How the inner critic hinders grieving (and anger)


The greatest hindrance to effective grieving is typically the inner critic.  When the critic is especially toxic, grieving may be counter productive and contraindicated in early recovery.  Those who were repeatedly pathologised and punished for emoting in childhood may experience grieving as exacerbating their flashbacks rather than relieving them.

I have worked with numerous survivors whose tears immediately triggered them into toxic shame.  Their own potentially soothing tears elicited terrible self attacks.  “I’m so pathetic! No wonder nobody can stand me!”  “God, I’m so unlovable when I snivel like this!” “I f@ckup then make myself more of a loser by whining about it!”  “What good is crying for yourself – it only makes you weaker!”

This later response is particularly ironic, for once grieving is protected from the critic, nothing can restore a person’s inner strength and coping capacity like a good cry.  I have defused active suicidality on dozens of occasions by simply eliciting the suffering person’s tears.

Angering can also immediately trigger the survivor into toxic shame.   This is often true of instances when there is only an angry thought or fantasy.  Dysfunctional parents, typically reserve their worst punishments for a child’s anger.  This then traps the child’s anger inside.

In the dysfunctional family however, the traumatising parent soon eradicates the child’s capacity to emote.  The child becomes afraid and ashamed of her own tears and anger.  Tears get shut off and anger gets trapped inside and is eventually turned against the self as self attack, self hate, self disgust and self rejection.  Self hate is the most grievous reenactment of parental abandonment…

Over time anger becomes fuel for the critic.. creating an increasingly dangerous internal environment. Anything the survivor says, thinks, feels, imagines or wishes for is subjected to an intimidating inner attack.

When we greet our own tears with self acceptance, crying awakens our developmentally arrested instinct of self compassion.  Once we establish self compassion through consistent and repeated practice, it becomes the cornerstone of an increasing self esteem.  When an attitude of self compassion becomes habitual, it can instantly antidote the self abandonment that so characterises a flashback.

(copywrite) Pete Walker : extracts from : Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving

Sick of blaming myself

“Shame is blame turned against the self.”  Our parents were too big and powerful to blame, so we had to blame ourselves instead.  Now, however we are free of them we can cut off the critic’s shame supply by redirecting unfair self blame back to our parents.

An inner critic that has dominated us since childhood, however, does not give up its rulership of the psyche easily.  It stubbornly refuses to accept the updated information that adulthood now offer the possibility of increasing safety and healthy attachment.  It is as if the critic has worn a flash back inducing groove in the brain the size of the Grand Canyon.  Now any (toxic, critic induced) thinking patterns… can hair trigger an amygdala-hijacking that dumps us into the abandonment melange…

With enouth healthy inner self defence, the survivor gradually learns to reject her unconscious acceptance of self abuse and self abandonment.  Her healthy sense of self protection begins to emerge and over time grows into a fierce willingness to stop unfair criticism – internal or external.

Pete Walker

I haven’t yet had the courage to write the post I have in drafts on internalising a ‘bad’ me yet.   I think I am making progress though because today with a genuine friend when I shared some of my neglect trauma history she was visibly distressed by it.  She made me realise those three serious injuries which happened due to parental neglect were not right by her response and she stated how genuinely hard it must have been to return home to Australia after my father’s death to find my mother had gone into a rebound relationship to get married and run from her pain (Something she admitted to me in later years) and have to move to another town where my God parents tried to step in to be there for me.

Lately I am seeing how my ongoing battle inside myself is waged by an internalised inner critic and when I was listening to the Radio National All in the Mind broadcast on trauma the other day a similar survivor talked about her own internalised ‘Judge’.   I know therapist Pete Walker talks a lot about the inner and outer critic in his excellent book Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving.  

Walker explains the part this judge, jury and executioner plays in flashbacks dominated by fear and worry and how it can either be internalised (turned against the self) or externalised and then projected on others.  The critic also plays a part in trying to undermine our therapy and prevent connecting with good sources of help, health and healing.   This is a point that was dealt with comprehensively by Donald Kalsched in his excellent book The Inner World of Trauma.  He explained how this kind of critic may also be an inner protector who in wanting to keep us safe from all harm won’t even let in those who want to help us, because the risk is we may be abandoned again.

I could feel this sadness about potential abandonment coming up today when my friend who has moved from South Africa recently started talking about how soon she will be returning there, then in several months time, moving with her son and his family to Perth which for those of you who do not know is on the other side of the country from me.  I felt myself tearing up at this point.   This is the one friend who actually calls in terms of wanting to know how I actually am, as opposed just to wanting to meet up for an event.   She is the one I can share with honestly the deep hurt I feel from lack of connnection from both my sister and brother as well as the rest of the family….so of course I am going to be sad about it.

I was glad today I could notice my feelings and not dismiss them.  She has promised to keep in touch and that I can go and visit.  I know it won’t be the same not being able to see her every week…. for so much of my life, though I had to deny my need, I had to pretend such things didnt hurt me, when they did. That said I know I will survive it’s just I know I also need loving emotionally available relationships to thrive these days.  I am no longer blaming myself as much and when the critic is around I am not as swept up by him as I was.  I really did suffer from emotional neglect and so I found it hard to trust and I have been working as hard as I can be become conscious and aware of my feelings and needs, ones that I had to learn to deny for so long.

The connection between pain, hurt and the critic : reflections on Mercury Retrograde in Virgo.

Has anyone been especially aware of the critic in themselves and others over the past week or two?  The critic has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks.  I have been watching my own criticism and judgement towards myself and others.  I am usually fairly tolerant and like to see both sides but I must also own that I am at times a pretty impatient person.  I have issues when I think people fail to show consideration for others on the road or if they seem to be dawdelling, but I am aware that my idea of something dragging the chain may be someone else’s idea of a relaxing drive.

This week in Australia a controversial episode of the social experiment Married At First Sight was screened on national television.  This episode was controversial as there was a passionate exchange which involved one of the participants stepping all over the boundaries of another and then criticism and aggression came into the mix as a result, things escalated when the person aggressively pursuing their own agenda incited the ire of the person whose boundaries were being pushed, more criticism was levelled against him (unfair, undue, unwarranted) and the person being pushed challenged the partner of the other one to ‘take it outside’.  He was then talked down by the other male participants.

The episode evoked a storm of comments on social media, most siding with the person who under threat of having his personal boundaries stepped all over took up the challenge and got aggressive.   However others accused this guy of being a thug, using aggression and all sorts of accusations were levelled against him.  The person who stepped over his boundaries also received a lot of criticism as well as a lot of name calling.

Much as I sided with the guy who in getting his boundaries validated arked up in response to more damaging criticism from those who did not know him, I was not really comfortable with all of the criticisms levelled against the other female participant who in choosing to bear all about the details of her and her partners sexual involvement on the first night of the experiment evoked the ire of a large part of the Australian population. Being able to read through all of the comments on Facebook to me was a very interesting exercise in how the critic functions when we see something happening that we don’t like and we want to justify our own take on things.

It really got me to thinking about how we can set up divides.  How the ego when hurt or challenged will fight back.  I felt angry myself that some people could not see that the person evoked to aggression was on some level justified.  He had his boundaries trampled on.  His partner got up and left him alone in it. He was cruelly judged and name called.  He was really just trying to defend himself.  He probably didn’t handle it in the best way but in the face of what I saw as narcissistic abuse he was trying to express valid frustration.  I was aware when I started to get very involved in the comment stream myself that it was triggering something deeply for me.  I had been in that guy’s position many times, judged or criticised by people when they did not understand the full spectrum of what I was dealing with.

It was heartening to see the support for this person on social media by most people who understood his position and were empathetic.  There were those there who wanted to lambast him and one woman accused him of being an abuser, which frankly I could just not see.  He had treated his partner with respect and part of the reason he got so upset was the this desire to maintain their privacy was not respected by the other person.  But I still did not think that she needed to be judged for choosing to pursue a  sexual relationship on the first night and I don’t think some of the nasty comments made about her were fair.

The whole thing has died down a little now but it really got me to thinking about the function of the critic, how tied into hurt the critic is.  When we feel hurt we are more likely to criticise.  And there are discriminative functions of our being which need to operate and act to keep us safe from harm and protected to demark the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable for us.  If we just abandon our discriminative function we end up without a functioning ego that can keep us together and moving in the direction that we need for physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health.

We are deep in Virgo territory at the moment and the sign of Virgo being ruled by Mercury the energy of mind and perception is highlighted now.  Mercury (along with Mars) also rules our movements and choices powered by desire and discrimination.  With this sign highlighted there is concern with the operation of the daily discriminations that we make in order to keep our life functioning at an optimum level.  What time do we choose to get up?  What fuel do we decide to give our body?  Who do we choose to interact with today?  Do we need time to connect or time to be alone?  Can we share this part of ourselves with that person?  If so how much should we share?  Is it a time to rest or to move?  Should we take action on that concern or just sit with it in order to get a better perspective on the issue?  How did we feel when that person said that too us?   How can we deal with our feelings well?   How can we take care of ourselves and show compassion, discrimination and love?

Over the next few days Mercury in Virgo will be moving backwards to form a conjunction with the Sun at 20-21 degrees of this sign.  This may be a time of growing insight or a time in which a seed is planted.  That c0njunction (called in astrology the inferior conjunction) takes place midway through the Mercury Retrograde cycle.  The full Moon Lunar eclipse takes place opposing this in the sign of Pisces on the 16fh of September three days later.

In thinking about what this full moon opposition to Mercury and the Sun in Virgo might mean we must also take into account that the Moon will be meeting up with Chiron in the sign of Pisces.  The wounding power of our words will be highlighted during this full moon which in being a lunar eclipse means the bringing to light of some areas of our mind that may have lived in the shadows.  We may find ourselves on the receiving end of criticism, or we may be feeling especially critical either of ourselves or others.  This criticism might not be all bad, there may be elements of discrimination contained within it.   Things we need to see or adjust to keep our lives growing and functioning better.

Virgo is for me the sign of adjustment.  In the 360 degree phase it rules what astrologers call the waxing  inconjunct, this Virgo ruled phase of the cycle is where two or more opposing energies need to make adjustments to each other, but the adjustment comes before a fuller insight occurs, which takes place in the next phase related to Libra and the opposition.  Seeds of awareness are growing within us now about how our discriminative faculties may have been wounded or affected by criticisms or perceptions born our of past pain. We may get insights how we react when we are in pain or how pain is projected through criticism or misunderstanding, an inability as yet to see things from the other person’s side.

This is what I have seen playing out over the past week within the context of the Married At First Sight social experiment programme and in the communities reaction to it.  It will be interesting to see what plays out this week as things unravel or progress on the programme.  I believe we can learn much about ourselves in seeing how others relate and how we react to what they go through, how their wounds are stirred, how they respond when they are and how fuel is added to the fire or how the burning embers of the fire are husbanded and contained through the powers of empathy, understanding, love and discrimination.






The awful power of the inner critic

When parents do not provide a safe enough bonding and positive feedback, the child founders in anxiety and fear.  Many children appear to be hard wired to adapt to this endangering abandonment with perfectionism.

A prevailing climate of danger forces the child’s superego to over cultivate the various programs of perfectionism and endangerment listed below.  Once again, the superego is the part of the psyche that learns parental rules in order to gain their acceptance.

The inner critic is the superego gone bad.  The inner critic is the superego in overdrive desperately trying to win your parents’ approval.  When perfectionistic striving fails to win welcoming from your parent, the inner critic becomes increasingly hostile and caustic.  It festers into a virulent inner voice that increasingly manifests self hate, self disgust and self abandonment.  The inner critic blames you incessantly for your shortcomings that it imagines to be the cause of your parent’s rejection.  It is incapable of understanding that the real cause lies in your parents shortcomings.

As a traumatised child, your over-aroused sympathetic nervous system also drives you to become increasingly hyper-vigilant.  Hyper-vigilance is a fixation on looking for danger that comes from excessive exposure to real danger.  In an effort to recognise, prevent and avoid danger, hyper-vigilance is ingrained into your approach to being in the world. Hyper-vigilance narrows your attention into an incessant, on guard scanning of the people around you.  It also frequently projects you into the future, imagining danger in upcoming social events. Moreover, hyper-vigilance typically devolses into intense performance anxiety on every leve of self-expression.

Pete Walker, Shrinking the Inner Critic, in Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving

In this particular excerpt, Pete Walker goes onto explain how in childhood if we are traumatised or neglected a healthy ego gets no chance to form.  We don’t get to develop a realistic sense of our true gifts and limits, in addition we tend to develop a chronic unconscious feeling of Toxic Shame.which unconsciously drives our behaviour in many ways.  In toxic shame we develop the unreal belief that we are fundamentally flawed.  We escape from the true reality of how we were painfully abandoned, often we are not allowed to know this was true.  In addition we may be shamed for healthy assertions of anger or protest and so our anger becomes bound in shame.  Indeed we can be shamed for all of our deep feelings, sadness, anger, joy, excitement.

At the same time we develop a relentless internalised critic that runs an ongoing campaign against our True Self.  It also induces in us emotional flashbacks,  where difficult and painful incidents of our past flood our present time awareness when triggered by thoughts about something we have done (for example spilling a glass of water) and launches into an all out attack upon us.  When we have been emotionally abandoned or neglected we are far more likely to set up relentless standards of perfection as a defence against feeling how painful it was not to have been loved unconditionally.

In his book Pete Walker outlines the 14 common ways the inner critic attacks us and tries to convince of immanent disaster accompanying any acts of empowerment or self assertion.  (Please note there is a much more comprehensive listing associated with each of the 14 types which you will find in the book).

Recovery involves understanding when we are being assailed by the inner critic or what psychologist Robert Firestone has called Destructive Thought Processes.

  1. Perfectionism (inner self persecution).
  2. All or None & Black and White Thinking (eg. your NEVER get it right)
  3. Self Hate, Self Disgust & Toxic Shame
  4. Micromanaging/Worrying/Obsessing/Looping/Over Futurizing
  5. Unfair/Devaluing Comparisons to others or to your own most perfect moments.
  6. Guilt
  7. “Shoulding”
  8. Over productivity/Workaholism/Busyholism
  9. Harsh Judgments of Self & Others/Name Calling
  10. Drasticisizing/Catastrophizing/Hypochondriasising
  11. Negative Focus
  12. Time Urgency’
  13. Distablising Performance Anxiety
  14. Perservating (projecting the idea of).. Being Attacked.

It took some years into my own recovery to become aware of the power of the destructive inner critic within myself.  When I had reached the point of most complete isolation I  experienced countless lashings from my own inner critic.  And then I got into a relationship a narcissist and was on the receiving end of critical attacks from him which it has taken me many years to become aware were actually harsh projections and devaluing attacks which came out of his own rigid Inner Critic projected onto me.  (This was a familiar experience from my own childhood btw)

I had read about the power of Toxic Shame in the early years of my own recovery from addiction but not really aware of the connection between toxic shame and the awful power of the inner critic.  How I wish I had read Pete Walker’s book years ago.

The truth is we cannot thrive as individuals and as our True Self in a climate of perfectionism and shame.  When we are bound by Toxic Shame and punished by the Inner Critic we don’t get to develop a relationship with the Inner Child within us who was abandoned and is in dire need of our compassion, sensitivity to its true needs and empathy. We most certainly don’t get to experience our true feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, abandonment and pain, as often we will shame ourselves for any display of these emotions until we come to understand how valid they were as responses to what happened to us in childhood.  And I do believe that it not only the parents to blame for this development of the Inner Critic but damaging forces around us such as hostile siblings, peers and teachers.

Pete Walker’s advice for shrinking the inner critic is to use the full force of our anger and outrage at its abuse against the inner critic within us.  It is only through such an active self directed “stopping” of the relentlessly harsh, fixed, judgements of the perfectionist critic within that we get to heal and to reparent our lost Inner Child in the way that child most needed to be parented in childhood, but wasn’t.

This takes work, and it is work in which we need powerful allies in the outer world who have developed a healthier relationship with their True Self and Child Within.  I personally have experienced being toxically shamed by the Outer Critic of at least four therapists in the past (the Outer Critic is an issue for a separate blog).  I even experienced an incident of this last year with my current therapist.

When we have had a traumatising childhood we have often been emotionally abandoned. To survive we erected real defences against ever feeling this primitive level of abandonment, the four ‘F’ responses that I have outlined in recent blogs.  Healing means dismantling these to meet the child within in its deepest most profound feelings of distress, anger, sadness and pain and finding ways to hold, and feel this pain so we can know the truth of what we experienced as well as all we may have lost along the way from never developing a healthy relationship to our True inner self.

The awful cost of being held hostage by the Toxic Shame of the Inner Critic perhaps for years, even into our own recovery is massive in terms of loss of our power to practice self-love, self-understanding and self-compassion.  It also exerts a massive cost on our relationships and when we project our own inner critic onto others.  It seems to me that understanding the power of the Inner Critic is essential to ongoing mental and emotional health.

By all means we need to grow and acknowledged ways in which we need to change.  However, this will be much more possible when we are not held hostage by the Inner Critic but can instead show love for ourselves and others, empathy and compassion for the way in which the True Self can be wounded and its development arrested by a toxic Inner Critic.

Who becomes the scapegoat?


Another post that I wrote just over a year ago that never made it out of drafts:

The phenomena of the scapegoat and scapegoating fascinates me deeply.  Many years ago I was intrigued to come upon a book The Scapegoat Complex by Sylvia Bretton Perrera.

At the time I had been recovering from addiction and was learning that addictions are often an avenue the family scapegoat or scapegoat identified individual uses to cope with the relentless inner self criticism and pain of disconnection from and love of the True Self, that dogs those of us who were not able to fully express and develop the wholeness of our living being and emotions in a damaged family.

The family described in Perrera’s book is one that very much identifies with external collective mores of perfection, appearances and collective ideals, it is not one that allows for the reality and expression of deeper emotions such as sadness and anger.  This type of family demands of its members that they repress some of their psychic reality in order to belong and receive acceptance.  It is not okay to express intense emotions of anger or pain but other ways of being are highly validated, ones that do not threaten the parent with their own repressed feelings (the shadow).

There are those of us who are more likely to develop addictions due to the fact we have a higher level of sensitivity to the inner world and to intense emotions.  In the scapegoating family these emotions are ones the parents had to repress and which confront them with their own repressed shadow. The scapegoat individual is one who sees beneath the surface to the repressed feelings of the parent and by a form of participation mystique (exquisite sensitivity and attunement) begins to express them or act them out.  They may become the identified patient or “sick” one, really they are the one that has the most potential for wholeness.

The parent defends against the realisation of deeper truths and is confronted by the emotional honesty and attunement, or vulnerability of the child.  The child is punished by an accuser within the parent which is then internalised (taken within the self).  This is called an introject.   The parent denies the reality of the child which is invalidated.  This leads to the child beginning to doubt the self and its perceptions.

The psychologist R D Laing was one of the first to realise that such parenting can lead to schizophrenic conditions, a hearing of inner voices.  The further work of Robert Firestone has shown how the internalised critic with its destructive voice operates to wall the sufferer off from happiness, connection, intimacy and love.

Many years on the parent may be long gone from the scene but the accusing voice remains. The remorseless critic who invalidated the psychic reality of the True Self of the person and led the person to live as a False Self.  One cannot live within the psychic entrapment of the False Self for long without beginning to experience depression.  If one has been taught not to know and asserts one’s own true needs and feelings due to neglect or downright repression on behalf of the parent a feeling of lowered energy and vitality will occur.

In addiction when abused and criticised the self feels an outrage that may not be permitted expression, which is then internalised as further feelings of despair, powerlessness and depression.  In depression such as this is the longing for the True Self, the way to which is barred by the accusing voices.

Addictions can be a way we reach to self soothe.  Unfortunately addiction also numbs and masks the pain and arrests our emotional and psychological development.  Abuse is traumatising and trauma tends to make us want to escape.  Eventually if we want to heal we must learn to face and feel what we have been running from.  We cannot do this without love and support and validation.

In order to heal we need to learn about how the True Self within us has been invalidated.  What messages have we received that are not true, the lead us to hate ourselves, doubt ourselves, neglect ourselves, punish ourselves.

I have shared elsewhere that after my marriage ended after 11 years of sobriety and I went into a voluntary retreat due to abandoning my first attempt at therapy I began to hear the voice of the accuser talking to me.  I did a piece of writing called Destruction 11:11 in which the voice told me of its hatred, and that it wanted me dead.  It was an important piece of writing as it woke me up to many realisations about myself.  Reading Sylvia Bretton Perrera’s book at this time helped me to understand further.

Lately I have tried to address some issue with my abusers around lack of sensitivity, invasion of boundaries and invalidation.  It was a learning as I was yet again demonised for my anger which was seen to be wrong and attempts were made to shut me down by a number of means, emotional blackmail was used.  This encounter has firmed up my understanding that expression of self assertion and differentness in our family is not valued.  One is expected to toe the line and is rewarded for making sacrifices.  When one asserts any hurt attempts are made to deflect attention from the hurt.  In invalidating the anger the self is invalidated.

Usually I would buckle back under after one of these incidents.  Thank God for good therapy.  Understanding the impact of the scapegoat psychology and issues of shaming and repression has helped me to heal.  I am sharing about it here in hopes it can help others.