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

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.