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  • Writer's pictureSean Cuthbert

Befriending your "Inner Critic" using Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy: a practical guide

Updated: Jun 10

Having an extreme Inner Critic has been strongly correlated in research with a range of psychological issues, such as depression, additive processes, eating disorders and anxiety. In much of my work with trauma and addictive processes, I would say every client presents with one or multiple brutal inner critics who are always at the ready to heap shame on the client (or parts of the client).

An Inner Critic in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

From an IFS perspective, the Inner Critic is often seen as a a harsh manager part of the client who seeks to hold the client accountable or blame them when they are not reaching their potential, or see other parts engaged in activities/behaviours that are a threat to this. The Inner Critic will then seek to fill the void between the ideal Self and the Real Self with harshness, the positive intent being to somehow use a shame based motivational system to get the person to the goal they are working towards.

In the befriending process in IFS, we invite the client to become curious about the Inner Critic. In opening up to the part in this way, we can start to ask it a series of questions such as: how is it trying to help us; what is so good about being really harsh; and, do you know who I am and how old I am now? Probably the most important piece of the puzzle of understanding where the harshness of this part comes from is asking the Inner Critic, where it learned to be so harsh? This is a question that really takes us deeper into the part’s origin story as it will show the client (if they can stay curious) the circumstances by which it learned to be so brutal. Obviously, the part will often show a parent who was overly harsh towards the client in childhood (and often the whole of the client’s life), but sometimes less obviously the part will show how a parent had their own Inner Critic that was brutal with them, and the client as a child was around this parent and even though they weren’t critical to the child, the child absorbed that this was a way to be with themselves.

When the client truly comes into connection with the Inner Critic by understanding its intent and the root of it’s being cast in the role, this opens up the possibility for the part to see that they are carrying energy from a difficult parent and may be causing harm to other parts of the system and actually facilitating the very thing (failure/underperforming) that they are scared of happening. It is at this point that the part may be able to open up to the idea that there is another way of achieving its intent (having the client reach their potential) in a way that the client’s Self actually prefers. At this point the Self can start to educate the Inner Critic through showing kind and supportive people who have been available that their system responded positively to, thereby tapping into their own innate inspirational/motivational drive to succeed.

Of course, client’s come to therapy with decades of their Inner Critic practicing harshness without any connection with the client’s Self, so this process requires repetition. However, with enough reorienting to the client’s Self and reinforcement of the connection, new possibilities can emerge. To illustrate how the interaction with an Inner Critic can go, here is an example:

Therapist: How are you experiencing that Inner Critic at the moment? Can you see it in an image, can you hear it’s critical words, or can you find it in your body somewhere as a physical sensation?

Client: Yeah, I can hear it’s words, it’s kind of saying that I’m stupid and I’ll fail.

Therapist: How do you feel towards the Critic?

Client: Oh, I hate it when it goes off (indicates another part that hates the Critic is present)

Therapist: Can you ask the one that hates the Critic to relax back a bit so we can get to know the Critic from an open place?

Client: Sure, the one that hates it will give me space to be with the Critic without it there.

Therapist: Great, so how do you feel towards the Critic now?

Client: A bit more open; I’m interested to know more.

Therapist: So, just let it know that and notice what it’s like for the Critic to have that openness and curiosity coming towards it, rather than those feelings of hatred it was getting from the other part.

Client: It likes it - it seems to quieten and soften a bit just as I send it those feelings.

Therapist: Great. So when you’re ready, maybe just invite the Critic to tell you more about itself, whatever it wants you to know.

Client: It’s saying that it wants me to do really well and it gets very activated when I don’t do something to the best of my ability or what it feels is the best of my ability.

Therapist: Ok great, so let it know you can notice that it has a positive intent for you; it really wants you to do really well…

Client: It really likes that I can see now how it’s trying to help.

Therapist: Ask it where it learned to be so harsh?

Client: My Dad. He was so verbally abusive, particularly when he was drunk.

Therapist: Ask it what it’s like for it to be carrying the energy of your Dad and saying all this negative stuff to you and have other parts maybe hate it for doing it?

Client: It actually feels really sick that it’s carrying all that energy from my Dad. It says it doesn’t like doing this and it’s tired yelling at me the whole time, and it feels very alone in there because other parts hate on it the whole time.

Therapist: So, just let it know you get that about it and maybe take a moment and really let it know you appreciate how hard it’s been working all this time (client sends the Inner Critic appreciation for the part’s hard work and positive intent).

Client: It initially said, it’s about time… but then it melted a bit and was really moved by getting that appreciation.

Therapist: Ask the part how old it thinks you are now…

Client: really young, like under 10 or something

Therapist: So take a moment and really update the part and let it know how old you are and all of the internal and external resources you have now as an adult that you didn’t have when you were 10

Client: (client spends time and orients the Inner Critic to their current life and responsibilities) The part is shocked, like its mouth is just wide open with amazement.

Therapist: Let it know that if it doesn’t want to do the job in the way it has all this time, it can choose another job inside you, or it can do something to achieve the same intent but in a way that is more helpful to you and less onerous for it.

Client: The part wants to be supportive and encouraging like my grandmother has always been very kind and supportive with whatever I wanted to do.

Therapist: So, just invite the part to practise doing that now inside you with you helping it learn how to do that, like you’re its coach

Client: (prolonged silence while Self and part practise the new role for Inner Critic) The part really likes that and finds supporting me in that way more energising rather than exhausting.

Therapist: So, just let the part know you and it are going to practice between sessions and it’s going to take some work because it’s been doing it the other way for a long time.

Client: It’s very keen. This is exciting!

This is a short sample of an interaction that can take place between the Client and their Inner Critic guided in IFS insight by the Therapist. Of course, these interactions can go smoothly, or they can be much more fraught with obstacles. For example, the client may not not have enough Self-energy available to interact with the Inner Critic and other parts who have feelings about the Inner Critic may come into disrupt the interaction. Or, the Critic may just have trouble letting go of their role because there is usually a degree of success in what they’ve been doing. Remember, harsh managers like the Inner Critic have been doing their job because they don’t feel like they have a choice, or they have never been given a viable alternative. Your role as the client is to intervene by noticing you and creating space for the possibility of something different.

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