Before we dive into talking about the inner critic, if you need a refresher on CPTSD, you can click here. People who have CPTSD have a very loud inner and outer critic. For this post, we're going to be focusing solely on the inner critic: why it exists in people who have CPTSD, what it does, and how to shrink it.
When people grow up in homes that are dangerous, it creates a flashback-inducing critic. This danger can come from homes that are filled with neglect or passive abandonment, or active abuse/abandonment. When parents aren't able to provide their children with emotional connection and safe bonding, the child lives in a constant state of fear and anxiety. To compensate for this, children usually adapt to it through perfectionism.
To put it simply, "the inner critic is the superego gone bad" (Walker, 2013, p. 168). The superego and the inner critic are put into overdrive, constantly attempting to win the approval of the parents. When the perfectionism attempts of the child don't win over the parents' approval, the inner critic becomes a hostile, loud, internal voice that manifests self-hate, self-abandonment, and self-disgust. The inner critic blames the child for the parents' rejection.
When children are traumatized, hypervigilance becomes their best friend due to an over-aroused sympathetic nervous system. They're constantly looking for danger that comes from an over-exposure to real danger. In order to protect themselves from real danger, they've had to learn to become hypervigilant; it's engrained in them and how they see the world.
Just for a moment, imagine constantly assessing the faces and body movements of other people. Not just your friends, but also random strangers in a grocery store. You're trying to read their facial expressions to see if they disprove of something, approve of something, or are about to physically hurt someone. Your nervous system is always engaged, moving back and forth rapidly between fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing the person, just so that you can stop feeling like you're in danger. The PTSD part of CPTSD comes in because the child (now adult) felt like they were constantly under attack. This is an absolutely exhausting way for someone to live, and it takes a heavy toll on the body.
14 Common Inner Critic Attacks & How to Shrink Them
Thanks to the incredible work of Pete Walker, LMHC, and his research on CPTSD, let's talk about 14 of the common inner critic attacks someone with CPTSD faces that he documented in his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (2013). Each inner critic attack comes with a few ways you can combat it when it happens.
Perfectionism - Perfectionism arose in childhood as a way to gain support and safety from the dangerous family. It's a self-persecutory myth; you don't have to be perfect to be loved and safe right now. Remind yourself that every mistake in life is an opportunity to practice self-love and reflection.
All-or-None & Black-and-White-Thinking - Over-generalized descriptions, judgments, and criticisms are common themes in inner critic attacks. If something bad happens to you, it doesn't mean you're stuck there forever. Inner critic statements that use "always" or "never" are inaccurate and untrue.
Self-Hate, Self-Disgust, & Toxic Shame - Turn shame back into blame, and feel that shame and disgust towards your abusers, not towards yourself. Your emotional responses are normal, and you don't need to accept being shamed for feeling depression, sadness, fear, or anger.
Micromanagement/Worrying/Obsessing/Looping/Over-Futurizing - Jumping to negative conclusions or over-examining every detail of something is a common inner critic attack. The past can't be changed, and you don't need to second-guess yourself. You can't make your future safe. Let go of trying to control what can't be controlled, and release attempting to micromanage yourself or other people. Accept what is "good enough" and that sometimes, your efforts in life bring about the results you desired, and sometimes they don't...and that's okay.
Unfair/Devaluing Comparisons to Others or to Your Most Perfect Moments - It's common for people with CPTSD to expect themselves to always be performing at their highest capability. In our society, we're pressured to feel happy all the time, and if we don't, something's wrong with us. Don't beat yourself up for having a bad day, and don't compare yourself unfavorably to someone else. Pete Walker likes to say, "don't compare your insides to their outsides" (p. 171).
Guilt - When we feel guilty, it doesn't mean we are guilty. Don't allow yourself to make decisions or choices from guilt. It's okay to feel the guilt and do it anyway. If you do end up hurting someone, apologize, make amends, and move forward. Let go of that guilt. You don't need to apologize over and over because you aren't a victim, and you don't need to accept any blame that's unfair. Guilt is commonly fear that's camouflaged: "I feel guilty and afraid, but I'm not guilty or in danger" (p. 171).
"Shoulding" - Often times, when we do something, it's because we feel like we should do it. Try replacing the words "want to" for "should", and see if it feels true for you: do you feel like you want to do this thing, or do you feel like you should do it? Unless you're under a legal, ethical, or moral obligation, try releasing the things you feel like you "should" do.
Over-Productivity/Workaholism/Busyholism - "You're a human being, not a human doing" (p. 171). You don't always need to be productive. When you're able to balance work and play, you're actually more productive in the long run. It's impossible to perform at 100% all of the time. A more realistic approach is realizing that our ability to be effective and productive exists along a continuum.
Harsh Judgments of Self & Others/Name-Calling - The criticism and blame your inner critic is placing on you rightly belongs on your caretakers, not on yourself or the current people in your life. Don't allow the bullies and critics of your early life win by agreeing and joining with them.
Drasticizing/Catastrophizing/Hypochondriasizing - You may feel afraid, but you're not actually in danger. You're not in trouble with your parents. You don't have to scare yourself with images and thoughts of your life deteriorating. You don't need to keep creating these home-made horror movies or disaster films. You don't need to keep turning every bodily ache or pain into a story about your demise. Right now, you are at peace, and you are safe.
Negative Focus - It's easy to focus on the negative, but you can renounce dwelling on what's wrong with you or your current life. Notice your positive attributes, talents, qualities, and accomplishments. Look around you and take in all the gifts life has given you, like nature, music, movies, friends, pets, colors, food, etc.
Time Urgency - People who grew up in dangerous homes commonly experience this sense of time urgency; they had parents who were always rushing to get nowhere, or quickly moving throughout the house with feelings of chaos surrounding their every movement. Take a breath; you don't need to rush. You're not in danger. Unless it is a true emergency, you don't need to hurry. Learn to enjoy doing your daily tasks at a relaxed pace.
Disabling Performance Anxiety - You don't have to allow fear to make decisions for you. Even when you're afraid, you can protect yourself against unfair criticism from someone else.
Perseverating About Being Attacked - This goes back to constantly being hypervigilant. Unless there are clear signs of danger, you can stop your thought-projection of your past bullies/critics onto other people, including strangers you see in a grocery store. The vast majority of mankind are peaceful people. If threatened by the few people who aren't peaceful, you have legal authorities and others to keep you safe and protect you.
There is Hope
If you have CPTSD, you likely have a very loud inner critic. It's exhausting living with a voice so loud in your head. Remember, your inner critic isn't actually you. It's the voice of your abusive caretakers or parents.
If you've had any of these type of inner critic attacks listed above, I want to encourage you to focus on what's written about each attack and repeat it to yourself, over and over. You can even use first person to make it more impactful.
Our brains have the ability to grow and change throughout our lives. Old, self-destructive patterns can be replaced with newer, healthier ones. The inner critic can be shrunk.
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.
At Root Counseling, our primary work is centered around CPTSD and attachment. We're passionate about helping clients break free from their inner and outer critic and living a life they deserve. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.