Connecting to your "Inner Critic" using Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Updated: Jan 22
The COVID-19 Pandemic stay-at-home orders and lockdowns meant that most venues were shut and people couldn't go anywhere or have their friends or family over. This placed an enormous burden on people’s coping capacity because it meant you aren’t really seeing that many people in face-to-face, and you were deprived of external support and the distractions of the outside world. We as a species are literally wired for close connection with others, and that was being prevented in the service of public health. It also means that people spent more time on their own. While for some this was a gift, for others with difficult personal histories this can be brutal, particularly if one has a quite well developed “Inner Critic” which makes a lot of time alone torturous.
In reality, a harsh Inner Critic might have some very short-term motivational pay offs, but it doesn’t really make us productive in the long-term. In fact, it can actually be quite debilitating for someone to live with their Inner Critic long-term and it can impair and restrict us in ways we're most likely not always aware. Indeed, there’s a lot of research out there that indicates that self-criticism tends to be a component of many high prevalence mental health challenges, such as depressive, anxiety issues, and phobias.
As well as the assumption of multiplicity of mind, Internal Family Systems Therapy assumes that all Parts of the personality have a positive intention for us. This is a very different perspective than most theories of mind that see self-criticism as pathological and use various techniques to attempt to suppress or push it away. In Internal Family Systems, we actually do the opposite and try to get really curious about the Inner Critic to begin to understand that this critical part is actually working very hard to protect us. The Part says all those mean things with the best intentions and it honestly believes it is helping us.
So, practically, how can we begin to connect with the Inner Critic and actually learn what it wants for us, and maybe even actually befriend it?
1. Using the IFS protocol, we attempt to find the Part in or around your body. So we attempt to focus our attention internally, and try and conceptualise the part either getting a mental image of something, a memory of when the Part was really active, or a body sensation related to the Part (e.g., slouched posture, tension in an area of your body). Then you can focus on the Part to find out more about it. How old does it feel? What does it look like? Does it sound familiar? Perhaps it sounds like a person from your past, a parent, or an ex-partner. Maybe it sounds like someone currently in your life?
2. Once you've conceptualised the Part, you can then check and see how you “feel towards” the Part? Do you like it, or not like it? Do you want it gone, or want it to stick around to get to know it? This is where it gets tricky because if how you “feel toward” the part is anything but a form of curiosity, compassion, and/or interest, you can quickly get a sense that there are other Parts of the personality that are hating on the Part or don’t like it. If this is the case, you can gently ask these Parts to step back into a spectator role while you get to know the Inner Critic. The asking the parts to step back is key. Unlike other approaches, in IFS we never force anything to happen. If the Part/s that don’t like the Inner Critic won’t step back, we will ask them what they’re concerned about, and maybe spend some time getting to know them.
3. If you were able to get the Parts that didn’t like the Inner Critic to soften back, you can now ask the Inner Critic some questions from a place of curiosity and interest. Here are a few typical IFS questions to ask the Inner Critic:
“What is it you’d like me to know?”
“What are you afraid might happen if you stop being hard on me?”
“When you say critical things to me, how are you trying to help?”
4. As you maintain your compassionate and curious stance towards the Inner Critic, take as much time as you need to listen. Would you like to ask that part some other questions? Each time your critical Part answers a question, you can let it know that you heard it.
You’ll probably learn that your critical part is reacting from deep-seated fears. It’s trying to protect you from future harm. It wants to keep you safe. When you learn that your part wants to protect you, you may feel less likely to tell it to shut up and leave you alone. You might even begin to feel some compassion for the critical part because it’s always responding from a place of deep-seated fear, usually from a place of hurt.
As you become more familiar with when and how your critical parts show up, you can start responding differently. You can say something like, “I hear you. I know you’re worried I’ll make a mistake or get hurt by others, Thank you for your concern about me. Right now I’m going to ask you to step aside while I decide what I’m going to do.” You’re telling that part that you hear it. You are compassionately asking your critical part to let you - not it - decide what’s next.
Communicating with your Inner Critic using the IFS process takes some practice, but what can ultimately happen is that you’ll find it much easier to notice when it shows up and easier to connect with it to soften back. You may even find using this process the Inner Critic itself can soften and transform into an Inner Mentor or Inner Champion. This is really testament to power the power of the IFS process which encourages self-compassion as the default rather than self-criticism.