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The Inner Critic and the ability to make mistakes

Hansen (NICABM Inner Critic video 6; 2021; 06:12) notes that some clients may need help to expand psychological flexibility to allow them to make mistakes.  He talks of an “internal audience you don’t want to fail”.  In my experience, some clients really want to appear flawless for an imagined or perceived external audience who were watching them, judging them, talking negatively about them, maybe even wanting them to fail.     Unpacking evidence to identify who this external audience is, may reveal that the client is exaggerating how critically others view them.  There may be no evidence to support this.  This of course may not allow the client to feel better.  Hansen (2021) states we may combat this criticism with self-compassion (sometimes referred to in the literature as “inner-nurturing”) and where the Inner Critic is detrimental to clients, we must change our relationship dynamic with the Inner Critic.  The client’s fear of making mistakes is really a form of preoccupation.  He recommends joking with a client “you are not that important, and your mistakes are not so important” (NICABM 2021; Inner Critic video 6; 07:09).  This is not going to be appropriate for all clients and I would personally prefer a more gentle approach, such as CBT or ACT style exercise in cognitive defusion, looking at thoughts rather than from them. Perhaps completing an ACT workability sheet to see how such ruminating on hypothetical mistakes has low workability, and worrying will not encourage other people to think more or less critically.   But Hansen is really pointing to guiding clients towards the “reasonable standard”, what might be described as “striving for excellence, not perfection”.  Where a client is paralysed from making decisions for fear of mistakes, we may want to encourage clients to consider, every decision is an experiment and acting on the decision is an experiment, but equally not acting is also an experiment.  We cannot control every outcome, but inactivity is also a choice.  This might create more space for clients to make mistakes.  As can questions such as “will this be so important in a month? Six months? A Year?”.  These questions can create emotional distance that allow clients to see the wider context of space, time and perhaps ease the limbic system.


The problem with "perfectionism" is that it is socially sanctioned in certain areas.  For example,in our education system we are encouraged to get better in all subjects and rewarded for doing so.  However, Lyons (2019) point to there being some areas where perfectionism is not socially sanctioned. When working with parents, for example, she doubts that there would be a parent who wants their child's body to be perfect, and advocate liposuction if they are overweight, for example (NICABM, Perfectionism Module 2).  It can be useful to open up conversations about what it means to be perfect, who is imposing this image of perfectionism and what is their motivation for doing so.  Buczynnski (2019) points to a familiar scenario where someone is born, and they are the first child or grandchild, designated as more "special" in the family.  The "golden child" if you will.   And this pressure and expectation has them headed down the path to perfectionism (NICABM Perfectionism module 2).  Knowing one is no more perfect or special than any siblings or cousins, can result in feelings of guilt or shame.  Real (2019) notes how important it is to deconstruct this image of "perfection", to challenge it.  In this case, with the tough inner critic, we can deconstruct where this idea of perfection comes from and if this can be balanced  with holding yourself in warm regard, self-compassionately, allowing ourselves to be human (NICABM Perfectionism Module 2).  Siegel (2019) talks about mental maps and notes a mismatch between a client's idealized internal sense of the world and reality (NICABM Perfectionism module 5).  Pluralistic Counsellors will ask questions to determine what the client's ideal of perfect is, where it comes from, is it attainable, and why does the Inner Critic believe the client must be this way.  For example, they may use a timeline to identify where this messaging from the client's past came to play.  Or perhaps a mind map could help the client gain a different perspective. There are free websites such as where clients can post pictures of their image of perfect and juxtapose with people they admire for different reasons, who have different qualities the client is less likely to strive for.

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