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Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT
Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

More Questions About the Inner Critic

How does the inner critic develop and how can we get it under control?

Recently the Italian journalist, Stefania Medetti, read my blog on the Inner Critic Voice and had some questions. As I was answering her questions, I thought this would be a good follow up to that earlier blog.

1. When is the voice of the inner critic born? How long does the process last?

No one know for sure when we start to hear any kind of inner voice. I assume that we have no inner voices until we start learning language at around 12-18 months old. Since we are also learning to walk at the same time, I think that the inner critic voice begins as soon as we hear the word NO and see and feel our parent’s upset or anger when we are headed toward danger or something they don’t want us to do.

People talk about hearing their parent’s voice in their mind, so I think our inner voice is started by whatever the parent say—whether it is loving, angry, encouraging, or critical. The child then divides the world into good and bad, so she/he develops both the good voice that is encouraging and positive, and the inner critic voice that is there to correct the child and is mostly negative.

The more negative the adults are when they talk and interact with the child, the bigger the inner critic voice becomes. Whereas, the more positively the adults talk to the child, the bigger, more positive, and loving the inner voice is. This process lasts throughout our whole lives.

2. Is the inner voice shaped by kids trying to please their parents, or is it shaped by the words the parents use, or both?

It is definitely shaped by both. We are social being and our survival as children depends on our pleasing our parents. Biology and attachment do a lot to make children and their parents love each other, and the parents overall want to take care of their children. But young children are completely dependent on the good will of the parents, and children innately know that they need to learn the language and the social behaviors of their parents to get their approval and be cared for.

3. Can you give examples of how parents play a role in shaping the child’s inner voice?

Whatever a parent says or does is imprinted on the mind of the child. Children are learning machines who absorb everything they see and hear. Parents can say to the child: “You are stupid. You are beautiful. You are bad. You are good.” The child will believe everything the parents say about him/her. And the child FEELS when the parent is loving, angry, disgusted, or adoring. All of these messages are recorded by the child as she/he tries to figure out “Who am I?” As we get older, we have grandparents, teachers, friends and other adults who also reflect in their words and actions who they see us to be. At first we believe everything, but as our minds and individuality develop, we learn to tune in more to the messages from the most SIGNIFICANT people in our lives and ignore messages from people we don’t know or care about.

4. Why is this inner critical voice louder for some people?

Some people are subjected to many more negative messages than others. I sat listening one evening in a restaurant to two parents with their young daughter having dinner. I noticed that in the span of one minute, they gave the child more than 20 negative messages. For example, “Sit down, be quiet, use your napkin, don’t yell, look at me, be quiet, sit down,” and on and on. That child will clearly have an enormous number of negative messages by the time she becomes an adult.

Children have only two choices when confronted with negative and critical messages—either listen or tune out. Children often try to tune out. But for their own survival to please their parents, they HAVE TO listen quite a lot. The more we listen to the criticisms, rejection and hostility of negative messages, the louder the inner critic voice in our minds gets.

5. Is the voice just louder for some people, or can they simply cope with it better?

It does appear that biologically we all hear negativity louder than the positives. This is probably an adaption for survival. Our survival as a species was dependent on us hearing, “Watch out, there’s a snake”, while hearing “You are doing that well” was not so urgent. However, I have observed that some people hear negatives extremely loudly and tune out the positives almost completely. This appears to be a biological predisposition in some people, while for others, tuning into the criticism is due to hearing so much of it compared to positive messages.

6. How does the inner critic impact our lives and self-esteem as kids and as adults?

The inner critic voice works very much the same in adulthood as in childhood. It tries to remember what we are NOT supposed to do, which takes a great deal of energy. The inner critic uses up a lot of energy worrying, being fearful of doing the wrong thing, feeling inferior and at fault, and can lead to social awkwardness and lower self-esteem.

A smaller inner critic voice can help us self-correct our behavior to be less selfish and more considerate of others, but when the inner critic voice becomes louder than our loving inner voice, it starts damaging our sense of deservability. The inner critic then starts tearing down our sense of self and damages our self-esteem—sometimes over and over as it becomes a habit.

7. You wrote about a loud and a sneaky voice: What roles do they play?

The loud inner critic voice is easier to subdue because we can tune into it and hear it more easily, so we can work on neutralizing that voice with positive self-messages, evidence from our good behaviors, and encouragement from others.

But after the loud critical voice is subdued, there can still be a quieter critical voice whispering messages just below our awareness that we don’t even notice. This one is harder to control because we don’t realize that it is there. We see evidence of this negative voice’s influence when we make decisions that are against our own best interests, when we allow others to demean or abuse us, and when we get so focused on the needs and wants of others that our own needs get ignored and our health or well-being is damaged.

8. What kinds of situations trigger the inner critic?

The kinds of situations that trigger the inner critic SHOULD be when we have been unkind, uncaring or mean spirited to others. However, too often, the inner critic is there ALL the time even when we are just looking out for our own welfare. People who are overly caretaking of others’ needs, can make themselves emotionally or physically ill by over-doing for others trying to be perfect for that inner critic. Also, if your inner critic is too easily activated, then anyone’s criticism of you (even when undeserved) can trigger it. Then you are criticized from the outside and the inside at once.

Learning to get your inner critic under the control of your logical and reasonable mind will allow you to discriminate between times when you need to take better actions and times when someone else is just trying to manipulate you to do their bidding by accusing you of being selfish.

9. When should we start to worry that the inner voice gets in our way?

When you see that you are not taking good care of yourself, it is most likely that your inner critic is getting out of hand and too dominating. We see evidence of very high inner critics in people who are depressed, who are overly self-effacing, who ignore their health, who never exercise, who rarely take time to do something nice for themselves, who are embarrassed by compliments, who feel unworthy or worthless, and who don’t let anyone know what they need or want. You should be worrying about your inner critic voice being too loud whenever you start to feel hopeless, helpless, unimportant, overly-obligated, overly-guilty, hurt that others are being better treated than you are, and depressed that no one is thinking of your needs.

10. Can you give suggestions about:

How to react when we hear this inner critic voice?

Take the four steps that I outlined in my earlier article—Awareness, Questioning, Deactivate, Replace. Be aware of the message the inner critic is giving you; question whether it is true or not; if it is not true, deactivate the negative message by identifying and acknowledging your positive strengths; and replace the inner critic’s lie with a statement of positive truth about yourself.

How to behave with people who trigger this voice?

Stop to assess whether the person criticizing you is truly loving, kind and focuses on your best interest. If so, then go through the four steps I just outlined to determine what may be true about their criticism. Take whatever corrective action you feel is right.

Assess whether you are over-reacting to the criticism. It may be that your own inner critic is too loud or you have an inner critic message that you were unaware of until the other person’s criticism hit that nerve.

If the person triggering your inner critic is consistently critical, unjust in their criticism, and using their criticism to make you feel bad or manipulate you, this is a toxic person. Your inner self-loving voice needs to be activated to move you away from further interactions with the toxic person and to repair the damage they are doing to your self-esteem. Avoiding this person whenever possible is your best choice.

How to train ourselves to cope with the inner critic better?

Taking charge of your inner critic means being aware of what you are saying to yourself and about yourself on a continuous basis. Tuning into your self-messages will prove to your inner self that you care. Then be kind to yourself. Imagine what you would say to a dear friend if he or she was saying such a self-critical thing. Say this positive message to yourself until you really understand its truth. Surround yourself with loving, caring people who are supportive and encouraging and whom you can trust to deliver any criticisms justly and kindly. And stay away from overly negative and critical people and interactions.

About the Author
Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT, is a therapist, author and speaker on the topic of borderlines and narcissists.

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