Inner Critic: Spokesperson for Internalized Toxic Shame

Woman scrutinizing through a magnifying glass like an inner critic

Self-criticism, self-loathing, negative self-talk — these are typically indicators of unmet childhood needs that you blamed yourself for.

For example, perhaps you only got attention from your parents when you were well-behaved and “successful” (hell, this may still be true), so you learned to punish the shit out of yourself for not being good and perfect all the time.

This type of shame actually begins as a necessary survival tool. When any child must choose between “My parents are incompetent” or “There’s something wrong with me,” they will always choose the safer option.

And self-condemnation is safer because children rely on their parents for survival. It’s also safer because kids are 100% powerless over inept parenting, while they ostensibly have some kind of control over their perceived shortcomings. And we know good and well that powerlessness is the last thing any living organism will choose on purpose.

So parental misattunements, unmet needs, abuse, neglect, abandonment, enmeshment and any form of childhood trauma produces toxic shame in the form of negative identity statements.

I’m lazy, unlovable, stupid. Too fat, too skinny, too shy. I’m not good enough, important, or worthy. I don’t matter.

And let’s be clear, there is such a thing as healthy shame. It’s the foundation of all self-improvement. People who experience zero shame are sociopaths, by definition. But I’m not talking about the perfectly natural human emotion of shame. I’m talking about blame unfairly turned inward as a childhood survival strategy that persists into adulthood.

Healthy shame builds you up; toxic shame tears you down.

Meet Your Inner Critic

In Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker enumerates the fourteen most common inner critic attacks. See which ones you have experienced:

  1. Perfectionism
  2. All-or-None / Black-and-White Thinking
  3. Self-Hate / Self-Disgust
  4. Micromanagement / Worrying / Obsessing / Looping / Over-Futurizing
  5. Unfair / Devaluing Comparisons to Others (or your most perfect moments)
  6. Guilt
  7. “Shoulding”
  8. Over-productivity / Workaholism / Busyholism
  9. Harsh Judgments of Self and Others / Name-Calling
  10. Drasticizing / Catastrophizing / Hypochondriasizing
  11. Negative Focus
  12. Time Urgency
  13. Disabling Performance Anxiety
  14. Perseverating About Being Attacked

And I propose that we add #15 to the list: Over-Apologizing.

Being triggered into a shame-spiral or an emotional shit-storm is not a pleasant experience for anyone. But it contains so much valuable information! Triggers are your childhood wounds trying really fucking hard to get your attention. A skilled professional can walk those things right back to the source and help you heal. The problem is, toxic shame prevents us from listening to those desperate cries for help.

Along the same lines, inner critic attacks are neon billboards directing us to a pool of toxic sludge where self-acceptance, worthiness, and self-compassion are supposed to live. And if we can avoid shaming ourselves for having shame, we’ve got a chance of uncovering our unmet childhood needs and taking care of those things, once and for good.

Unmask Your Inner Critic

The inner critic is actually a hologram. It appears real but contains no substance whatsoever. Remember, an inner critic is the voice of internalized toxic shame, which is the natural response to neglect, abandonment, and unmet childhood needs. And as long as you still think all that shit was your fault, you’re liable to hate yourself on some level, continue to feel helpless, unworthy, or incompetent at self-care, and compulsively hope others will meet your needs (or self-medicate the needs away).

Certainly not an ideal state of affairs.

My first suggestion is to figure out which needs you were deprived of as a kid. Children need to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure in order to mature appropriately. It sure is a good, dandy thing if your parents put food on the table, clothes on your back, and sent you to a good school. But if they weren’t meeting any of your psychological and emotional needs, I assure you that your childhood was way shittier than it looks on paper.

Also, people who didn’t get their needs met are often the least likely to be able to identify unmet needs. They say stuff like, “My childhood was fine.” But your relationships suck and you kinda hate yourself? Riiiggghhht… I’m not buyin it.

Check out my article Do You Even Know What Your Needs Are? and do some more of your own research including reflecting and journaling about your childhood. And when you begin to see that developmental arrests in your emotional maturity aren’t because you’re broken, but because you were never provided the resources you needed, you may be ready for the next step.

Take a Good Look at Your Inner Critic

Let’s say your inner critic is primarily perfectionism or shame in a prom dress, as I like to call it. You look back at your childhood and discover that your needs for acceptance, validation, attention, affection, appreciation, connection, and belonging were not being met. However, you quickly discovered that straight A’s, gold stars, and good behavior got you a few pats on the back.

But that shit was a far cry from actually getting your needs met by the people whose only job was to love you, wasn’t it? Yeah, I know, it’s painful to look at, which is why people usually don’t. But you have to see that perfectionism doesn’t actually work if you ever wanna recover from it. And the ineffectiveness of perfectionism is precisely why it behaves like a compulsive addiction. Because you can never get enough of something that almost works.

Now, unfortunately, all these inner critic attacks are trauma responses and reflexive coping mechanisms, so you can’t just tell your nervous system, “Hey, you cut that out, you silly goose!” Wouldn’t that be nice? Those behaviors are all strategies developed by the terrified psyche of a powerless child in a botched attempt to get its needs met. A child that dwells within us, by the way, still waiting for a responsible adult to fucking do something about the situation.

That responsible adult is you.

Relieve Your Inner Critic of Its Duties

Not to get all new-age rhyming hippy with “What you resist, persists”… but you really can’t hate your inner critic away. That thing doesn’t want to be in charge. However, when you’re living with chronically unmet needs, the decision is out of your hands.

Your perfectionism doesn’t actually want you to be perfect. That’s not even the point! Your perfectionism wants you to get your needs met. Workaholism doesn’t want you to work more. Your negative focus doesn’t even like negativity. All the neurotic and dysfunctional shit you will ever do is about getting your needs met. Do you see?

When you learn how to meet those needs in healthy and appropriate ways, you won’t need to hold your life together with duct tape and bubblegum anymore. In other words, your coping mechanisms become obsolete when you are no longer coping with a life of unmet needs.

You can be in survival mode or growth mode, but not both. And in order to get out of survival mode, you’ve gotta tend to those needs, my friend.

Create a Fierce Allegiance with Yourself

The primary reason people stay in survival mode so damn long is an alloy of learned helplessness and self-abandonment. These are natural byproducts of trauma and toxic shame. Those of us who were physically or emotionally abandoned by our parents quickly learn to self-abandon. Children can only reflect back what was shown to them.

Kicking the habit is obviously easier said than done, so I highly recommend enlisting the help of a trauma-informed coach or therapist. But to share a page from Claudia Black’s book Changing Course: Healing from Loss, Abandonment, and Fear, the four major steps of recovery are:

  1. Explore past losses
  2. Connect the past to present life
  3. Challenge internalized beliefs
  4. Learn new skills

And if you’re gonna pull any of this off, you gotta recognize your inner critic as the wounded child that it is and forge an unwavering commitment to reparenting and nurturing that terrified little part of yourself. Choose self-care over self-abandonment every time; self-compassion over self-criticism; radical self-acceptance. These concepts may seem completely foreign and even unattainable, but it is absolutely possible to adopt them as a way of life. It just takes patience, practice, and the loving guidance and support of someone who’s walked the path before.

A Practical Exercise for Healing Your Shame

Dr. Black offers the following simple exercise, paraphrased from pages 99–102 of her book mentioned above:

Physically write a letter to a parent or caregiver (that you’re not going to send), telling them about all the things you needed but did not get and how you felt at the time. I needed to be a kid, to play, to feel safe to make mistakes, to be accepted and loved instead of micromanaged and criticized. I needed protection, validation, and connection. Without these things, I felt so alone, helpless, and afraid…

Get into as many details as you want with specific examples. Make it as long as you want. Write multiple letters to different people if you feel like it. Just be careful not to write it from some sterile-ass, academic or clinical standpoint. Let your abandoned inner child hold the pen and let it rip!

When you are finished, read your letter out loud. It’s very important for you to hear these words come out of your own mouth. After crying, grieving, getting pissed off, or being with whatever feelings come up, go back through your letter and identify all the unmet needs you expressed. You may discover that 1) These unmet needs are the driving forces behind each of your maladaptive coping mechanisms, and 2) You still struggle with exactly these unmet needs in your adult life.

This activity is wildly validating and empowering. It blows the doors open for self-compassion and self-love. The internalized shame statements of unworthiness and inadequacy immediately begin to fall away as you realize there is nothing inherently wrong with you. You simply had to adapt to survive childhood with limited support and resources. And who can blame you for doing the best you could?

The Healing Journey

The healing and reparenting process is no overnight matter. It’s a long and windy road, but one that many have traveled before you. Please don’t try to go it alone. All your compulsive habits and trauma responses are specifically the results of being left alone with your pain, so we already know how that shit works out. You gotta try something different. I hope you will find a supportive person or group of people to help you along your journey.

Because, if your whole squad is just you and your inner critic, you’re probably not gonna get very far.

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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

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