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System Updates for the Inner Critic: How We Can Cultivate Self-Compassion

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have an inner critic. That’s the little voice or niggle that comes out from time to time, telling us what we’re doing wrong, or telling us what we ‘should’ do. It comes out more when we’re stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.


Who is your inner critic?


Well, people use lots of different analogies or images to help them visualise their inner critic, but here’s what makes sense to me. It’s founded on the psychology of Transactional Analysis.

(Image: "Child in Rocker with Doll" by anyjazz65 )

Our inner critic starts developing when we’re very young, and it has good intentions – it’s trying to keep us safe (but not always getting it right). When we’re little, we notice what adults do when there is danger, like telling us not to run out into the road, or a whole load of other (often very important) ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. When we feel threatened ourselves, we try to replicate that, by telling ourselves what we ‘should’ do.


But since this process begins in childhood and happens mostly unconsciously, there are not many opportunities for system updates over the years. So, when our inner critic comes out in adulthood, it is essentially the voice of a child pretending to be an adult. It’s working hard to try to protect us when we feel threatened, but is often off the mark.

(Image: "System Update" by bovinity )

And then there could be a whole other blog post about the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ we internalise in terms of society’s norms and pressures, or from people who have spoken to us negatively, which add another dimension of challenge to the mix.


So anyway, there’s my image of the inner critic – it comes out without us noticing, ready to tell us off when we’re already feeling under strain. So how do we go about creating those system updates and reality checking our inner critic?


Well, the inner critic can only take over as long as we are unaware of it. Once we start paying attention to it, we bring ourselves back to our present-day Adult state of mind, where we have plenty of resources at our fingertips to use to challenge our faulty thinking (though it’s not necessarily that easy).

Step1: Notice (Image: "Meditate" by RelaxingMusic )

The first step is noticing. We might do this by making an effort to notice how we speak about ourselves to others. We can do it by writing down our thoughts. We can do it by taking moments of reflection or meditation, where we pay attention to the thoughts coming to our minds, and notice anything we might be saying about ourselves. Creating a regular practice of noticing – whether that be through therapy, coaching, journaling or meditating – makes it easier to tune in and pick up when the inner critic is chiming in.

Step 2: Challenge (Image: "Scales of Justice - Frankfurt Version" by mikecogh)

The second step is challenging the critical thoughts. Are they fair? Are you holding yourself to a reasonable standard, or are you, for example, creating a ‘perfect’ ideal that you expect yourself to achieve? Would you consider the same comments to be acceptable or helpful if you were saying them to a loved one when they were stressed out? Even if the thoughts seem reasonable at first, you might find yourself gradually loosening your grip on those ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and moving towards a kinder way of speaking to yourself.

Step 3: Compassion (Image: "Friendship" by Iguanasan)

The third step is to generate a nurturing response, that you can start saying to yourself to replace the critical words. What would you say to a loved one if you knew they really needed support? What can you say to yourself that is fair, gentle and compassionate?


Once you have worked this out, you can start practicing this process of noticing your thoughts, reality-checking them, and replacing them with a more supportive response. Practice is important, since our minds will default to the automatic reactions they are used to, unless we start building new mind habits that gradually become the new default (see my other blog post on that).

Image: Rain Room by Alexandermcnabb

Mindful self-compassion teaches the RAIN process to help us practice becoming self-compassionate. This asks us to:

Recognise our feelings and thoughts without judging them.

Allow these feelings and thoughts to be there. Allowing is important. It prevents us from suppressing emotions, which leads to getting stuck in them.

Investigate what might be causing them- ask yourself ‘what’s going on for me at the moment?’

Nurture ourselves – responding to ourselves with the same supportive words we would use to respond to a best friend. Using compassion with ourselves can allow us to acknowledge feelings and free ourselves from the fear that acknowledging them will lead to greater harm. Often, feelings are much more threatening when they are unexpressed, and finding a way to acknowledge them can create a great sense of release.


In building a self-compassion practice, choose something that works for you, and that is achievable on a regular basis. Check out all the ideas (along with the evidence base for it) here.

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