The inner critic is a brute force, a totalitarian tyrant, lurking in the human psyche. It’s a primitive part of us that operates with the mentality of a psychopath. It harbors a capacity for evil.
Yet many mental-health practitioners tell their clients the inner critic can be subdued or neutralized by making concessions to it, compromising with it, and even befriending it.
No, do not cozy up to the inner critic. Doing so diminishes us. We must tame it, render it powerless, not compromise with it or befriend it.
The best approach is to befriend our authentic self, not our inner critic. Our authentic self is, in the language of depth psychology, our secular soul, the throne of goodness, wisdom, and power. We want our consciousness to unite with our authentic self. Its values are the opposite of the inner critic’s. How is compromise possible when values are diametrically opposed?
The inner critic, known in psychoanalysis as the superego, is a formidable inner foe, a true enemy within that is audacious and shameless. We can’t suppress it through willpower. We can, however, undermine and defeat it with correct self-knowledge.
In my past writing, I’ve called the inner critic a bully and a villain. Now I want to be more emphatic about its vile nature. Compromising with the inner critic is, at best, trying to compromise with inflexible irrationality. At worst, it’s messing with aggressive depravity.
Sigmund Freud become aware of the full cruelty of the inner critic or superego, though only late in his life. He wrote at one point in The Problem of Anxiety, published in 1936 three years before his death, that, “The motive force behind all later symptom formation is here clearly the ego’s fear of its superego. The hostility of the superego is the danger situation which the ego must avoid.” A few years earlier, in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud mentions the superego’s alignment with “the harshness and severity of the parents, their preventive and punitive function, while their loving care is not taken up and continued by it.” Unfortunately, modern psychology heedlessly overlooks these words.
Unwittingly, we’re all guilty to some extent of collaborating with the inner critic. Our inner defensiveness and psychological defenses scramble with limited success to help us wiggle out from under the inner critic’s tyranny. Those mental-health practitioners who advocate compromising with the inner critic are unwittingly promoting a dynamic that, in the unconscious mind, people already employ in a manner that hinders self-development.
Despite our conscious or unconscious attempts at compromise, the inner critic still operates as a punishing force. It seeks to function as the master of the personality. To the inner critic, our compromises and concessions are simply expressions of weakness that it uses against us.
On an inner level, some people unwittingly identify with the inner critic, which is a form of befriending it. Doing so, they adopt the inner critic’s values and become its agents or surrogates. Now they’re in danger of becoming stone-hearted, aggressively stupid, and enemies of civility. At this point, they have no interest in developing the personal integrity required by members of civilized society and democratic nations.
A recommendation to befriend the critic was advocated in the magazine, Psychology Today, in its cover story in the April, 2019 issue titled, “Silence Your Inner Critic.” The article recognizes the inner critic as a “derogatory taskmaster,” yet the article claims the inner critic, in its taskmaster role, drives people to excel by honing in on their faults and weaknesses.
The article quotes a psychologist at length who says, in part: “The challenge is to see the critic as a protector that is on our side, looking out for our interests, even if it’s often misguided. If it’s making us feel that we’re not good enough, it’s only because it is trying to prevent us from the ego blow of not being good enough. We can learn to thank the critic for trying so hard to protect us—and then ask for it to step back.”
Asking the inner critic “to step back” is like wagging your finger at Smaug or Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings. The inner critic carries the biggest black banner in any procession of inner demons. We need more grounding in our authentic self, our secular soul, in order to defeat and dethrone the inner critic.
It has no intention of protecting us from the so-called “ego blow of not being good enough.” The very opposite occurs. Our inner critic trashes us with allegations of not being good enough, or being worthless nobodies. Often the basis for these allegations are flat-out distortions of reality or simplistic misrepresentations of our normal everyday imperfections. Meanwhile, a large amount of what otherwise would be our life-affirming energy is used up in our attempts to ward off the cruel self-aggression streaming from the inner critic.
Why do we have this primitive self-aggression in the first place? Our ancestors needed natural, biological aggression to survive. We still need healthy aggression, wisely channeled, to thrive in the modern world. This aggression is considerable, and the healthier we are psychologically the more we can use it productively. Classical psychoanalysis says much of this aggression begins to turn against us by the time we are toddlers because, biologically, we don’t have the musculature required to release it entirely into the world around us.
The Psychology Today article highlights the idea that the inner critic “attacks and undermines you to protect you from the shame of failure.” The article is poorly written at this point, and it doesn’t provide enough context to make sense of this “shame of failure” statement. A bit farther on, the article says (presumably paraphrasing the same psychologist) that “Beating yourself up is a preemptive gambit to inoculate ourselves from external shaming.” The logic here escapes me. At this point, the article’s attempt to explain these ideas dribbles off incoherently.
Elsewhere in the text, this article supports the idea that self-affirmations, meaning assurances to ourselves that we are good, capable, and worthy, are “a useful offset to self-criticism.” The technique involves seeing evidence in oneself (and attesting to this evidence) that refutes the harsh allegations made by the inner critic. This evidence, the article says, can “revise the negative messages” we hear from our inner critic or we hear or think we hear from people in our life.
However, if we employ this technique, we unwittingly give credence to the inner critic’s allegations. In other words, to use this technique is to give some measure of credibility to the inner critic and its irrationality. The technique is just another variation on inner defensiveness. The technique signifies that we’re taking the inner critic seriously. Doing so, we prolong a back-and-forth inner debate in which the inner critic accuses and, through the voice of inner passivity and defensiveness, we justify and defend our self. This inner debate constitutes inner conflict, and it’s likely to go on endlessly without deeper insight.
There’s a cardinal rule with the inner critic: Don’t be defensive to its allegations. People generally don’t have to be defensive about anything. Sure, if authorities falsely accuse you of robbing a bank, you want to have a good defense. Otherwise, your defensiveness generally signifies that you’re under an inner critic attack and reacting emotionally to its irrational allegations.
Watch yourself through the day for statements of inner defensiveness. When you stop being inwardly (and outwardly) defensive, you are dropping the rope in inner conflict’s tug-of-war. You’re not playing that game anymore.
The inner critic appears at times to be saying true things, and sometimes the things it says are true. It can mock us for being weak and passive when, in fact, we have indeed been weak and passive in some situation. But the punishment we accept (even for our slightest misstep) in the form of guilt, shame, tension, and anxiety often far outweighs the “crime.” We need to understand that the inner critic has no business at all butting into our life.
Even when the critic’s accusations are true, we can, when strong and healthy, refuse to accept any punishment. It’s simply enough that we sincerely acknowledge any missteps on our part, make the intention to do better in the future, and then move on. Sometimes the critic’s accusation functions as a stern conscience, for instance in scolding a person who has committed adultery. Still, the inner critic has no business being a part of a person’s assessment of such a situation. It simply can’t be trusted to be objective or rational.
For instance, consider how the inner critic often intrudes in a situation involving adultery. Even when adulterers have reformed their behavior and been forgiven by their spouse for this offense, they can’t forgive themselves at a deeper level when their inner critic still revisits the offense on a daily basis, exacting more punishment in the form of guilt, shame, and regret. The inner critic uses a person’s adultery for the purpose of ongoing torture, not for the purpose of reforming the individual. Having this ability to torture enables the inner critic to maintain its sweeping abusive power.
Even if there is truth at times in what the inner critic says, it’s still seeking, at best, to pose as our true voice of authority and, at worst, to harass, torment, and punish us, not to educate us as to what is true or what is best for us.
Often times the inner critic makes allegations that we just feel to be true. We’re not sure it’s true, it just feels that way. At this point, we’re in danger of being deceived by our self-doubt. False accusations against us can often feel true because, deep down, we harbor doubt about our goodness and value. We’re quick to feel that we’re flawed, unworthy, and even bad. This negative self-assessment can often be traced to shameful thoughts and feelings going back to childhood, often involving sexual instincts and emotional associations, that are unconscious or barely conscious.
With my clients, I teach the role that inner passivity, the seat of our psychological defenses, plays in facilitating or enabling the inner critic. This passive part of us, unlike the inner critic, doesn’t have a vile nature. It is more like a gravitational force field that pulls us in a passive direction. Yet it’s still a formidable detriment to our psychological progress. When we operate unconsciously under the influence of inner passivity, we find ourselves consciously aligned with the notion that compromising with the inner critic is a normal and correct procedure.
Like the inner critic, inner passivity intrudes into our thoughts and feelings where it proceeds to create worry, fear, anxiety, indecision, mediocrity, and other forms of self-doubt. The major conflict in the human psyche is between the defensiveness of inner passivity and the self-aggression of the inner critic. Inner passivity does try to protect us from the inner critic but it functions like an incompetent defense attorney. Our ultimate protection from the inner critic, as mentioned, is an awakened self.
Awakening to our self is an ultimate life triumph. Getting there involves clearing inner passivity out of our psyche and neutralizing the inner critic. We get ourselves pointed in a direction that produces growing insight and then do our best to enjoy the journey.
Meanwhile, any willingness to compromise with the inner critic or befriend it signifies our unconscious resistance to fulfilling our destiny. We won’t be strong enough to usher in a new consciousness that protects our planet and future generations. Growing insight into human nature is our new frontier, and the wisdom and power that arises from this adventure will enable us to prevail over primitive parts of our psyche.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.