The below is a precis of pages 49 – 54 of The 5 Personality Patterns by Steven Kessler, which is the best and most concise explanation of the functioning of the Inner Critic and Superego that I have come across to date.
This information is written here as an accessible reference point for both coaching clients and participants on developmental programmes.
The Inner Critic
Inside each of us is a voice that criticises us whenever we do something wrong. The voice is called the inner critic, and it is an amalgamation of all the commands we heard as a child to “Be good,” “Stand up straight,” “Don’t run with scissors,” “Don’t talk back,” etc. etc.
Every time our parents, or those with power over us, told us what to do, our little brains recorded it, and over time we built a library from these amalgamated voices to create one voice that tells us “Who We Should Be.”
The Job of the Superego
The inner critic is part of something larger that Freud called the “superego”.
It develops in early childhood between 2 – 5 years old. The superego’s job is to stop you doing things that will get you into trouble with your parents/caretakers. It tries to keep you in the “Good Boy/Girl” box they have defined.
The inner critic helps out by being the inner policeman to stop you following your impulses to do something “bad”. To make you obey, it criticises and shames you and calls you names.
It changes you from a free, spontaneous, uninhibited child into an internally censored, well-behaved child, of course your parents then praise you for be such a good girl/boy.
Developing a superego is an important and necessary step for any child as it creates an internal mechanism to regulate behaviour.
The superego is composed of 3 parts: –
The ideal self-image
The inner praiser
The inner critic
The ideal self-image holds all the internalised images of the perfect you based on what your parents want you to be, this image is added to over time based on input from school, church, media and the culture you live in.
Each time you have an impulse to do something , that impulse is compared to the ideal self-image. If the impulse fits with “Who I Should Be”, your Inner Praiser speaks up and says “Good Girl/Boy”; in response you feel proud and worthy.
But if your impulse doesn’t fit, your Inner Critic will attack you and say, “Bad Boy/Girl”; in response you feel unworthy and ashamed.
For some people there isn’t a voice as such but only a bad feeling in the body, as if the voice is speaking in the unconscious and only the bad feeling arises into consciousness.
It is important to distinguish between the Inner Critic and your Conscience.
Your conscience is based more on empathy and compassion for others, so it develops later. It offers you advice about what to do and it matures along with you as you develop.
The inner critic doesn’t mature much after it is formed so situations are unconsciously measured against “Will Mum or Dad like this or be mad? Will I get into trouble for this?”
It is a young part of you trying to protect you in its 5-year-old way. But it doesn’t just advise you it attacks you in order to control your behaviour. A “critic attack” always devalues you in some way, making you feel small and stupid.
If you feel small, stupid, worthless, devalued then know your Inner Critic is in play.
The Superego’s purpose is to maintain the status quo in your psyche, thus it tries to prevent anything new from happening. It will attack you for exploring outside of known territory in an effort to stay within the safe territory of “Good Boy/Girl”.
The Superego essentially provides some ability to regulate your behaviour and conform to social norms but there is one major last step required for the formation of a healthy mature ego structure.
Separating from the Superego
After your superego forms it is supposed to separate from your central ego, so you can disidentify from your inner praiser and inner critic to be able to distinguish them as separate voices in your head.
The Inner Praiser and Inner Critic are voices that tell you what Mum and Dad want, but not necessarily what YOU want.
To be able to make your own decisions, you need to be able to clearly hear the voice of the Inner Praiser and Inner Critic as distinct and separate from your own inner voice, so you can base your decisions on your own feelings and impulses about new information and what is happening now rather than in your past.
However often this final stage does not happen automatically for people, then the voice of the superego does not just praise or criticise the self but drowns out that voice. So, when the inner critic speaks you think it is your own voice and do not question it.
When your inner critic attacks you do not realise it is something separate from you and that you can defend yourself from it. Suffering from frequent attacks sets up a cycle of feeling worthless and ashamed.
The good news is that this is just an incomplete developmental stage which you can be address as an adult.
To make this separation requires time and attention to start to recognise the voice. Once we can perceive the voice as separate from ourselves then we can recognise the attacks.
To recognise when the inner critic is attacking notice that it doesn’t just correct a mistake but makes you feel bad about yourself for making the mistake.
To become ourselves each of us need to develop our own inner voice, so disidentifying from the inner critic is a crucial step in everyone’s inner development work.
Defending against a Critic Attack
Once you can recognise a critic attack you are ready to learn how to defend yourself against it.
You need to use your life energy to push back against it rather than it use your life energy to squash you. Overtime this practise will profoundly change your relationship with your inner critic.
As you practise redirecting your energy in this way your self will become bigger and your inner critic will begin to shrink.
As you change your relationship with your inner critic there is one more thing you need to do, stop it from using your mouth to criticise others.
In some people critic attacks are directed inwards towards the self, while others have a critic mostly facing outwards towards others, this needs to be controlled to avoid hurting people.
Once you have disidentified from your inner critic and learned how to defend yourself against it, your inner exploration and growth can proceed much more quickly.
It is unlikely that your inner critic will ever disappear completely, but it is possible for your relationship to change completely so it no longer runs you.
Whenever you open yourself to a new experience outside of the “Good Boy/Girl” box your critic is likely to squawk and try to stop you. But it won’t get to make the decisions anymore.
In time you will learn to recognise a critic attack as a sign that you are growing and entering new territory, not a sign that you are in trouble.
Learning to understand and manage our Inner Critics is an absolute requisite for releasing more of our potential.
For more on this topic see Soul without Shame by Byron Brown