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Self-Criticism and Self-Soothing

How do you turn a self-criticizing voice into a self-soothing voice?

Stan, the retired CEO of a Fortune 500 company, smacks his racket on the ground and shouts, "You idiot!" Barbara, who made a fortune in commercial real estate yells, "What's wrong with you?" And Karen, who was a successful entrepreneur, shouts, "Stupid girl!" I've always thought people's reactions to their mistakes on the tennis court give a glimpse into their childhood. These are the voices they internalized as youngsters and now use on themselves. But some people reassure themselves, saying things like, "Okay, that was bad, keep your eye on the ball."

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What differentiates Stan, Barbara, and Karen from the people who can reassure themselves when they have made a mistake? From a psychoanalytic point of view, the critical voice is called an "introject." Introjection occurs when a person internalizes the ideas or voices of other people. The other people are usually parents, grandparents or teachers. If those important others were critical and judgmental, the inner voice is a critical one. In all object relations theories, the external object gets transformed into an internal image or "object." If that "object" is not fully internalized, it is referred to as an "introject." Introjects are labile and get projected onto other people easily. They come out in psychotherapy in the form of "shoulds" (e.g., "You think I should..."). If the voices of our significant others were supportive, on the other hand, they become identifications and we are able to comfort ourselves when we fall short or make a mistake. The outbursts on the tennis court offer a window into the introjects of the players.

How do you turn introjects into self-soothing voices? The psychoanalyst and the cognitive behaviorist take two very different approaches.

In her Psychology Today article (April 2019), "Silence your Inner Critic," Jena Pincott says, "The best intervention may be to respond to its grievances from a detached perspective—almost as if you were another person. This technique, called self-distancing is increasingly used in cognitive-behavioral therapy." The method involves replacing the first-person pronoun with a third person pronoun when talking to yourself. For example, "Karen, that was just a good shot. It's not your fault that you couldn't return it." The theory is that self-distancing allows one to respond as if it were happening to someone else.

The psychoanalytic perspective, on the other hand, views the problem as more complex—introjects reflect a developmental deficit. Negative introjects prevent the development of a solid core self. Wrestling with a nasty self-critical voice and being plagued with "shoulds" prevents the development of fully internalized values and the ability to tolerate not living up to them occasionally (i.e., mistakes, disappointments, and failures). And, when a person's psychic structure is on the introject level, the introjects are not only turned on themselves but also projected onto others.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, rational thinking is not enough to get rid of introjects—it requires psychoanalysis. Why? In psychoanalysis, the negative introjects get projected on the analyst in the transference. Through the process of analyzing the transference, the patient is able to dissolve the introjects and identify with a new, supportive inner voice—the analyst's.