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What is the inner critic?

The “Inner Critic” is something most people can identify with. The voice inside of us that tells us, for example,  “you need to eat healthy, because your waist band is getting tight” or “you need to work a little harder, you are being a little lazy and you may not do so well in your exam”.  “Better give your mother a call, it has been a while!” The voice that draws attention to things we perhaps feel we are not doing well.  This can be a positive way of being and can help us to be what everyone seems to refer to these days as “the best version of ourselves”.  Shelly Harrell (2021) notes "It's important to discern the harsh toxic critic from a voice that maybe can sometimes be productive" (NICABM video How to Work with Clients who Struggle with an inner critic; module 3; 02:00).  Critique, not criticism, can be helpful.  However, for some people, this inner critic can mutate into a toxic monster that can render us paralysed, too afraid to make decisions for fear of making the wrong one or lambasting ourselves for perceived mistakes we have made, allowing no space to be human and for making errors.  Preventing us from celebrating successes.  Motivating us with painful emotions like shame, guilt and fear.  Contributing to anxiety, depression, impeding our sense of self and causing us difficulty in our day to day lives.  (eg Yapko,(2021) Lyons(2021) Harrell (2021), Siegel (2021 NICABM herein Inner Critic).   

We tend to judge ourselves in some way, and in some instances, we judge ourselves more harshly than we would other people (McGonigal, 2021, NICABM Inner Critic).  Our internal world can become a negative, toxic place. This can occur for multiple reasons. For example, when we fail to align with our values, or we do not have a positive sense of self or low self-esteem.  This  can be subtle, such as when we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking in some way.  We may not even be aware of this negative inner voice.  Or, we may appreciate it as we believe the inner critic to be the only motivator that keeps us on the straight and narrow.  It can be influenced by past experiences and traumas, adverse childhood experiences or societal oppression. We can obtain messages that make us feel bad or even worthless.  For some people, their tough Inner Critic can be toxic, nasty, lacking in compassion.  It can cause clients a great deal of problems, such as making them feel like a failure.  Clients presenting with a range of different issues and across client groups and presenting problems can struggle with a toxic inner critic.  As Pluralistic Counsellors, we can utilise tasks and methods that can be tailored in collaboration with clients to benefit their individual situation, addressing their unique struggle with their Inner Critic.  It can be useful during case formulation for Pluralistic Counsellors to ask clients what their inner voice or inner voices sound like.  This negative inner voice can be called a different name for every individual client. For the purposes of this resource, we will refer to the “inner critic”, but the focus for this resource is on tough or toxic inner critics.  Stepping back and reflecting on this inner voice can be useful for clients, and understanding when to listen to the Inner Critic, taking on board its advice, and when it becomes detrimental.  (eg Padesky, 2021; Fisher, 2021; NICABM How to Work with Clients who Struggle with an Inner Critic).

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