Self-blame, negative self-talk, endless pummelling by the inner critic and the relentless self-shaming that can hijack our minds and torture our hearts can effectively poison our trust in ourselves to cope and derail any hope of bouncing back from stress and trauma.
I offer 14 very practical and very useful exercises to push back on the inner critic (even shift its role to that of inner advisor) from a recent webinar sponsored by NScience: Ending the Flood of Shaming Self-Talk: How to Effectively Face Up to the Inner Critic. Though crafted for clinicians, the entire webinar is offered in very plain, accessible English and will be useful to anyone at any stage of shifting their relationship to their inner judge/bully/gremlin.
Here are the basic principles that provide the context to benefitting from this work:
The Inner Critic is Universal
The inner critic is an easily recognizable inner part of our larger Self that is archetypal, universal. Every human being experiences some form of negative self-talk, some form of harsh self-judgment or self-criticism once in awhile, some days all the while.
“Who do thou think you are? You’ll never amount to anything. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, nobody’s going to like you or stay your friend.”
Whatever particular message you hear inside your own head, everyone on the planet is vulnerable to being shamed and blamed by what we call the inner critic or inner judge or inner gremlin or inner bully. We all have that experience at some time or another, some days all the time.
The Underlying Origin of Our Inner Critic Is Our Hardwired Need to Connect
The reason we all have an inner critic is that all human beings have an innate biological need to connect with other human beings for survival and well-being, physical survival and psychological well-being. That is universal. It’s hardwired into every human brain.
Our earliest experiences in connection with other human beings around us shapes our sense of safety, connection, protection in the world and our sense of self as worthy of acceptance and love by ourselves, by other people.
When all goes well, those early and lifelong experiences of connection can foster a sense of security and well-being within. We become aware of and accepting of ourselves as worthy, acceptable, lovable human beings and meet the challenges of our lives from that inner secure base.
If those early and lifelong experiences of connection didn’t go so well, over time we come to doubt our self-worth, our acceptability, our lovability, our capacities to meet the challenges of our lives effectively and resiliently.
Threat of Disconnection Shapes Behavior
Because every parent, every tribe, every culture has to teach their children how to behave in the world so that they will survive, both connection and the threat of disconnection are used to teach those skills and shape those behaviors.
Here’s what you can do or not do, here’s who you can be or not be, to earn and retain our love and protection.
Here’s what you can do or not do or here’s who you can be or not be that will threaten that connection, cause us to abandon you or dismiss you or forget you, have nothing to do with you.
Every culture; this is universal.
Guilt and Shame
Love and acceptance and compassion are used to convey and maintain that connection. Guilt and shame are two very powerful emotions used by every culture to communicate the threat of disconnection. If you DO something bad, you will be punished by disconnection. IF you ARE something bad, you will be abandoned or distanced. Shame and guilt can evoke a kind of terror in the nervous system and in the psyche. I’d better not do or be anything bad or wrong or I will be punished or abandoned.
We Shame-Blame Ourselves First
And the fear of evoking shaming-blaming messages externally from people around us, can begin to evoke these same messages inside our own head. We start to shame or blame ourselves so we won’t do or won’t be the things that will cause us to be disconnected from people we depend on for survival, for well-being.
The reality of neuroplasticity in the brain is also innate, also universal. That means any experience will cause neurons in the brain to fire, repeated experiences, repeated neural firings. If we hear negative, critical, judgmental, shaming-blaming messages over and over, the repetition of these messages actually develops and strengthens neural circuitry in the brain to repeat them again. So that similar experiences are likely to trigger similar messages, even without our wanting them to.
Inner Critic as Part of Larger Self
It is the repetition of these messages that gives rise to the mental phenomenon we anthropomorphize as the inner critic. We ascribe these messages to a character or inner part of ourselves as though it had a life of its own separate from who we are. The characterization of the inner critic as a part and only one part of our larger self – the inner family system, the inner committee, the inner orchestra – is essential to be able to notice, dis-identify with, and work with it from the mindful awareness and compassionate acceptance of our larger self.
An Inner Critic Is Not our Fault
This is important.
Given our need to connect and the need of our parents/culture to protect, and given the power of the brain to create repetitive patterns…
…creating an inner critic IS NOT OUR FAULT. It’s such a relief to know we are not a bad person for feeling badly about ourselves!
Pushing Back on the Inner Critic IS Our Responsibility
Given our capacities to make wise, conscious choices about our responses to life’s challenges and crises, and to our inner reactions to them, it becomes our responsibility (response-ability) to learn the skills to shift our relationship to the inner critic, push back on its messages that would derail our resilience and our trust in ourselves to be resilient.
See the original piece by Linda here, where you can also learn about her other offerings for recovering resilience.1