Inside each of us, there is a voice that criticizes us whenever we do something wrong. This voice is called the inner critic, and it is an amalgamation of all the commands we heard as a child to “Be good,” “Tell the truth,” “Stand up straight,” “Don’t hit your brother,” “Don’t draw on the walls,” “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” “Don’t run with scissors,” “Don’t talk back,”etc., etc., etc. Every time Mom, Dad, or whoever had power over us instructed us on what to do or not do, our little brain recorded it. Over time, we built up a library of their voices and mixed them together into one voice that tells us Who We Should Be.
The Job of the Superego
The inner critic is part of something larger that Freud called the “superego.” It develops in early childhood, roughly between two and five years of age. The superego’s job is to stop you from doing things that will get you in trouble with your parents and caretakers. It tries to keep you inside the Good Boy/Good Girl box they have defined, where you are loved and safe. The inner critic helps out by becoming a kind of inner policeman, interrupting you the moment you have an impulse to do something bad, and scolding you to stop you from actually doing it.
Of course, to stop you it has to beat down an awful lot of your impulses and desires. After all, you want that cookie, dinnertime or not. To make you obey, it criticizes and shames you and calls you names. Anything you’ve seen others do, it copies and uses against you. Its tone can range from merely devaluing to vicious and hateful. This changes you from a free, spontaneous, uninhibited child into an internally censored, well-behaved child. Your parents like this, of course, and praise you for being such a good boy or girl.
Developing a superego is an important and necessary step for any child. Now you have an internal mechanism that can regulate your behavior, and some kind of inner self-regulation is much needed. For the first time, something is able to intervene between having an impulse and acting on it. For the first time, how others will respond to your action enters your decision-making process. This is a real step forward, although ideally it would not include the self-hatred that is so common in Western cultures.
The superego is composed of three parts:
The ideal self-image literally holds all your internalized images of the perfect you — the one that Mom and Dad want you to be, the one that they love best. These are your images of the Good Boy or Good Girl, of Who I Should Be.
Each time you have an impulse to do something, that impulse is compared to your ideal self-image. If the impulse fits with Who I Should Be, your inner praiser speaks up and says “Good boy!” or “Good girl!” In response, you feel worthy and proud. You like the praise, so you act like that more often. Every time your impulse or action doesn’t fit with Who I Should Be, your inner critic attacks you. It says “Bad boy!” or “Bad girl!” In response, you feel unworthy and ashamed. You don’t like those feelings, so you try to avoid acting like that.
But the voice of the inner critic is not your own voice. It is only the voices of the people who raised you. For some people, this inner voice is so clear in their head that they can tell you exactly which parent is speaking. For other people, all the voices have been mixed together into one voice that they think is their own. And for some, there isn’t a voice at all, but only a bad feeling in the body, as if the voice is speaking in their unconscious and only the bad feeling rises into awareness.
It’s important to distinguish here between the inner critic and your conscience. Your conscience is based more on empathy and compassion for others, so it develops later, as those abilities come online. It also offers you advice about what to do, and it matures along with you as you develop. The inner critic, however, doesn’t mature much after it is formed, so for the rest of your life it operates with the understanding and maturity of a five-year-old. New situations are measured only against “Will Mom like this? Will Dad be mad? Will I get in trouble for this?” It is a young part of you, trying to protect you in its 5-year-old way. And the inner critic doesn’t just advise you, it attacks you in order to control your behavior. A critic attack always devalues you in some way. It always makes you feel small or stupid or bad in some way. That devaluing is the hallmark of the inner critic and the way you can recognize it every time.
The superego’s purpose is to maintain homeostasis in your psyche, which means keeping you within the Good Boy/Good Girl box and not letting anything new happen. Obviously, it is not a fan of inner work. It will attack you for exploring outside the known territory. In effect, the superego is an internalized parent. It holds the image of who you’re supposed to be, compares your current state to that, and then corrects you. It attempts to keep you out of trouble with Mom and Dad and helps you get along with other kids. It helps you learn manners and all of the other norms that you need to get along in society. It gives you some ability to regulate your own behavior and conform to social norms. So far, so good. But there is one last major step that needs to happen for the formation of a healthy, mature ego structure.
Separating from the Superego
After your superego forms, it is supposed to separate from your central ego. You will then disidentify from your own inner praiser and inner critic, and begin to hear them as separate voices in your head, voices that tell you what Mom and Dad want, but not what you yourself want. When that happens, you will once again hear your own voice clearly, and have lots of information to help you decide what to do. You will be able to hear what your inner critic and inner praiser have to say about your impulses, but you will also be able to hear your own inner voice and feel your own feelings and impulses. Then you can make your own decision. It will be an informed decision, not the unthinking, impulsive act of a two-year-old, nor a decision determined by slavish obedience to the standards set by Mom and Dad. Now you are beginning to form a healthy ego and an authentic self.
But what if this last major step doesn’t happen? What if your superego does not separate from your central ego? Then the voices of your superego do not just praise or criticize the self; they drown out the voice of the self. Then the voice of your inner critic is loud and constant in your head, and when it speaks, you think it’s your own voice. You do not question it. You think it speaks the Truth. When your inner critic attacks you, you don’t realize that it is something separate from you that is attacking you, or that you can defend yourself against its attacks. And you don’t realize that your inner critic cannot praise you, but only criticize, so its words are not a fair assessment of your worth.
Unfortunately, this last developmental step does not happen for many, many people. Their inner critic stays fused with their own inner voice, and they can’t tell the two apart. They think that the voice in their head — the voice that is correcting them, shaming them, and calling them names — is their own voice.
If you listen closely to these people as they talk aloud, you can almost hear what their inner critic is saying inside their head. It is like listening to one side of a phone conversation and guessing from the side you hear what the other side must be saying. For example, if they are telling you about finding the bathroom flooded when they arrived, they will say something like, “The bathroom was already flooded when I got here at 10 . . . well, it wasn’t right at 10 . . . it was five minutes after 10.” Did you catch that? During each of those pauses, their inner critic was correcting them about the time, even though the exact time was not important to the story.
Failing to disidentify from your inner critic is a real problem. It will cause you to suffer frequent critic attacks which you won’t be able to defend yourself against. It will leave you with very little internal space to experience anything new. As soon as a new impulse or feeling arises within you, your inner critic will attack it. It will try to push you back into the Good Boy/Good Girl box that will guarantee Mom and Dad’s approval. Its attacks can be quite savage and leave you feeling worthless and ashamed.
The failure to complete this developmental step is just that — an incomplete developmental step — it is not a survival pattern. While it is a major part of the rigid pattern, it does not guarantee that a person will adopt the rigid pattern. Many people who do other patterns also remain identified with their inner critic and suffer from it greatly, although it is not central to the mechanism of their survival patterns.
To complete the process of separating from their inner critic, most people need training in how to recognize its voice. Some clients I have worked with are startled to realize that they are actually hearing the voice of their mother or father — not only the same intention and tone, but actually the same voice, with the same words, inflection, and accent. Once they can perceive their inner critic as separate from themselves, they can start to recognize its attacks. Some of those attacks may be a voice or thought in their head that devalues them. Others may only be a crummy feeling in their body.
The distinguishing characteristic of a critic attack is that it attacks your value as a person. It doesn’t just correct a mistake, it makes you feel bad about yourself for having made the mistake. It isn’t the voice that says “Hey, you’re driving too fast. Better slow down.” It’s the voice that says “You idiot! You’re screwing up again! You always do this!” It makes you feel small, worthless, and ashamed of yourself.
Bottom line: if you haven’t already, you need to find a way to stop your inner critic from beating you up and running your life. To become ourselves, each of us needs to develop our own inner voice, so disidentifying from the inner critic is a crucial step in everyone’s inner work. Each of us must learn to reference and feel our own inner experience and desires.
Defending Yourself Against a Critic Attack
Once you can recognize a critic attack, you are ready to learn how to defend yourself against it. You do this by using your own life energy to push back against it, instead of letting it use your life energy to squash you. Over time, this practice will profoundly change your relationship with your inner critic.
Even though at first your inner critic may seem like an 800 pound gorilla that stomps at will on your small, helpless self, as you practice pushing back against it, the life force that used to feed your inner critic will be redirected into feeding your self. Your inner critic will begin to shrink and your self will grow. Eventually, your self will become bigger and stronger than your inner critic. It will be able to feel an incoming attack and either hold the inner critic off at arms length or just tell it to “Sit!”
As you change your relationship with your inner critic, there is one more thing you may need to do, and that is to stop it from using your mouth to attack others. Just as your inner critic tries to make you behave according to Mom and Dad’s Rules, it often tries to make others behave according to those rules as well. It does this by criticizing and correcting their performance. The extent of this varies from person to person, depending on how much outward aggression their survival patterns allow.
In some people, most critic attacks are directed inward, toward the self. In other people, most critic attacks are directed outward, toward others. Some people start with an inner critic directed almost entirely inward, but as they find their inner strength, their inner critic turns outward and begins to attack others. If your inner critic attacks others, you must learn how to control it. You can still express anger, but you must learn to do it cleanly, rather than as an attack.
Once you have disidentified from your inner critic and learned how to defend yourself against its attacks, your inner exploration and growth can proceed much more rapidly. You will have cleared a space inside you, within which you will be able to try out new experiences and find your own voice. While it is unlikely that your inner critic will ever disappear completely, your relationship to it will have been turned upside down. Instead of your inner critic running your life and dominating you, now you will be in charge.
Whenever you open the door to some new experience, especially one outside the Good Boy/Good Girl box prescribed by your parents, your inner critic is likely to squawk and try to stop you. But it won’t get to make the decisions any more. In time, you will even come to recognize this kind of critic attack as a sign that you are growing and entering new territory, not a sign that you are in trouble.