Understanding Your Inner Critic Using IFS

Jay Earley, PhD

Jeanette had a bad case of low self-esteem. When she was a child, all her teachers were puzzled by this. She was smart and musically gifted but had absolutely no confidence. She never auditioned for the orchestra or for school plays, even when she was encouraged to do so. As she got older, she ended up holding minimal jobs that didn’t come close to tapping her native talents. She just assumed that she wouldn’t amount to anything. Every time she had an inclination to reach out and try something challenging, she experienced a sinking feeling in her chest, and a gray cloud descended on her, leading her to give up on the idea.

One afternoon Jeanette’s friend Lynn was having a very bad day; she complained to Jeanette of heaviness in her heart, about a critical voice that she heard inside of her. Suddenly something clicked with Jeanette; she recognized the voice her friend was describing. It lived inside her, too! It was saying critical things like, “You aren’t any good. You can’t do it. Don’t even try.” She had always just assumed that this was the truth about her. She had never viewed these harmful messages as coming from a separate part of her psyche. She recalled how she longed to try out for high school musicals, but this other voice spoke so forcefully that she didn’t dare.

Jeannette had just met her Inner Critic.

Like Jeannette, many of us go through periods of believing there is something inherently wrong with us. When we explore inside, we too discover an Inner Critic. This part of us is responsible for our feelings of worthlessness. When we feel ashamed, hopeless, inadequate, or just plain awful about ourselves, it’s because our Inner Critic is attacking us. When we believe its words, we often feel worthless, ashamed, or depressed. Inner Critic attacks can also lead to performance fears, writer’s block, self-doubt, low self-esteem, guilt, obsessive thinking, or addictions.

Since the Inner Critic is one of the most difficult and tenacious issues that people face, Bonnie Weiss and I have collaborated on a serious study of how to work with and transform it. This course shows you how to address your Inner Critic using a powerful form of therapy: Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS). Developed by Richard Schwartz, this cutting-edge form of psychotherapy has been spreading rapidly across the country since 2000. IFS can help you transform your Inner Critic into an inner resource that supports and helps you.

When Jeanette started IFS therapy, exploring her psyche and gradually getting to know her Inner Critic, she discovered, to her amazement, that this part was actually trying to help her. Its attacks were really distorted attempts to protect her. It wanted to keep her safe from failure and humiliation, and it figured that the best way to do so was to prevent her from ever trying anything difficult. It accomplished this by constantly judging and discouraging her.

Once Jeanette realized her Inner Critic’s positive intent, she was no longer angry at it. She began to understand it and treat it more kindly. As she developed a friendlier attitude toward her Inner Critic, it became more reasonable and was willing to let her in to dialogue with it.

Exploring further, Jeanette discovered another part of her: a young-child part who received the Inner Critic’s negative messages, believed its judgments, and felt worthless, defeated, and hopeless. We call this part the Criticized Child. Jeanette learned that she could also relate to this part of her and befriend it from a place of love and compassion. Using the IFS process, she accessed childhood memories about the origin of her Criticized Child—memories of being judged and dismissed and made to feel worthless. Jeanette then healed her Criticized Child through her love and helped it to release its feelings of shame and worthlessness. Her Inner Critic then receded into the background and caused less trouble in her life.

In addition, Jeanette discovered a helpful aspect of herself, one that we call the Inner Champion, which has the capacity to support and encourage us in the face of Inner Critic attacks. Jeanette’s caring Inner Champion told her that she had a lot of talent and could accomplish great things in the world. She was able to develop and strengthen this Inner Champion and learned to evoke it when necessary and take in its support.

Her Inner Champion said, “You are OK just the way you are. You can do it. I’m proud of you.” Hearing these messages helped Jeanette to take the risk to develop her musical talent and go to auditions. At long last, she moved ahead professionally in a career that she really loved. As her Inner Champion took over from her Inner Critic, she became happier and self-confident enough to pursue her dreams.