Sabotaging inner critic through self-compassion by Sharlene Ho

“I am not good enough.”

“I am worthless.”

“I am incompetent.”


Have you heard these words at some point in your life? Or do you still say this to yourself up until now?

That is your inner critic talking to you. The inner critic is a system of critical and negative thoughts and attitudes of the self that interferes with your experiences. It is like a loud and powerful recorder that continually plays in the background and nags you relentlessly until it grinds you down. It is a recurring voice that judges certain aspects of yourself. It is activated automatically, regardless of the situation. Frequent use of the inner critic becomes internalized that the voice is interpreted as already a part of the self. When the inner critic takes over the entire self, it pushes the positive aspect over the edge until it has no longer the right to exist.  Then it assumes the responsibility of protecting the self against every possible internal and external threat. The constant intervention of the inner critic makes you feel anxious, depressed, or discouraged.

How is inner critic developed and operates?

History of rejection, restriction, neglect and early trauma

  • The inner critic is developed from repeated and intense scrutiny of an intrusive, controlling, and punitive parent. The child then internalizes this message and sees the self as worthless or not good enough.
  • Lack of warmth or affection, excessive permissiveness, and lack of confirmation can also lead to feelings of not being able to do anything right.

Negative perception of self

  • Negative self-perceptions work with the inner critic that when something happens, feelings of not good enough or not worthy become a default feeling.
  • Other negative self-perceptions that are activated automatically:
  • Defective: feeling that one is inwardly defective
  • Unlovable: feeling that one is unlovable once flaws are exposed
  • Socially undesirable: a belief that one is outwardly undesirable to others
  • Incompetent/ a failure: a belief that one cannot perform competently
  • Bad/ irresponsible: a belief that one is ethically or morally wrong or irresponsible and deserving of harsh criticism

Difficulty processing and understanding information

  • Due to information-processing deficits, inner critic exaggerates information about the self that validates the irrational belief and negates, denies, or minimizes information that contradicts it.

Self-protective behaviors

  • To protect the self from threatening situations, the inner critic removes the self psychologically, such as numbness, dissociation, or fantasy; engages in compulsive stimulation-seeking, and addictive self-soothing such as drinking or substance use; or overcompensates by highlighting qualities or minimizing mistakes.

Interpersonal problems

  • Interpersonal difficulties stem from the idea that one is inferior to others; thus inner critic sabotages intimate and equal relationships. When the inner critic takes over, the person adopts a:
  1. Dependent attitude
  • Constantly depends on others for support, affirmation, approval
  • Overly submissive, non-assertive, blaming self, silencing self, always putting the needs of others, working excessively hard to make themselves desirable to others
  1. Withdrawn attitude
  • Isolates self and avoids any form of meaningful contact or intimacy
  • Emphasizes on independence and self-sufficiency
  1. Dominant attitude
  • Reacts aggressively, offensively, disdainfully to feel superior
  • Unable to look at own shortcomings in a realistic manner

In addressing the inner critic, it is essential to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion includes being kind and caring to oneself, taking an understanding and non-judgmental attitude towards inadequacies and failures, and being open to own suffering. Being self-compassionate also means recognizing that flaws and imperfections are part of human experience.

Self-compassion does not imply adopting an unrealistic view of self but recognizing the ability to rectify shortcomings healthily. It is not avoiding or compensating one’s inadequacies and failures; instead, it maintains a kind and balanced awareness and understanding of the self. It encourages positive change. 

To practice self-compassion:

  1. Become aware of internal conflicts or inner critic. Realize that negative thoughts and feelings are only part of themselves and not their entire being.
  2. Understand that these self-attacking behaviors are a form of safety strategies. It is activated to protect the self from intense negative emotions.
  3. Override inner critic so both self-aspects, positive and negative, can be heard and assimilated in the self-structure.
  4. Learn compassionate acceptance and empathy. Realize and accept that imperfections and mistakes are part of human experiences, and they can improve for the better.
  5. Utilize adaptive coping strategies such as imagery, mindfulness training, psychoeducation, letter writing, and other behaviors that alleviate problems.
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