• Sean Cuthbert

Types of "Inner Critic" in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Parts that act as “Inner Critics” (using IFS language), appear to be a somewhat universal experience. In their milder manifestation, parts that criticise can be beneficial for you when they allow for the acknowledgment of mistakes and errors or the cultivation of positive change and humility. Like all parts in IFS, “Inner Critics” have value and a positive intention. It’s when an “Inner Critic” moves into an extreme role, they can start to impede the individual’s ability to thrive, and the possible benefits of self-criticism may be overshadowed by possible harm to one’s well-being through internal turmoil.

“Inner Critics” often have their roots in negative experiences with caregivers in childhood. It is now well accepted in attachment research that your relationships with your caregivers has a significant effect on your future relationships, both with the internal system (i.e. your parts), and external people. When parents provide a safe environment, give their children autonomy, appropriate independence, and allow them to make mistakes without being punitive, children are more likely to develop self-confidence and grow up with a strong sense of security, and internal trust regarding their choices. Parenting styles which may be controlling and overly rigid may have the effect of fostering negative self-perceptions and a low sense of self-worth. You may be more likely to grow up to develop extreme “Inner Critics” if you grew up in an environment where you were criticised or rejected by your caregivers, and therefore missed out on being consistently treated with warmth and compassion (which may mean that their caregivers have their own extreme “Inner Critics”).

Pioneering IFS Therapists, Dr Jay Early and Bonnie Weiss, have researched the phenomena of the “Inner Critic” and come up with seven types of these extreme parts:

The Perfectionist. This is one of the most common types of Inner Critic and its positive intent is usually something around trying to get you to do things perfectly to protect you from the judgement of others. Often these perfectionistic parts will have great difficulty in finishing something or putting it out into the world, believing that some added tinkering will make it better in the service of increasing your protection from negative feedback.

The Inner Controller. This critic is usually one that tries to control addictive impulses such as eating, drinking, drugs, sexual activity. It usually is polarised with a Firefighter (reactive) who it fears will take the person over and wreak havoc at any moment.

The Taskmaster. This type of critic pushes you to work hard to become successful in society. It is often polarised with a Procrastinator part that wants to give you a break so takes them off into distracting activities (like a Youtube rabbithole). This Taskmaster often acts undetected as its outcomes are often heavily rewarded by society. It ultimately holds extreme fears that you may be pretty lazy and will be judged as a failure if it does not push you to keep going.

The Underminer. This critic often will try and undermine your efforts and drain your self-esteem so that you won’t take any risks. This part may make brutal attacks on you with the positive intent of keeping you small and not take chances where you may experience negative feedback or failure, thereby avoiding the potential pain of this.

The Destroyer. This may be one of the most destructive critics as it makes continued pervasive attacks on your self-worth, showering you with shame and making you feel inherently flawed. My experience of clients where The Destroyer is very active, they will compulsively apologise for themselves (and their very existence) or their posture will be slumped to avoid eye contact. They often have histories of extreme trauma (physical, sexual, emotional) and their Destroyer parts hold beliefs around it being safer or more preferable to not exist.

The Guilt-Tripper. This critic can take various forms. On the one hand it may hold you accountable for hurting others by making sure that behaviour/action is often front of mind in the service of that behaviour not being repeated. It may also hold fears about you being outcast as it holds you to standards of behaviour set by your family, community, or cultural group.

The Conformist. I see this critic as closely related, and often working with The Guilt-Tripper. The Conformist wants you to be part of a group, and seeks to get you to be liked/admired as a way to protect against abandonment. This critic will often be polarised with parts that rebel or seek to act outside group norms, fearing that you’ll be rejected or abandoned. This may be particularly true in families where being your true self has been discouraged or actively punished.

As you go through these descriptions of types of “Inner Critics”, you may like to check in and notice what’s happening inside as you read. You may notice parts of you right now that are judging or criticising these “Inner Critics”. A common phenomena in working with critics in IFS is that these critics will often get a lot of hate from other parts of the internal system, or these parts have their own critic parts that criticise them. Think of it like a line of people, each yelling at the one in front of them! This may seem overly complex (and it is, because everyone’s neurobiology is complex), but usually all you need to do is work with the first critic and/or the one that criticises it to start to create space for the internal relationships to be different.