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Where does the Inner Critic Come from?

The simple answer is, we are not sure where the Inner Critic comes from.  It has been comprehended through various theoretical lenses.  Are we genetically predisposed to talk to ourselves so harshly, or is it conditioned over time?  Perhaps a bit of both.  D. Siegel (2021) poses the theory that genetically, we all have an Inner Critic which has evolved over millions of years, neurobiologically developing as a safety response in the brain, much the same way anxiety did.   He talks about this in response to OCD in particular, which it fits in well as OCD is an anxiety response (NICABM Inner Critic module 2).  D. Siegel (2021) depicts the Inner Critic as a “checker” for danger in early humans, prompting us to scan for danger and predators like sabre-toothed tigers, then alerting and motivating early human to get out of there. This early human then went on to procreate and passed on this cautious, careful, scanning for danger, predisposition or mentality to the next generation.  Therefore, we might lend the critic respect but acknowledge that a tough Inner Critic can be detrimental in the modern world.  Although  millions of years of evolution means it is unlikely that we will eradicate the Inner Critic completely  (NICABM video 2; 2021).  This is a way of normalising the tough Inner Critic, that we are neurobiologically programmed to be critical as a way of keeping ourselves safe. 

Psychodynamics and Parts Theorists look at the Inner Critic as an ego state, for example, Freud believed it to be the superego.  Higdon (2012) notes "The superego, mostly unconscious, contains all the strictures from our youth. Parental voices are in there in abundance, in particular a harsh, punitive voice, almost a caricature of the father.  This is the voice that chides the client, making him feel guilty because he had not lived up to what he believed were parental expectations".  In Internal Family Systems, the Inner Critic is viewed as a Protector, who is possibly protecting an exile (Schwartz, 2021; NICABM Working with Clients who have a Tough Inner Critic, video 9).

The Inner Critic appears to have a different function for different clients and it is important for the Pluralistic Counsellor to gently look at the individual client's circumstances.  Perhaps they had a harsh parent who was able to motivate them to do things and they adapted their inner voice accordingly.  If a client has low self-esteem and low self-worth, it is possible to assume their inner critic is harsh and contributes to this self-doubt.  Powell (2019) notes "One of the greatest challenges of complex Post-traumatic stress disorder is quieting the inner critic. The critic develops as a result of a neglectful or abusive home in which caregivers do not provide a sense of safe attachment in the child.  Many children in this situation will enact perfectionist mode, believing if they could just be good enough or do things well, they can earn parental love.  However, over time, as perfectionism fails to create the bond the child so desperately needs, anxiety and sadness build in the child" (Powell, T.; 2019, Feb 14).  We hold ourselves how we were held in our family, and if we had a critical or even abusive parent, we may struggle to meet our imperfect selves with self-compassion and what Neff (2003a)  calls "Common Humanity" if this has not been modelled to us.  Some clients are so empathetic and compassionate towards other people, but hold themselves to such impossible standards, with no self-compassion.  The Pluralistic Counsellor and client may wish to work gently to ascertain what lies beneath this inner critic voice.  For example, they may wish to unpick what the client's negative core beliefs are, or where these feelings of toxic shame and self-blame originated, and what perpetuates this toxic inner voice.  Client and Counsellor can collaborate on a plan towards healing and therapeutic change.  This web resource discusses how to work effectively with the Tough Inner Critic, alongside the client, as each individual has a unique way of being, core beliefs about themselves informed by distinctive past and present experiences.  If the Counsellor and Client wish to adapt the model to suit the individual client and bring individuality and creativity to their safe space, this is welcome.

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