and self-compassion where mistakes are made and guilt and shame are felt.  For example, the Ego may for example posit that the individual seeks permission to leave the meeting early or allows the individual a small snack if acceptable.   The Superego can take the form of an Inner Critic, the people-pleaser, the perfectionist, all dependent on the individual's experiences.  Freud felt the Superego develops around 5 years of age.   The Superego exists at all three levels of consciousness and so if the superego/ inner critic acts unconsciously to suppress or punish the Id, clients may feel guilty or shame and not know why.   Therefore, it is important for the Pluralistic Counsellor to work with clients to gently uncover what is going on for the client, using the three ego states to discover what moral code may have been breached by the Id/ desires of the client.

Psychodynamic perspectives looks to childhood to resolve how the critic came about in its current form.  Indeed, allowing the Inner Critic to express itself overtly may result in the client realising they recognise the voice of a harsh parent or a wounded inner child.  Because of the high frequency of this, many researchers believe it is beneficial for counsellors to explore the client’s attachment patterns alongside the Inner Critic as this can give awareness to where the Inner Critic’s harsh opinions may come from, the client’s attachment history could be fuelling the client’s Inner Critic (e.g. D. Siegel, 2021; Buczynski, 2021).  If the client wanted to look at their attachment styles, history and family of origin, this may allow the client to gain awareness and us to gain understanding of where the fear comes from as it expresses fear, shame self-doubt, and so on.  Clients who have been through trauma and adverse childhood experiences very often have a tough inner critic. This is reflected in research across many different client groups. For example, Claes et al (2011) in their research on eating disorders and self-harm state "Parental criticism may be a risk factor for NSSI [non suicidal self-injury] for it may contribute to a self-critical intrapersonal orientation. Individuals who were excessively criticised and verbally/emotionally abused by their parents may—over time—learn to engage in excessive self criticism themselves and use NSSI as a form of self-punishment (Glassman et al., 2007; Yates et al., 2008)" (p. 197). If we work to get to the bottom of this, tease out the client’s past experiences and tease out the maladaptive behaviours, this can kickstart significant change in awareness for the client. R Siegel (2021) describes a client whose Inner Critic called her “stupid” and their work led to them understanding that when she grew up, she was not particularly loved. In this family, when they were trying to ostracize someone, they would say “oh they are just stupid”.  And so, as an adult, her Inner Critic would call her “stupid” whenever she was unhappy with something she had done or failed to do. It was quite toxic.  Siegel (2021) notes engaging with the Inner Critic and allowing it to express itself, can find it if it is fuelling maladaptive behaviours across all client group and generally impacting on their quality of life as the internal world of the client becomes a toxic and almost uninhabitable place to be.

Support Group

Person Centered Therapy

PCT can be really useful when working with an Inner Critic, as we want to meet the client where they are at. If the client feels the Inner Critic is useful, that it helps them achieve, that being told “you’re too stupid to achieve this” and they work hard to prove the Inner Critic wrong, we as Counsellors may not want to argue that.   The Inner Critic has served an important function for these clients.  Therefore, we do not want to state “the Inner Critic is bad, eliminate it” and get into a fight with our client. What we may want to do is say “Ok you find your Inner Critic has motivated you and been helpful. When has it been helpful? Have there been times when it was unhelpful?” and unpack the situation alongside the client.  As Pluralistic Counsellors, we acknowledge the client as expert in their own life and we want to hear their experience of when the Inner Critic has been helpful, and when it has been toxic and dangerous.  We want to gently support our clients to expand their psychological flexibility, considering what else could be helpful.  Support them to see the Inner Critic as one tool among many in achieving their goals.  Hanson (2021) states that one of his top clinical strategies is to join with what the client is talking about, not to argue against it, accept it and help clients understand what the function of the Inner Critic is, its motivation, what the benefits are and “what would be a better way?” (NICABM Inner Critic Module 3; 2021; 11:30).  Appreciating the benefits of the Inner Critic, looking at how to support that, but without the costs.  Buczynski agrees “joining with the Inner Critic can be key in the healing process” (NICABM Inner Critic Module 3; 2021; 12:28).

Meditating Outdoors

Internal Family Systems

Schwartz (2021), who is the founder of IFS, views the Inner Critic as a protector, and in opening the dialogue with the Inner Critic, we can discover what it thinks it is protecting. He discusses when working with depressed people, he will ask "how do they feel towards their Inner Critic?" and the answer he believes is more often than not, hatred or fear.  He would ask the client what the Inner Critic wants to say. Normally the client will state more criticism, more negative name calling “e.g. you’re stupid, lazy, worthless”. And his approach is to encourage the client to ask the Inner Critic, “what would happen if you did not call me names?”  Schwartz believes that the Inner Critic, as a protector, will give a protective response like “I am motivating you to do things. I learned from your parents in childhood this motivated you, so I use their voices to get you to do things”.  Or, “If I didn’t talk to you in this way, you would be out there getting hurt, so I am keeping you safe” (Schwartz; NICABM IC video 9; 2021; 03:20).  We can reframe the Inner Critic as a protector that perhaps we need to dial down the volume on.  But we must find out what the Inner Critic is protecting. Schwartz says he finds it is usually another protective part, such as low motivation or a lethargic part. Or it might be an exile, such as a part that holds shame from past failures or hurts.  His strategy is to communicate directly with the Inner Critic and ask if it will relax and stop the constant name-calling if he heals the part the Inner Critic is protecting, although he acknowledges the Inner Critic will doubt this is possible.  The aim is then to see what is behind the Inner Critic, what is it protecting, can we heal that instead and quieten the Inner Critic.  Buscynzki (2021) notes allowing the Inner Critic to feel heard and appreciated can help quieten it down. (12:27).  Alongside motivating the client and keeping the client safe, McGonigal (2021) adds that an Inner Critic could be trying to assert agency within a client, particularly when the client blames themselves for a past suffering. Her example is when a parent has a child who has suffered in some way and the parent feels there must have been something they could have done. The pressure they then put upon themselves thereafter to “control the future” leaves them vulnerable to a harsh self-critic (video 9; 15:35).  Sometimes people can maximise their role when things go wrong and we may want to reframe the perspective that, things do not always go to plan and no one is to blame.

Systems Theories

Fisher (2017) discusses the process of "Unblending". She states "When we are triggered by something and our traumatised parts get activated, their feelings flood the body with intense and overwhelming feelings or impulses to act or react in ways that are not "us" or who we intend to be. That experience is called "blending".  To find our adult selves again we need to "unblend", to mindfully separate from the intense reactions of the parts until we have a sense of "I'm here" and also "he or she is still here too" (p.263).  Fischer includes a 5-step approach. I used this when my client's Tough Inner Critic was angry with her impulsive right-brain self.  This part developed out of early childhood trauma and took over when her  insecure attachment pattern was  triggered.  Her partner made her feel unloved, and she cheated on him. Externalising the parts and asking them to enter a dialogue, express themselves, before reintegrating back into her "self" was therapeutic in softening the inner critic, and generating feelings of compassion towards the impulsive self from the Inner Critic was key.  In IFS, this "impulsive self" would have been considered an "exile" (Shwartz, 1995; 2001) a part of the self the client did not view as "her" because cheating on her partner was so far from her value base.  This involved acknowledging any and all overwhelming, intense feelings as communication from different parts of the self.  Then, referring to the Inner Critic separately, such as "The Inner Critic is angry with the Impulsive part.  She feels they were out of control. Cheating or even asking for our needs to be met is not 'us'". Then we used what Fisher refers to as "Wise grownup mind" who was a compassionate friend or organised professional. Luckily, the Inner Critic for my client did not extend into her professional life so we took this as her adult state.  She spoke to Inner Critic and acknowledged the  fear Inner Critic felt at being out of control.  And asked "If these were the fears of your colleagues what would you say to them?" and allowed Inner Critic to give feedback and express herself this way.  In trauma work, Fisher (2017) notes "Instead of working on developing a trauma narrative, clients are instead to rewrite their self-defeating stories and create a "healing story" that allows them to make meaning of what happened (Mischenbaum, 2012)" (p.10).  With this in mind, we brought a lot of self-compassion to Inner Critic and Impulsive Self's opposing feelings and thanked them for protecting my client so well.  Similarly, Van Der Kolk (2015) also advocates for pluralistic counsellors to work with their client's "parts", from a position of self-compassion and as he describes, curiosity.  He notes  "The task of the therapist is to help patients separate this confusing blend into separate entities.... Patients learn to put their fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. From the stable perspective of Self they can begin constructive inner dialogues with their parts" (p. 286).

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