Creatively Challenging Your Inner Critic by Sarah Frank Jarvis, LMFT, ATR-BC, CGP

Many of us probably have experiences, from time to time, that can provoke feelings of self-criticism; a project doesn’t materialize as expected, a personal goal is set (maybe more than once) with little follow through, a promotion goes to someone else at work, an internal struggle begins to impact others we care about. Some of us may be more prone to self-criticism, where it has become an automatic response in our minds to many daily external and internal stimuli such as interactions with people, social media, and thoughts. 

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), self-criticism can be conceptualized in several ways. CBT looks at a triangular relationship among our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to situations (in real time, remembered, or imagined). An example of this is I’m paying for a beverage at a coffee shop and jokingly remark on how desperately I need that caffeine right now to the employee. Instead of the response I anticipate of them joining me by smiling or commiserating, they look beyond me and shout “next in line!”. This experience may trigger (in any order) a thought such as “that was awkward, I must have annoyed them”, a feeling of shame or embarrassment, and a reaction (behavior) of making fewer attempts than I would have otherwise to engage with others throughout my day. In this example the self-criticism comes through in my automatic thought (thoughts that come to mind immediately and sometimes unconsciously; negative, positive, or neutral) that “I must have annoyed them”. Instead of thinking a more neutral thought like “wow, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”, and externalizing the awkwardness to the situation or other person, I go straight to personalizing it and letting it affect my whole day in a negative way. 

Another key component of CBT is “core beliefs”. Theses are deeply-rooted, often unconscious, black and white beliefs we hold about either ourselves, other people, or the world around us. Examples include “I am unlovable”, “people can’t be trusted”, and “it’s a dog-eat-dog world”. Core beliefs are generally instilled in us from a young age through direct and indirect messages we pick up from those around us (often caregivers), situations we have experienced or witnessed, and how we have been treated. As humans we intrinsically make meaning of these experiences which, depending on the frequency or degree of impact, can influence our inner belief system. Core beliefs are often reinforced over time by similar messages, experiences, and perceptions of interpersonal interactions. In the example of my self-critical automatic thought about being annoying, this may be tapping into a core belief about myself such as “I am undesirable” or “I am unlovable”. 

As a creative exercise, I like to encourage my clients to try to personify their self-critical thoughts as a living being, their “Inner Critic”. I ask that a visual representation be made of this Inner Critic, along with a sampling of some of its self-critical dialogue, which you can do on your own with any drawing, painting, collage, or sculpting materials. It’s important to process what comes up around this part of the exercise and ask yourself questions like “when does this critic typically appear?”, “how do I feel when it’s present?”, “where might some of these thoughts originate?”, and “how do I respond or react to it?”. The next part of the exercise entails adding something to the image that challenges your Inner critic. This is a crucial step, synthesizing three things: 

1. Acknowledgement of the problematic thinking

2. Questioning self-critical thoughts and beliefs 

3. Authoring a healthier response that contributes to wellbeing 

It is possible to break free from the cycle of self-criticism with recognition of how it appears and functions in your life, core beliefs it activates, and through the practice of consciously challenging it when it does not serve your higher purpose. While it can be helpful to question yourself at times, to be clear on purpose or make alterations for improved outcomes, you should not have to live in a way that holds you back from valuing yourself or pursuing your dreams.

Elana Clark-Faler
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