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The Tale of the Inner Critic 🧠
Its Historical Roots, Neuroscientific Basis, and Evolutionary Role: A Comprehensive Guide (9min read)
Before We Dive In… I Need Your Help.
The inner critic concept traces back to ancient times and is integral to our brain's self-regulation.
From an evolutionary perspective, it's a survival tool promoting social conformity, risk mitigation, and learning.
Trauma can exacerbate the inner critic, leading to negative self-perceptions.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) methodology can transform the inner critic from a negative to a constructive voice.
This approach, supported by neuroscience and practical application, suggests the inner critic can be a valuable ally.
In every culture, across continents and generations, a constant, unyielding companion takes up residence within each of us.
The Inner Critic.
So, what gives? Where does it come from? Is it wired in to our Nervous Systems? Is it good or bad? What should we do about them?
These are the questions we’ll be answering in today’s blog… Welcome back to the Mind, Brain, Body Digest, let’s dive in.
The History of the Inner Critic
First of all, how long has the concept of the “Inner Critic” even been around?
A very, very long time…
Ancient Greece (400 BCE)
Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates provide some of the earliest known mentions of an "inner critic" or a concept like it.
Plato described the inner critic as a "daimon," or a divine spirit within each person, guiding them towards virtue.
Conversely, Socrates referred to it as a "gadfly," a persistent reminder to question authority and think critically.
Buddhism (5th Century BCE - Present)
Within Buddhism, the "monkey mind" concept serves as an early parallel to the inner critic.
The term depicts the unsettled, restless, or self-doubting part of our mind, constantly bouncing from thought to thought, much like a monkey leaps from tree to tree.
Christianity (1st Century CE - Present)
Christian theology's concept of conscience is another early form of the inner critic.
It serves as the moral faculty distinguishing right from wrong and stirs feelings of guilt when we engage in wrongful actions.
Dr. William James (19th Century)
Dr. James was the first to coin the term "inner critic" & believed it played an essential role in self-regulation and motivation but cautioned that an overly harsh inner critic could provoke anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Where Does the Inner Critic Come From?
To dive further into where the inner critic comes from, we’ll take a look at 3 areas I talk about a lot in this blog: Neuroscience, Psychology & Trauma!
The Neuroscience of the Inner Critic
From the lens of Neuroscience, the inner critic is best understood as a complex interplay of various neural networks in the brain, involving cognitive, emotional, and self-reflective processing.
Neuroscientific research suggests that the inner critic emerges from the intricate connections between the brain's frontal lobes, limbic system, and default mode network.
The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)
The PFC is the hub of cognitive control and executive function and it plays a pivotal role in directing our attention to “self-relevant” information.
The Limbic System
The limbic system, primarily the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), is central to our emotional responses.
The ACC complements the PFC’s functions by acting as the error detection and conflict monitoring hub of the brain.
Essentially, it's our personal alarm system, constantly evaluating whether our actions align with our goals, and alerting us when they do not.
These structures come into play when the inner critic triggers feelings of anxiety or inadequacy.
The Default Mode Network (DMN)
The DMN is a network of brain regions active when our minds wander and is involved in self-referential thinking, ruminations, and “narrative self-concept” or the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
Bringing It All Together
From a neuroscientific perspective, the inner critic can be seen as a tool our brain uses to ensure our behavior aligns with societal norms and personal standards.
It can be seen as a mechanism for self-regulation and self-improvement, motivating us to adapt and improve.
However, when this inner voice becomes overly negative or critical, it can lead to rumination, stress, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Research shows that excessive self-criticism is associated with hyperactivity in the default mode network and reduced connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system, leading to difficulty regulating negative emotions.
Evolutionary Psychology & the Inner Critic
So, that’s brain science, what about evolution & psychology?
From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, the inner critic likely served as an internal regulatory system, keeping us in line with societal norms and values.
The fear of exile or rejection from our group was a genuine threat to our survival back then.
Here are a couple of examples of this:
Survival and Group Harmony: The inner critic could be an evolutionary tool for social conformity, ensuring group inclusion by driving people towards accepted behaviors.
Risk Mitigation: It could also serve as a risk deterrent, encouraging caution and safe decision-making in the face of ancestral environmental uncertainties.
Learning Mechanism: This internal critic could aid learning by identifying mistakes for future behavioral adjustment, enhancing resource acquisition, mate attraction, or social navigation.
In today's world, the inner critic is a double-edged sword.
It’s an internal guide that can either sabotage or foster our personal growth, depending on how we interact with it.
How Trauma Shapes the Inner Critic
I’ve written & talked extensively about trauma.
One thing I have specifically hit on before though is the fact that a critical byproduct of trauma is often the formation or strengthening of an inner critic.
Early Childhood Trauma
Experiencing trauma, particularly in childhood, can shape the way we view ourselves and develop a harsh inner critic.
Why does this happen? Oftentimes for protection…
In situations of ongoing abuse or neglect, for instance, a child may internalize the idea that they are "bad" or "wrong" as a way to make sense of their caregiver's harmful actions.
If the child is bad, then there's a reason for the caregiver's behavior.
This twisted logic can create a sense of pseudo-control, as it's less terrifying to feel flawed and in control than to acknowledge that your caregiver, the person responsible for your safety, is unpredictable or harmful.
The Adult Inner Critic
Even as the child grows into an adult, this inner critic continues to echo the negative messages received in the past.
It perpetuates the belief that if only we can fix our faults, we can avoid harm and gain acceptance (ex. people pleasing).
It can also be a preemptive form of self-protection.
It tries to shield us from potential external criticism or rejection by keeping us in a state of constant self-correction.
By being the first to judge and criticize, it aims to spare us the pain of hearing these criticisms from others.
In these ways, the inner critic, once a protective ally, becomes an internal tormentor, holding us back from healing and growth.
What to Do About the Inner Critic
The most effective methodology I’ve ever found to create a positive relationship with your inner critic is Internal Family Systems (IFS).
From the perspective of IFS, the inner critic is seen as a subpersonality, or "part," that holds a particular role within the person's mental system.
Within the IFS framework, the inner critic is understood as a "manager" part.
Manager parts work hard to keep us in control and strive to prevent feelings of vulnerability or emotional hurt.
As we’ve seen the inner critic can seem adversarial, but in IFS, it’s approached it with curiosity and compassion, so we can recognize its protective intentions.
Meaning, this part believes it's keeping us safe by maintaining control, even if its methods often lead to pain and self-doubt.
The goal of IFS isn't to eliminate or silence the inner critic but to transform its role through healing and self-compassion.
The IFS Inner Critic Process
1. Identifying the Inner Critic
This involves becoming aware of when the inner critic shows up and recognizing its patterns of thought.
Find it in or around your body, it may manifest as an ache, pain, warmth, tightness, or a thousand other things, just pause and pay attention, and I promise you’ll find it.
Once you’ve found it one time, it won’t generally move, it will always be in the place you found it if you focus on that area.
I’ve also found that it helps to name these Parts, for example, my Inner Critic’s name is Gertrude.
2. Befriending the Inner Critic
This means approaching the inner critic with curiosity rather than hostility, seeking to understand its intentions and fears.
This can be a hard conversation to have at first because we generally don’t like our inner critic and want it to go away.
But just imagine for a moment that this part of you is a child just trying to do it’s best to keep you safe.
How would you talk to it differently? Would you seek to understand it, listen to it, and validate it?
Do this with your inner critic so it feels safe around you, and you can start to understand where it picked up this extreme role.
3. Unburdening the Inner Critic
Once the inner critic's protective role is understood, someone trained in IFS can help you facilitate a dialog between the "Self" (the core or authentic self) and the inner critic.
This dialog seeks to reassure the inner critic that its extreme protection isn't necessary anymore.
This allows it to transform its role into one that supports rather than criticizes.
The idea is that through this process, the inner critic can learn to trust the Self's (You) leadership and become less extreme in its protection.
Instead of criticizing, it might become a source of constructive feedback and encouragement, helping the person strive for growth in a balanced and compassionate way.
Does It Work?
Yes. Not only have I done this myself, with my own therapist, but I’ve also done it with hundreds of my clients as well.
Not only have I personally seen it work, but Neuroscience research supports it.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that these practices can increase activity in areas associated with empathy and emotional regulation, like the insula and the prefrontal cortex, and decrease activity in the amygdala, reducing the emotional impact of self-critical thoughts.
If you’d like to learn more about IFS, or have someone in mind that you think could benefit from it, please reach out, here’s a link to book a call:
The Inner Critic: Friend or Foe?
In essence, the inner critic is a normal part of our brain's self-regulatory mechanisms.
Its whispers can be daunting, and at times, even overwhelming.
However, it is vital to remember that we possess the power to befriend it, and shift it’s role inside of us.
The inner critic can either be our biggest adversary or our greatest ally - the choice, ultimately, rests in our hands.
Until next time… Live Heroically 🧠
Plato and Socrates
Waterfield, R. (2009). Plato: Republic. Oxford University Press.
Brickhouse, T., Smith, N. (2002). The Philosophy of Socrates. Westview Press.
Buddhism and the "monkey mind"
Gunaratana, B. (2002). Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications.
Christian conscience concept
Aquinas, T. (1981). Summa Theologiae. Christian Classics.
William James and the inner critic
James, W. (1890). Principles of Psychology. Henry Holt and Company.
Karen Horney's theories
Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth. W. W. Norton & Company.
Carl Jung's theories
Jung, C. G. (1959). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press.
Humanistic psychology and Carl Rogers
Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Houghton Mifflin.
Alice Miller's theories
Miller, A. (1981). The Drama of the Gifted Child. Basic Books.
Richard Schwartz's Internal Family Systems Therapy
Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. Guilford Press.
Brené Brown's research
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. Gotham Books.
Longe, O., Maratos, F. A., Gilbert, P., Evans, G., Volker, F., Rockliff, H., & Rippon, G. (2010). Having a word with yourself: Neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance. NeuroImage, 49(2), 1849-1856.
Gilbert, P., Clarke, M., Hempel, S., Miles, J. N., & Irons, C. (2004). Criticizing and reassuring oneself: An exploration of forms, styles and reasons in female students. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 43(1), 31-50.