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The Inner Critic Metaphors

Research notes the importance of use of metaphors in Counselling and psychotherapy, to achieve therapeutic change. (e.g. Kopp & Craw, 1998; )

It may be useful for a Pluralistic Counsellor and their client to come up with their own metaphor or analogy to work therapeutically, identifying the role the tough inner critic plays in the client's inner world.  The meaning to the individual client of the inner critic, when it was born, how do we negotiate control away from it, will differ and we want to work with the client’s frame of reference. 

When working with clients who wish to alter the relationship with the inner critic, I have used the metaphor of the Inner Critic as similar to, when a well-meaning grandparent gives advice to their grandchild. For example, Granny may lament about the dangers of social media, and advice their grandchild remove all social media from their lives. They are meaning well, being protective, but not quite understanding the whole scenario as they are unfamiliar with it.  They are drawing on their own frame of reference, and having an anxious but protective response.  The world changes and we must adapt to it.  But this does not mean that our grandparents do not deserve respect and gratitude for their caring, well-meaning attitude.  Similarly, within this narrative, so does the Inner Critic.  However, there will be times when this metaphor is not appropriate. For example, when a client has an inner dictator that reminds them of an abusive parent or partner. Then, the metaphor may need to change. I have used the example of the Inner Critic being like the Queen of Hearts from Disney, yelling "Off with his head!" for a minor misdemeanour.  There will be times when humour is useful and of course times when it is wholly inappropriate for the individual client. Metaphors can encourage the client to recognise the inner voice they use, the way they speak to themselves versus other people.  This can increase metacognitive awareness.  Some clients often do not realise how toxic their inner dialogue can be.  With support, they can recognise their Inner Critic may be holding them back from embracing a positive, fulfilling life.

 Tough Inner Critic Metaphors

The Wolf You Feed

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

The moral of the story is, what you focus on you give power to. While you can recognise negative emotions occurring within you, you don’t have to attach to them or continue to give them attention. Though a metaphor, this has a basis in neurobiology science.  As neurobiologists discussing neuroplasticity state "Neurons that fire together wire together".  Therefore, you are literally hardwiring your brain to focus on the inner critic when you "feed" that wolf.   And while it may take some time for that wolf to lose his strength and power, eventually he will surrender – as will your unhelpful thoughts and emotions. We can develop metacognitive awareness and work with negative automatic thoughts. Hanson (2013) states "you can use the power of self-directed neuroplasticity to build up a lasting sense of ease, confidence, self-acceptance, compassion, feeling loved, contentment, and inner peace. In essence what you’ll do is simple: Turn everyday good experiences into good neural structure. Putting it more technically: You will activate mental states and then install them as neural traits. When you need them, you’ll be able to draw on these neural traits, which are your inner strengths, the good growing in your mind" (p. 29).   This can be the self-compassionate mind or ego state, AKA the "good wolf".

The Poisonous Parrot

Imagine you're given a parrot. This parrot is just a parrot - it doesn't have any knowledge, wisdom or insight. It's bird-brained after all. It recites things "parrot fashion" – without any understanding or comprehension. It's a parrot. However, this particular parrot is a poisoned and poisonous parrot. It‟s been specifically trained to be unhelpful to you, continuously commenting on you and your life, in a way that constantly puts you down, criticising you. For example, the bus gets stuck in a traffic jam, and you arrive at work 5 minutes late. The parrot sits there saying: "There you go again. Late. You just can't manage to get there on time can you. So stupid. If you'd left the house and got the earlier bus you'd have arrived with loads of time to spare and the boss would be happy. But you? No way. Just can‟t do it. Useless. Waste of space. Absolutely pathetic!" How long would you put up with this abuse before throwing a towel over the cage, or getting rid of the parrot? Yet we can often put up with the thoughts from this internal bully for far too long. Decades. We hear that "parrot", believe the "parrot", and naturally get upset. That then affects the way we live our lives – the way be behave towards others, how we are, what we think about others, what we think about the world, and how we think and feel about ourselves. We can learn to use the antidote: just notice that parrot, and cover the cage! “There's that parrot again. I don't have to listen to it – it's just a parrot”. Then go and do something else. Put your focus of attention on something other than that parrot. This parrot is poison though, and it won't give up easily, so you'll need to keep using that antidote and be persistent in your practice! Eventually it will get tired of the towel, tired of you not responding. You'll notice it less and less. It might just give up it's poison as your antidote overcomes it, or perhaps fly off to wherever poisoned parrots go. Adapted from “The Malevolent Parrot” – Kristina Ivings (© Carol Vivyan 2010, permission to use for therapy purposes).

The Mind Monsters (Bad Wolf, Good Wolf) from

We can think of unhelpful or distressing thoughts as the Mind Monsters. (The Native American Cherokees use a similar example of a "Bad Wolf, Good Wolf").  Being a monster, we can’t do much to stop or fight them – that just seems futile sometimes.  When we do fight, it can help for a while, but those monsters may well just keep coming back.  Like all monsters though, these Mind Monsters need food.  If we can deprive them of food, then they’ll eventually go off seeking sustenance elsewhere.  These monsters (or 'Bad Wolf') feed off our reactions – our believing those monsters, reacting to them, being upset by them, and acting accordingly and often automatically and unthinkingly. 

We can maintain and make worse our situations just by those reactions.  Those vicious cycles of our reactions mean that the monsters just keep coming.  If we can stop ‘feeding’ the monsters – they’ll get weaker and weaker and eventually move away.  Others will come, but again we can choose not to feed them – by changing the way we think and react, and by paying more attention to the 'Good Wolf' in us.

So it is with life.  Sometimes we are so focused on our past, that we neglect the present, and wonder why we keep falling flat on our faces.  Or perhaps we are so attentive to anticipating dangers up ahead, that again, we trip and stumble our way through life.

(Carol Vivyan 2012).

The Newspaper Headline

Most national (and perhaps local) newspapers have a particular bias, particularly a political bias.  If we read a different newspaper to our usual one, it helps to know that paper's bias, as it gives us an idea about whether we should trust and believe everything this paper says.

Most newspapers create sensational headlines, to catch our attention.  Just as our minds do.  Do we believe everything the newspaper says?  Do we believe everything our mind says?

The Weather

We cannot control the weather, so we have to learn to adapt to it.  We can put a coat on for instance, but we cannot stop the wind or rain, and it would be foolish to try.  Regardless of what we do, the storm will pass.

Our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, they come and they go.  We cannot control or stop them, but we can learn to react to them differently.  If we give up the futile struggle to try and stop or control it, the storm of thoughts and feelings will pass.

Online Shopping

When we visit an online store, we tend to know what we are looking for.  We know our budget, the item we want, the colour, the size, how quickly we need it, and so on.  There may be hundreds of items advertised on the page, but we do not put every item we see into our shopping basket and buy them all.  That would be crazy.

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Oxford Guide to Metaphors in CBT: Building Cognitive Bridges

Big Book of ACT Metaphors: A Practitioner's Guide to Experiential Exercises and Metaphors in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy


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