Dealing with an inner critic

Criticism is something that nobody enjoys. In fact, when we are criticised, our nervous system reacts with a fight or flight response. We don't need an actual lion chasing us to feel threatened; words of criticism can have the same effect. The saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" by Shakespeare is not entirely accurate. Words can often hurt more than physical pain.


People criticise each other for various reasons, often to exert control. Making someone feel guilty and ashamed can help change their behaviour, as it acts as a form of punishment. The entire prison system is designed to correct behaviour through punishment and judgment. This judgment is the criticism that hurts, implying that someone is wrong, bad, and insufficient, and needs to change.

I'm not entirely convinced that there is such a thing as healthy constructive criticism in a relationship. I believe that every form of criticism triggers our nervous system to defend itself. Criticism is a major reason why people lose intimacy in a relationship, leading to alienation, distrust, and resentment.

However, this does not mean that we should never express our thoughts and feelings to others. We can do so without resorting to criticism by using assertive communication.

Assertive communication involves authenticity, non-violence, taking responsibility for our feelings, acknowledging and regulating them, and recognising unmet needs in the relationship that may have triggered difficult emotions. In assertive communication, people have the courage to address difficult issues, even when they fear the outcome.

To understand the impact of having an inner critic in our mental state, it is useful to see the effects of criticism in relationships between people. Criticism never improves relationships; instead, compassion, empathy, love, and acceptance are what strengthen relationships. Criticism, even in its most subtle forms, communicates violence. People criticise others to regulate their own internal state by attempting to control others, but this only leads to more dysregulation in their relationship dynamics, causing disharmony and disconnection.

Regarding inner criticism, it is important to understand how we become excessively self-critical. Often, we have been criticised by authority figures such as parents and teachers, and we internalise those messages, becoming critical of ourselves. Underneath all the self-critical messages lies the belief that "I am not enough," "I am bad," "There is something wrong with me," and "I don't matter."

Self-critical communication breeds shame and low self-esteem. When we have low self-esteem, we are more likely to feel like victims, powerless, helpless, and hopeless.

What can we do to deal with our inner critic?

Our inner critic becomes stronger when we feel more helpless, and its power increases when our self-esteem is lower. It acts as a judge, constantly evaluating and comparing our experiences.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to softening the inner critic and rebuilding confidence. What works for one person may not work for another.

However, based on my personal experience as a therapist trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy, I have found that compassion is the most effective tool for soothing the nervous system. In my therapeutic work, I use various experiential explorations to help clients regulate and soothe their activated nervous systems.

When we feel calmer, present, and internally quiet, compassion naturally arises. It's not about challenging our thoughts directly; rather, it involves working from the body up to the mind. When the body is calm and relaxed, we naturally develop more positive narratives about ourselves and the world around us.

Our mental health depends on our ability to impact it in subtle ways. Engaging in small acts of self-care is about taking care of our future selves. We need to look after our bodies and take care of our nervous systems, treating them as though they were little beings inside us that deserve to be seen and appreciated for who they are.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol, City of Bristol, BS3
Written by Edgars Semenovs
Bristol, City of Bristol, BS3

My name is Edgars Semenovs, and I am an integrative counsellor in Bristol, UK. I have received training in Level 2 Sensorimotor psychotherapy. I have personally experienced trauma and have overcome various addictions. As a result, I am deeply committed to assisting my clients on their journey towards recovery.

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