Years ago, African Americans popularized “your mama” jokes, which involved one person insulting someone’s mother, leading the other person to defend his mother by hurling an even greater insult at the first person’s mother. This typically led to an exchange whereby the two people would escalate in the outrageousness of the insults that they launched at each other’s mothers. “Your mama” jokes exemplify the idea that we do not tolerate other people criticizing our parents. Yet, that does not mean that we are exempt from that same taboo. As a psychologist, I have often heard people list many grievances about their parents vociferously; yet, if I say “sounds like your parents were very mean,” those same individuals immediately jump to defend their parents.
This same dynamic operates when it comes to self-criticism. Often, we judge ourselves negatively and harshly. Yet, as soon as we are reproached, we immediately jump to defend ourselves by launching a counter attack on the other person, or by explaining how the other person’s judgment of us is incorrect. We humans exemplify the notion that the best defense is often a strong offense. In this article, I hope to highlight and explain the role of the inner judgmental critic, which I introduced in my previous article: Mapping and mastery of the inner world.
In summary, our inner worlds function much like a play, having a director and a cast of characters; the critical judge, the nurturer, the playful one, the worrier, the angry one, the people pleaser, etc. These characters rotate in and out of being “on” the stage at any moment and they have an energy that can be directed outwardly at others or inwardly at ourselves.
You, the reader, may have varying reactions to what I have written so far. Some may be exasperatedly thinking: “what on earth is this lady talking about?!?” Others may be contemplating: “what silly psychobabble this lady is spewing!” Still others may be considering: “what an interesting way of viewing our inner worlds…” (Feel free to email me your reactions, if they differ from these).
Let’s visualize that we are sitting in the front row of an auditorium, and that the stage in front has a wall down the middle dividing the stage in two. The left side of the stage is your outer world, and on it we see you, the reader, perusing this article. (Figure 1: You reading the Link). Then we shift our gaze to the right side of the stage, so we can view the various possible inner worlds described above. I see two parts within the inner world of the first reactor, who was wondering what on earth I was discussing. The first, a confused person having difficulty comprehending this concept, is protected by an outwardly focused critical judge, who vents her frustration at me: “what on earth is this lady talking about?!?” The inner world stage of our second reader is dominated by an outward focused critical judge, (“what silly psychobabble this lady is spewing!”), who denigrates my concepts in his mind with annoyance. Both of these readers are represented by Figure 2, which depicts the critical judges protecting the confused selves by criticizing the author in their minds. Lastly, the inner world of our third reader is dominated by a director and an inquisitive self, who processes the material in an open and curious manner, while withholding further analysis until the end (Figure 3).
So who or what is the inner critical judge? Is it all bad? How do we eliminate it? My one year old grandson had the habit of picking up food from his tray and eating it. When he was full, or if he disliked the food, he would pick up the food and dump it onto the floor. To train him to cease throwing food, my daughter-in-law would shake her pointer finger at him and say “No! No! No!” He responded by throwing the food, and then shaking his finger while exclaiming “nonono!” mimicking the same tone of voice as his mother. This adorable and humorous example serves to illustrate the birth of the critic.
Some, refer to the critic as part of the survivor brain. From the time they are babies, children learn to imitate the behavior of their primary caretakers. Babies survive by being adorable, so their caretakers bond and take care of them. In the event that the parents lose emotional control, becoming angry and abusive with the babies, despite the babies’ very normal behavior, babies (and children) eventually learn to cease the offending behavior. Or, when they cannot cease the behavior, children internalize the berating of the parents, and the feelings of hurt, shame, and anger created by the negative interaction. When the socialization process occurs in a loving and corrective manner the children stop the offending behaviors by learning to say “no” internally to themselves. When the process occurs with excessive anger, shaming, and unresolved parental emotional issues, children absorb toxic inner critics. In either case, children internalize the standards of behavior learned from their caretakers, which take on a life of their own, in the form of the inner critical judges.
Standards, in and on themselves, are actually good. I believe it is healthy and important to have a voice within that encourages you to achieve your best and to put in your best efforts. It is also healthy to be able to read social cues, and adjust your behavior to socially acceptable norms. The problem sets in when the critic becomes abusive to the self or others. Abusive inner critics are ones that are likely to censor and denigrate the self, and then are prone to defending the self from criticisms that are expressed by others. And often, the best defense is a strong offense.
Seventeen year old Alana berated herself regularly about how fat and ugly she was (Figure 4). She told herself that she was totally worthless. She promised herself that she would go on a diet and lose weight. Then, she would break down and overeat junk food. After her binge, she would feel like a complete and utter loser. Yet, when her parents attempted to talk with her about her poor food choices, Alana counter attacked with tearful complaints that they were mean, they didn’t understand, and that they were just too controlling (Figure 5). Alana’s inner critic demonstrates the concept that she is free to attack herself. Yet, if anyone else offers any criticism, Alana’s critic defends her core self vehemently.
I instructed Alana to close her eyes, breathe deeply and visualize that we are sitting in the front row of the auditorium viewing the divided stage. First, she was asked to imagine that she was raiding the refrigerator late at night, eating foods that are known to be unhealthy and fattening, within the outer world portion of the stage (Figure 6). Next, she was asked to shift her gaze and to describe what she saw on the inner world stage. Not surprisingly, she saw herself sitting slumped, feeling low and worthless (Figure 7). I shared that I saw two parts of her, the one she described, and an inner critic that was berating her for having no control. When prompted, Alana visualized her inner critic, herself with an authoritarian and stern demeanor. It was clear that the defeated self could not protect herself from the shame that the critic was heaping.
Alana, sitting in the audience, objectively described the critic as mean. We began a conversation with the critic in which we expressed curiosity as to why she was being mean to Alana. The critic conveyed her frustration with this “loser”. In a stern voice, she expressed that she was trying desperately to help Alana lose weight, and that all of her efforts were wasted. We empathized with the critic’s frustration and observed that the critic seemed to want to assist Alana in weight-loss. The critic definitely agreed that she was trying to aid Alana. We asked the critic if her efforts were successful, and she replied that she had tried everything, and nothing worked. That’s why she resorted to shaming Alana and to believing that she was, in fact, a loser (Figure 8).
The director, with my coaching, empathized with the critic’s frustration. We gained permission to attempt some other strategies, since the critic’s efforts were unsuccessful (Figure 9). The director asked the defeated self what her goal was. The defeated self said she really wanted to lose some weight, but absolutely couldn’t follow through with the plans devised by the critic. We explored and created a plan that the defeated self could implement: Alana would eliminate all sugary drinks in the following week. This became the start of Alana devising and following through with additional successive plans. With each success, Alana was coached to nurture herself with inner praise (Figure 10). With time, Alana, succeeded in losing the excess weight and feeling much better about herself.
Alana’s case demonstrates an inner critic that desires to protect the self, by reprimanding and criticizing it, but ends up harming it with its harsh and demeaning manner. Coaching the director to question the critic in a non-judgmental manner leads the critic to quieting, so that the director can begin to attempt newer solutions. As new solutions are successfully implemented, the nurturer takes on a larger role in praising and building the self-esteem of the self. The critic learns to offer feedback in a manner that helps self-correction, without damaging the core self.
Dr. Tamara Sofair-Fisch is a NJ licensed Psychologist with practices in West Orange (973) 669-3333 and Lawrenceville, NJ (609) 883-2577. In addition to helping numerous individuals and couples, she teaches and trains licensed therapists in her unique approach: Mapping and Mastery of the Inner World. To learn more, visit www.RelationshipSolutionsNJ.com or contact her at DrTamara@RelationshipSolutionsNJ.com.
1All names and identifying information have been changed. In fact, cases presented are often a composite of characteristics from various individuals.