The Secret Agenda of the Self-Critic
Understanding the underlying source of self-criticism can set us free.
Posted January 27, 2018
We all have different parts within our personality. Sometimes we have a nurturing part that comes to the forefront to tell us that we’re safe and okay. Other times, there’s a responsible part that makes sure we get to work and pay the bills. Some psychological theories (such as Internal Family Systems) even gives these parts names, such as The Manager or The Firefighter. In this article, we’re talking about The Self-Critic, which probably doesn’t need much explanation. Many of us deal with this part of ourselves on a daily basis.
You know you’re dealing with The Self-Critic when you hear things like: “I can’t believe you let your license plates expire. You’re so irresponsible!” or, “You already blew your New Year’s resolution to exercise every day. You can’t stick with anything!”
These thoughts are unpleasant, but they actually have a unique purpose—a hidden agenda. Once we know what this is, it's easier to know how to handle these self-critical thoughts.
Below are three functions The Self-Critic serves:
1. The Self-Critic is trying to motivate us. The Self-Critic thinks that if it cracks a whip, it will motivate us to do a desired behavior. Accepting ourselves unconditionally is difficult because we must give up the fantasy that if we punish ourselves enough with negative thoughts, we’ll change. It's as if we think we can coerce ourselves into shape by saying things like:
I'm weak for feeling any anxiety.
I'm a loser because I don't have a better job.
I'm a lazy slob because I didn't go to the gym.
We cling to the belief that by berating ourselves, we can achieve more. Research shows that this strategy doesn't work well. In fact, the more we yell at ourselves to “buck up”, “snap out of it”, or “get tough”, the worse we make things for ourselves.
2. The Self-Critic wants us to feel in control. When we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control. And it's human nature to want to feel in control. Self-judgment or self-criticism says, “If only I would've tried harder, things would've worked out.” Often, this is not really the case. Maybe we didn’t get a job because there was already an internal person selected. Or maybe that guy didn’t call us back for a second date because they have issues, not because of anything we did wrong. Although these alternative explanations have plausibility, it's scary to admit how little control we have. Sometimes it’s easier to blame ourselves.
3. The Self-Critic is trying to keep us safe. Self-criticism taps into the brain’s threat/defense response. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. It’s hard-wired into our brain and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well. When you view yourself as the problem (“I can't believe I gained those ten pounds back!” or, “I should've gotten an A on that test.”) the reptilian brain kicks in and attacks, thus the self-critical self-talk.
So what to do?
No one likes to hear negative self-talk playing in our minds all day. But understanding the hidden motivation of self-criticism is the key to dealing with it. Remember, the true function of The Self-Critic is to keep us safe, try to motivate us, and to help us avoid the pain of realizing we’re not always in control. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn't go about it in a helpful, skillful way.
What can help is seeing the self-critic with compassionate eyes. In essence, saying in a kind, gentle voice (silently or out loud): “Hey, I see what you’re doing. Thank you.
You’re trying to help me. I get that. Let’s see if we can accomplish the same thing in another way. You stop beating up on me and I’ll make sure to hear what you’re saying and take care of things. I’ve got this."