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The Inner Critic and Toxic Shame

A Relational Life Therapy Approach

Real (2021) notes that “we tend to hold ourselves the way we were held” (NICABM IC video 6; 10:12). If we were prized as a child, we prize ourselves now, if we were made to feel irrelevant, we will hold ourselves as if we are irrelevant.  He has a two-step approach to working with the Inner Critic. Step one, similar to the programme I have suggested, is to lean into the voice of the Inner Critic. Real believes the Inner Critic is the “adaptive child”, the client aged five to eighteen years. And it is important to reassure the adapted child that they are not powerless.  With practice, he feels we can help them push back on the negativity from the Inner Critic.  Step two involves, similar to encouraging self-compassion and inner nurturing, “conjuring up warm feelings” (Real, 2021; 12:30).  But he raises a very interesting point.   That if we make a mistake, that these warm feelings should assure us we are human, we can make mistakes, I will do better next time.  This, Real notes, is “healthy remorse and guilt” (13:28).  That we can still feel warm regards towards ourselves even when we make mistakes.  Clients may have problems where they never acknowledge their mistakes and if they excessively beat themselves up for their mistakes.  The two extremes that feature on the continuum are grandiosity versus toxic shame, neither of which is emotionally healthy for a client.  I had a client that felt they were being narcissistic if they acknowledged their successes and so they underplayed everything and this appeared to allow their Tough Inner Critic to feature in the extreme.  What we appear to be working with then is toxic shame. Real himself admits he suffered from a harsh Inner Critic that induced an extreme shame response.  He notes that a silly mistake like a time he left a pen lid off and spoiling a shirt could trigger him into a three-day depression. Now he is able to recognise, “never meet harshness with harshness, meet harshness with loving firmness” (15:18).  Real leans into his inner adaptive child when he makes mistakes and looks at the bigger picture, all his achievements.  He allows himself to make mistakes in the wider context, balancing it against his achievements. This corresponds with accepting people are neither all good or all bad (sometimes referred to as “all or nothing thinking”) there is a balance to be had, shades of grey, the middle ground.

Radical Acceptance

Similarly to acknowledging the good as well as the bad, Brach (2003) advocates "Radical Acceptance" where she talks about awakening the [self]-love that heals fear and shame".  Pluralistic Counsellors may recognise "radical  acceptance" from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, although Carl Rogers put forth the idea that acceptance was the first step towards change.  Radical acceptance can be defined as "the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in turn reduces the suffering that is caused by them"  (  Brach (2003) notes "Our sense of Self emerges from the ground level of all experience- our reactivity to intense pleasant or unpleasant sensations.  When we want loving attention..we are feeling certain sensations in our body- perhaps the ache of longing around the heart... When the answer to our need and desire is no, the physical sensations of contraction we experience are intense.  We feel shame, the desire to hide, and  the danger of fear.  When we experience this wanting and not getting over and over, we make an enduring association- our wanting leads to fear and shame" (p. 135).  Brach (2003) suggests guided meditation involving cultivating a forgiving heart.  Forgiving ourselves, asking for forgiveness and forgiving others (pp.274- 277).  She also recommends the guided meditation "awaking lovingkindess" where the client practices opening their hearts to themselves and to others (p. 278- 282).  It is through this lovingkindess/ self-compassion and "radical acceptance" that people both accept themselves as flawed individuals and start to change.  There is an element of tapping into cultural resources in her work, as she talks about joining groups where others accept the person just as they are.

Somatic Counselling

  There appears to be an argument for working somatically, with the body as well as the mind in this way, when working with toxic shame.  As a Pluralistic Counsellor, this would obviously have to be preferred by their individual client.  Goldstein (2021) discusses how, in her work with teenagers with a harsh Inner Critic, she supports them very tentatively to physically adjust their “shame posture” and this can help quieten the Inner Critic in teens she believes (NICABM IC bonus video 1; 03:40).  She does this by asking the client to stay with the feelings in their body, e.g “my tummy hurts” and how certain adjustments, such as placing cushions around themselves and slowly drawing themselves up, help them feel better, e.g. “my tummy hurts less”.  Goldstein (2021) reports that clients can remember the exact moment they started to feel toxic shame that impacts their lives.  Her method is to look at the memory, work with it, and attempt to reframe it, in a way that makes the client feel worthy, whilst adjusting their body posture, which in turn addresses the shame and quietens the Inner Critic (06:30). 

McGonigal (2021) discusses how “mudra’s” can be quite powerful in addressing the internal shame leading to an Inner Critic, by introducing a physical symbol of self-compassion. Mudra’s are defined as a “symbolic gesture of the hands and fingers used either in ceremonies and dance or in sculpture and painting” (Britannica, 1997).  The “unshakeable trust seal” (pictured above) is the mudra that McGonigal (2021) likes to use when quietening the Inner Critic.  This mudra she describes as “the antidote to the inner critic is a particular mudra that’s considered to be a gesture of unshakable confidence, faith or trust. It’s meant to refer not just to your internal resources but also to your external resources, and anything bigger than yourself that you take strength from. It’s a simple gesture, but what I like about it is, it happens to be the place where you can also feel your breath, and it’s physically located over the heart, so it might be an opportunity to think about self-compassion or an opportunity to think about what you care about. That’s my favourite mudra as a counter to the inner critic or to high levels of anxiety. It has all these great benefits, one of which is it’s an intentional gesture. It’s a little bit different than the soothing gestures that are sometimes part of the work of mindful self-compassion” NICABM IC Bonus video 1; 2021; 12:20).  This mudra draws on perceived love and acceptance from an external "caring committee" as well as internal.  Using tools to conjure up feelings of self-compassion, or self-acceptance or self-love seems important in addressing toxic shame.  Additionally, physically placing your hands over your heart space can release oxytocin, the feel-good chemical (Williams, 2022).  Pluralistic Counsellor's may use whatever tools suit the individual client, holding meaning for them.  Mindfulness, Guided visualisations to address the shamed inner child, creative tools to express the shame.  The list is endless and we are bound only by the limits of the individual clients and counsellor.

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