15 years ago, I had a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t because of a major failure, loss, or disaster. It was over someone calling me stupid. For making a mistake. In an online game.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), this had such a major impact on me that I reached out to friends and family to help me make sense of these painful emotions.
“Just let it wash over you.”
“It’s just an online game.”
“Why are you being so sensitive?”
And I agreed they were right. I decided it was silly and I should let it go.
But I couldn’t.
So why, despite all the good advice and my own rational decision to let it go, couldn’t I? Why did it feel like my whole world was falling apart, and my heart was sinking into uncontrollable dread?
The answer came from the most unexpected place:
In a quiet moment of reflection, I realized that what this person said to me, so bluntly and succinctly, sounded familiar. As much as I wanted to reject or deny this, it was something I’d been telling myself all my life. I had been trying to reject that inner voice, constantly telling me I was stupid or unworthy.
I Declared War on My Inner Critic
My inner critic had a lot to say about everything I did, and amongst the sea of messages about my worth, there it was… the central message, standing tall and proud, scowling at me: “You’re not good enough… unless you’re perfect.”
If you’re anything like me, you may have spent a big portion of your teenage years listening to Alanis Morissette’s song “Perfect” on repeat and bawling your eyes out over how true the lyrics felt to you. (Morissette is a self-professed HSP.) That was one moment when I truly felt understood and not alone.
With this realization, that day 15 years ago, I declared war on my inner critic. I made it my purpose and firm commitment to destroy this voice that served no purpose other than to make me feel paralyzed and unable to function. I decided I would find inner peace, even if it’s the last thing I did in this lifetime.
In the years that followed, I went to therapy and coaching, did a lot of self-development work, read every self-help book directly or marginally connected to it, as well as anything I could get my hands on to study this horrible monster — all in search of the perfect poison to permanently and definitively put it in the place where it belonged. Then I could laugh in its face and dance on its grave.
The Parent-Adult-Child Model
My intense study and trial and error made me discover it wasn’t possible to destroy it (much to my dismay).
But by this point, I was introduced to a model that helped make sense of what was going on, called the Parent-Adult-Child model. The creator of this model, a psychologist named Eric Berne, said that we have these three parts within ourselves, much like Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego.
He used this model to explain unhealthy dynamics between people, but I was able to apply it to my own inner critical voice. I realized that my inner critic stemmed from messages I received growing up from parents, adults in my life, and society in general. The work I did on my past and these negative life scripts enabled me to get temporary relief so I could function normally as an adult.
But I still wasn’t cured. I was still certain that something was wrong with me.
I still didn’t have the inner peace I so desperately longed for.
My Health Collapsed
A couple of years ago, I went through a very stressful and intense period at work. I was working in a very satisfying, but extremely demanding role, and the extra hours and mental exertion took its toll on my health. My inner critic was pushing me hard to do more and more to compensate for my lack of experience and unreliable health. I wanted my worth to shine and to be acknowledged.
My health collapsed.
I don’t even remember what felt worse: Being told by the specialist that my newly diagnosed autoimmune diseases meant that my body was attacking itself, or that there was no cure or treatment for them.
This reinforced my conviction that something was fundamentally wrong with me and I was, still, somehow, broken.
Coincidentally, around the same time as being told there was no cure for my illnesses, I started receiving information from various sources about holistic medicine. As Western medicine shrugged its shoulders and sent me on my way, I figured I had nothing to lose.
The more I was learning about this holistic approach, the more I noticed a pattern in what everyone was saying: Sometimes physical symptoms have emotional causes. Intuitively I knew this to be true, but pretty much to the same extent that any of us understand psychosomatic symptoms — we’ve all had that migraine after a terrible day at work or felt sick before that big public presentation.
Learning about the mind-body connection enabled me to understand that what was actually happening was not an indicator that I was flawed or broken, but that over the years, I’d suppressed so many unresolved emotions. My body had no choice but to signal that I needed to look at those emotions in the best way it was able to communicate with me: through physical symptoms.
This made me reflect on our nature which, as broken as it might sometimes appear on the surface, is perfect. It is beautifully (and often horribly painfully) orchestrated in a way to point our attention to what’s truly important. My ongoing emotional work and unpacking the suppressed emotions has helped me reduce my symptoms to almost none, reducing the back pain I suffered with all my life, as well as symptoms of sciatica and chronic fatigue. I completely replaced the two boxes of painkillers per month with meditation and mindfulness.
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What I Learned
This made me wonder: what if, just like my physical symptoms, my inner critic — as painful as it was — was in fact my mind’s perfectly orchestrated way of grabbing my attention? What if I misunderstood it to be a malfunctioning part of me that needed to be destroyed?
What if, in fact, it was trying to make me focus on something else?
I went back on all my years of therapy and work I’d done on myself, looking at the Parent-Adult-Child model and thought: If my inner critic stemmed from parental and grown-up voices in my life as a child, who was it actually talking to?
And then it hit me: It was my inner child. Of course. This answer had been staring me in the face all these years, trying to grab my attention. In my determined (and futile) work to destroy my inner critic, I missed the point it was trying to make all these years:
My inner critic wasn’t there to destroy me. It was there to make me aware of my inner child.
Like a flashlight in the dark, all these years I’d been turning the blinding light toward my eyes and telling it to go away. But in fact, the inner critic was trying to shed light on my inner child, that fragile, vulnerable part of me that so desperately needed my attention.
This is what enabled me to let go of the tension and control I was trying to put on my inner critic.
The moment I let go of the judgement against it, and focused on what it was trying to tell me all these years, was the moment I was able to truly connect with that child part of myself that needed my love and attention.
Truly understanding these parts within myself has enabled me to focus on what was important. Not through using loads of my energy to control and destroy it, like I originally thought. But by focusing on what it was trying to show me: That my inner child needed love, security, and attention.
This is how I found my long-searched-for inner peace.
How to Make Peace With Your Inner Critic
In my 15-year battle with my inner critic, I came across many other people who were on a similar journey. People who were smart, competent, and sensitive, and fighting their own battle against their own self-criticism. And then I thought: We spend so much energy trying to control, destroy, silence, or suppress our inner critic… what if instead, we could use that energy in any way we desired, in a way that feels productive, empowered, and in flow… what could we achieve as a group, as a society? As humanity?
That’s why I decided to quit my successful corporate job and dedicate myself to a higher purpose: helping others find peace from their inner critic. I’d like to give you a glimpse of how you can start to do this for yourself:
- The inner critic process is automatic. It happens in the blink of an eye: One moment we’re fine, and the next, we find ourselves triggered into harsh self-criticism.
- However, automatic doesn’t mean unchangeable.
- By understanding this, we can take the (remote) control and play this automatic process in slow motion, so we can pinpoint the exact moment when the inner critic gets triggered. Can you identify the first critical message that came up?
- When we are harsh with ourselves, we regress into an emotional child state. That’s because the actual purpose of the inner critic is to point us to our inner child. But don’t take my word for it. Check in with yourself and see if you resonate with feeling like “a child” emotionally when your inner critic comes on.
- By understanding this, we have a real opportunity to change the outcome of this automatic process. Instead of automatically going on a downward spiral of negative self-talk (which uses significant energetic resources), we can choose to acknowledge that our inner critic is speaking with our inner child, and focus on what our inner child needs instead.
- Develop your own new inner dialogue. This dialogue doesn’t dismiss the inner critic, but instead acknowledges the important role it’s fulfilling, and moves our focus to the real part that needs our support.
You may turn inwards, and say (in your own words): “Hello inner critic, thank you for showing up. I understand that if you are here, it means my inner child needs me. Thank you for your message, and now that you have fulfilled your important role to speak up for my inner child, I want you to know I will take it from here and be there for him/her. Dear inner child, what do you need right now, in order to feel safe, loved, and nurtured? How can I support you?”
If this process of making peace with your inner critic resonates with you, and you’d like to start taking the steps toward this yourself, grab a copy of my free ebook, called “7 tools to coach your inner critic.” In my ebook, I describe the powerful healing tools that have been my support on my own journey, as well as my clients’ inner transformations.