"An unrelenting Critic hinders the healthy self-examination we require for growth."

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Episode 110 -- May 3, 2021

Inner Critic: Your Own Worst Enemy

In her book Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You, therapist and author Darlene Lancer draws from her personal experiences with codependency and shame as well as her experience helping clients uncover and recover their true self. Lancer shares her own journey of healing—how she progressed from not valuing herself outside of her dependent roles to becoming more assertive and improving her self-esteem. Lancer offers an in-depth look at shame as a primary cause of codependency and addiction, and outlines tools to connect with our real self and move toward positive change.

This excerpt challenges us to examine our childhood—connecting the dots on how lingering past traumas can impact our adult lives. Use this excerpt to develop empathy for the child you were, who embodies your real self. This is an important step to further accept yourself and overcome shame.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

The Developing Self
Most psychologists would argue that a distinctive core self resides within each of us that, under optimal conditions, manifests our innate potential. Just as an apple seed planted in nutrient-rich soil grows into a fruit-bearing tree, so it is with each of us. The type of fruit we bear depends on our intrinsic gifts, genetics, and temperament. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney identified that core self as the real self, akin to the term "inner child" made popular by the addiction recovery movement.

If, as a child, we're allowed to be true to our real self, we express it in our adult life through our careers, hobbies, interests, personality, friendships, sense of humor, and a variety of other choices—whether deciding what to wear or whom to marry. Knowing our real self is important. It forms the foundation of our identity and keeps us true to our real purpose. The real self allows us to have full and meaningful lives and relationships.

But if our parents or parental figures deny, reject, or ignore parts or all of our real self, we adapt in ways that help us survive in our family environment by creating "unreal" identities. These manufactured identities camouflage and take us away from our real self, and they contribute to our misery in adulthood.

A Divided Self: The Inner Critic
Shaming, abuse, and real or perceived unfairness breed anger in us as children. However, when parents are manipulative, indifferent, inconsistent, or interfering, children may not express this anger due to dependency on them and their love. Expression of anger may also be disallowed or shame-bound. Without a loving connection to our parents, we turn this hostility against our real self, which we've come to believe is unworthy of love and respect. Our experience of shame is now intensified and self-perpetuated by a shaming, devaluing voice, usually of one of our parents, which takes up permanent residence in our mind as an inner critic. It's as if a record needle were stuck, forever skipping and replaying the same critical inner dialogue, often reminiscent of the parent's words. This voice continually attempts to turn us into our ideal self in a tone that ranges from mild frustration to one of malicious self-contempt. Whatever the tone, we live with a punitive, persecutory detractor in the background. This Critic, or inner judge, puts us in unending conflict with our real self, as the drama of our childhood unfolds internally.

In extreme cases, the Critic can overtake our personality to the point that we feel nothing good or worthwhile about ourselves. We're constantly disappointed in ourselves and see only flaws and failures. We no longer have access to our strengths or abilities and believe every one of the Critic's accusations as truth, and no one can convince us otherwise. The Critic compares us to others to reinforce evidence of our defectiveness.

Life with a harsh Critic can be paralyzing. The Critic can find fault with any thought, feeling, choice, or decision. Our self becomes divided into the judge and the judged, seemingly with no escape, and we're bound to the scrutiny of an unforgiving inner master. A robust Critic is unyielding and dogmatic, second-guessing everything. Codependents and perfectionists become afraid of making a "mistake" because the Critic is without tolerance or mercy, regardless of justification or relative considerations. It's easy for us to lose self-trust to the point that decisions and spontaneous action are impossible. Although we may be successful in our job or other roles, underneath festers the shame and anxiety that the Critic creates, forcing us to function from a weakened, divided self, without access to the real self for strength.

From childhood onward, the Critic expects the unattainable by insisting that we suppress authentic feelings and traits that conflict with our internal ideal. We conform to who it thinks we should be and what it believes we should feel, think, do, and need. This is true whether our ideal is someone strong and more powerful or someone self-sacrificing and cooperative. We suppress genuine feelings, such as fear or hurt in the former instance, and boldness or anger in the latter, to the degree required to measure up to our ideal. As a result, as codependents we strive to think, feel, and act the way we believe is "correct." When our actions don't match our expectations, or when our limitations prevent us from achieving our ideals, we're filled with shame. In actuality, we're expecting the impossible—to become someone other than ourselves.

Ordinary shame isn't projected onto others. However, as a defense to internalized shame, the Critic is judgmental and contemptuous toward others and also gets projected onto others if we imagine that we're being judged when we're not. Internalized shame sensitizes us to habitually feeling humiliated, rejected, and ashamed.

One reaction we may have to the Critic is to fight by disagreeing with it. Another is to disempower it and rebel against it like a teenager rebels against a strict parent. But these strategies don't help us. Instead, they can fuel self-hatred and damage our relationships. The consequences are also self-destructive. Many of us turn to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or codependent relationships to temporarily silence the enemy within, but our addiction only provides more ammunition for self-chastising and self-loathing.

An unrelenting Critic hinders the healthy self-examination we require for growth. In recovery, we need to take responsibility for our feelings and actions, and to the Critic this can feel like blame. Instead of gaining information in order to learn and change, the Critic triggers feelings of shame and the consequent defenses and reactions to it. Our self-judgment may be so overwhelming that we can't possibly assume responsibility for errors. I caution people in Twelve Step programs who are working Step Four that taking a personal inventory of their shortcomings can provide a feast for the Critic. Shame and self-criticism are rarely on the list. And even if they were, they would afford the Critic further evidence of inadequacy! If you're working through the Twelve Steps, talk about these concerns with your sponsor and ask him or her to help you identify where your inner Critic is getting in the way.

Questions for Reflection

  1. When you were growing up, was it safe to express your authentic or true self? Specifically, what did you hide? Recall your feelings about this.

  2. List your expectations regarding your ideal self—all the traits, values, skills, and behaviors you strive for. This isn't meant to include fantasies, such as being a billionaire or Hollywood celebrity, unless these are real goals that you expect of yourself. Can you accept who you are today, "as is"?

  3. What and who influenced you to strive toward this ideal?

About the Author:
Darlene Lancer is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 25 years of experience working with individuals and couples. She regularly gives seminars on self-esteem, relationships, codependency, and addiction.

Author of Codependency for Dummies, How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits, and 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, she has also published numerous articles as well as her own website, whatiscodependency.com.

Darlene lives in Santa Monica, California.

© 2014 by Darlene Lancer
All rights reserved