In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy they use a term ‘tyranny of the should’s’ to describe a thought process that is limiting in its aim to keep us fixed in a certain position. This inner critic or inner judge is that part of our mental processes that subtly or not so subtly, depending on the situation, tells us that we are doing something wrong. Or you could say it’s an inner dialogue that keeps us in our place by constantly reminding us that we should be doing or acting in a particular way. It’s these thoughts that inform us how we should behave in certain circumstances or do particular actions in other situations.
Freud called the inner critic the Super Ego and its role is to keep us in check relative to our cultural and social context, both in the family culture and within the broader cultural norms. In a way it provided us with a conscience so we act appropriately according to the social mores that are prevalent at any one time. Obviously this serves a function and can be completely appropriate in particular contexts. However, from a psychological perspective the inner critic, inner judge or super ego, what ever you want to call it, has an insidious side that denies spontaneity, access to unused potential and ways of being that are fluid according to the interactions and circumstances occurring at any one time.
The inner critic is usually formed in early childhood and is part of the natural developmental process of children becoming autonomous. Essentially, toddlers are regulated by their parents or their care givers through instructions of the do’s and don’ts of the family home. At a certain point the young child internalises these rules and regulations so is able to self regulate their behaviour and by necessity not get into trouble! To use Gestalt speak we introject these beliefs as a way to adapt to the environment that is governed by our care givers.
Now some of these introjects are very useful like telling a child that’s its not a good idea to put their hand in a fire, but there are others that are taken on board that were necessary at the time, so the child can feel safe or get approval from their parents. but may not be useful as an adult, such as “only speak when you are spoken to”. For a child it makes perfect sense to abide by this rule as the consequences could be harsh if the rule was broken such as getting punished in some way. However, this internalised belief can hang around into adulthood keeping the individual restricted, so they may for example not voice their opinion or they may believe they have spoken when they shouldn’t have. This is where the their inner critic rears it’s tyrannical head and berates them in some way with a negative thought that is self critical or a feeling that is uncomfortable. The inner critic is very black and white in its perspective, so doesn’t adapt according to the context. Instead it’s job is to keep certain behaviours, thoughts and feelings in check for core reasons such as safety, getting approval or being noticed, to name a few. The problem is that the inner critic is out of date and doesn’t serve the purpose it once had. In essence it has become fixed.
Its fair to say that everybody has a inner critic and just by paying attention to your own thought processes its possible to become aware of this inner voice so to speak. Most people would agree that their biggest critic are themselves as we can be very harsh on ourselves when in reality it’s not really necessary. It’s not necessary because these old beliefs are invariably out of date – they were applicable when we were children but are outmoded as adults.
If you did an experiment where you pretended that an imaginary individual personified as your inner critic and this individual was following you around all day giving you a hard time via its criticism, judgements and possibly plain nasty comments you probably wouldn’t put up with it for very long and tell it to shove off in no uncertain terms! The suggestion here is that you can do that now with your own inner critic. When you notice the judge berating you for something tell it to take a hike and see how that makes you feel. Happy inner critic flogging!
May this day find you well
Counselling and Psychotherapy Team