This morning, I accidentally knocked over a can of food that splattered all over the floor. Instantly, a voice in my head rang, “Rina, how could you be so stupid? You’ve wasted food and time!”
This is the voice commonly referred to as our “inner critic.” In ancient yoga philosophy the inner critic is considered a manifestation of the ego, or ahamkara. As much as ahamkara is involved with deceptively enjoyable vanity and conceit, it can also be the source of painful self-criticism. Peace of mind and self-love, yoga says, come when none of these “snares” of ego entrap us. According to yoga, it is then that we are truly free.
In research terms, the inner critic is defined as a “well-integrated system of critical and negative thoughts and attitudes of the self that interferes with the individual’s organismic experiencing process.” In other words, it is the criticism we hear in our minds that gets in the way of life enjoyment.
History of the Inner Critic
The inner critic, or self-criticism, has become a focus of modern psychotherapy over the last century. In the 1950s American psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, Ph.D., observed a kind of “conditional positive regard”—a more critical view of oneself—in therapy patients. According to Rogers, conditional positive regard toward the self seemed to prevent children from working toward ideals and led to excessive approval seeking in adulthood. In contrast, his therapy work discussed “unconditional positive regard” as a habit of loving oneself through mistakes, big and small. Rogers theorized that with practice of unconditional positive regard, one maintains a healthy self-image and can align with her vision of an ideal self. He referred to this alignment of self-image and actuality as “congruence,” a state of well-being.
In the past decade, scientific research has isolated and explored self-criticism specifically. Studies have revealed strong correlations between negative self-talk and psychopathologies such as depression, social and performance anxiety, aggression, perfectionism and eating disorders, and self-harm. Researchers Paul Gilbert, founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation in the UK, and Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a self-compassion researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, also found that “self-reassurance” and “self-compassion” are inversely correlated with such psychopathologies. In other words, in each respective study those who practiced more self-reassurance and kind self-talk reported lower levels of depression and anxiety than did those who were naturally not kind or reassuring to themselves. These findings suggest that an inner critic may be more than just an annoyance. It may have an impact our psychological well-being.
Neurophysiology of Self-Criticism
If self-criticism could be psychologically destructive, why might it exist?
As we know, the brain is a highly complex part of the nervous system that helps us navigate, innovate, and survive. In one study lead by Olivia Longe, Ph.D., a research fellow at Aston University’s School of Life and Health Sciences, researchers used fMRI to study activation patterns in the brain as it relates to self-criticism and self-reassurance. Participants were randomly presented 60 pre-screened negative emotion scenarios (e.g., “A third job rejection letter arrived in the post”) and 60 neutral emotion scenarios (e.g., “A free local newspaper arrived in the post”). To half of all scenarios, participants were asked to imagine responding with self-critical thoughts, and to half they were asked to imagine responding with self-reassuring thoughts.
Among many findings, results of this study revealed a significant association between self-criticism and the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The DLPFC is said to be involved in error detection and resolution as well as behavioral response inhibition among other functions. These findings suggest that one role of self-criticism is to keep us safe from dangerous repetitive behaviors and possibly life-threatening errors.
When helping protect us from picking up a dangerously sharp object again, self-criticism can be appreciated. When ringing angrily in our heads for sending out party invitations a day late, it’s not hard to see where our inner critic may be assuming excess power.
Much more research is required to learn about the different roots of self-criticism, though thanks to existing studies we know that an inner critic can sound different depending on person or experience. Once we know our inner critic may have a strong presence, how can we respond?
Listening and Responding to Our Inner Critic
Rather than silence or fight off the inner critic, a recent psychotherapy publication led by Nele Stinckens, Ph.D., a researcher at KU Leuven in the Netherlands proposes a “microtheory” to tailor our responses when managing our critical inner voice.
In a 2013 paper published in the Journal of Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Stinckens and her team reviewed a broad collection of client-centered and experiential therapist strategies for modifying the inner critic. The findings summarize a flexible approach of strategies “tailored to the nature and intensity of the inner critic…as the best chance of success.” Three strategies are outlined below. While these practices are recommended for a client-therapist setting, some practices may be helpful to the individual.
- Identify the inner critic. Stinckens and her team emphasize paying attention to not just the contents of, but to the way, an inner critic speaks. Often, we are not fully aware of the voice but sense the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or anger. By pausing, listening, and actually verbalizing aloud what an inner critic says, one can start to hear the inner critic as separate from the self. For example, you may listen and hear yourself repeat, “You dropped the can of food and now you’ve wasted it and lost precious time!” Repeating accusations out loud in a comfortable space can help you start to hear your inner critic as a separate voice rather than accept it as your own.
- Distance yourself from critical thoughts. Once an inner critic has been identified, more verbalization or writing down inner critical thoughts can help create more distance. Analyses revealed that a client visualizing an actual physical inner critic helped to create more space between the voice and the individual. Eventually, clients were often able to evaluate accusations instead of unknowingly accept them as one’s own thoughts and feelings.
- If one hears an element of protection in his inner critic’s voice, it’s it may actually have a helpful function. In many therapy cases reviewed in this study, the therapist asked a client to liken the inner critical voice to a personality or an actual role or person. Stinckens’ team found that often the voice had the role of a parent or parental figure, a friend, sibling, or a teacher. Her team further deduces, “By paying attention to the critic’s feelings and concerns and valorizing these, the critic will feel less of a need to constantly manifest itself.” Ideally, this can allow for more trust in the foundation of the critic’s guidance and also encourage behaviors for personal growth. For example, “You’ve dropped the can of food and now you’ve wasted it and lost precious time!” may be reworded as a self-protective, “Take your time so that you can eat well and remain relaxed.”
Stay fluid with the process and meet your inner critic where he or she is. With practice over time, the sound of your critic’s voice may transform: more distant, more compassionate and protective of your well-being.