The Inner Critic and The Inner Child (and 4 steps to connect with it)
Updated: Jan 14, 2019
You can't talk about your Inner Critic in isolation from another key personality element: the Inner Child.
Eric Berne developed a therapeutic theory which has its roots in Freud's work - it's called Transactional Analysis and the premise is that we have three inner "voices" (called ego states), which Berne aptly named the Parent, Child and Adult.
You see, when our Inner Critic (or Critical Parent as Berne calls it) comes out, giving us negative impulses and putting us down, that voice would have no effect on the Adult in us, because the Adult would analyse the situation and think of the best, most rational solution to the problem.
Let me give you an example:
Let's say someone at work comes over and snaps at you for apparently no reason. The Adult in us might think "They are probably having a bad day. I'd best leave them be" and go about your day as you normally would. However, when our Inner Critic is triggered, its target is not the Adult in us, but the Inner Child.
To help you understand Eric Berne's model better, here's a brief diagram:
Our Inner Child is that remnant of ourselves at a young age, which is now an emotional state we may revisit sometimes when we feel down, helpless or unworthy. The Inner Critic would not exist without an audience that's damaged, so if your Inner Child is hurting, this is the perfect target for the Inner Critic to do its best work.
This is why an essential first step of overcoming our Inner Critic is in fact connecting with our Inner Child.
And listening to it.
The Inner Child is that little person we once were, who grew up in a difficult environment. As a child, you did the best you could to adapt in an unfair world. Those means of coping and adapting may not be the best, but they are the best you had at the time, and they certainly served their purpose of helping you to ultimately survive the hardship in your life.
What the Inner Critic does, is trigger the Inner Child in ourselves. You might recognise that our Inner Child is triggered when you feel helpless or unworthy. As a child, you can't make it in this world by yourself. You are dependent on others. You depend on your parents, extended family, teachers, friends and so on, and when you can't be independent, you must adapt and accept what you're being told, because otherwise you risk losing the protection you do have - as little as that may be. You therefore do your best to not upset them and adapt to what is being asked of you.
As you grow up, you take your Inner Child with you on the journey, along with all the trauma of the past, all the words said by your parents or other figures of authority that stuck with you over the years and still seem to haunt you even now - as a grown-up.
In my own journey of healing my Inner Critic and connecting with my Inner Child, I have found a few tools to be most helpful in starting this healing process:
1. Connect with the Inner Child.
Our Inner Child is a significant and very much active part of our minds, but it rarely comes into our conscious minds because its feelings are pre-programmed in our brains and therefore stays latent in our subconscious. Essentially, the thoughts and feelings are almost automatic, and feel instinctual.
We don't consciously or actively want to feel worthless, helpless or paralysed.
It may not be easy to bring our Inner Child into consciousness on the first go. That's alright. Be patient and realise that by making an active effort to connect with your Inner Child is an achievement in itself. Think about the first time you rode a bike or learned a new skill. When you first got on that bike and someone was supporting you, did you imagine you'll be able to cycle on those two thin wheels? But then, you did it.
Connecting with your Inner Child is like riding a bike: at first it may be a struggle and you may think you'll never be able to do it, but once you learn it, it's a skill you have for life.
Exercise: in peace and solitude, try and change the focus from your inner critical voice onto its target: your Inner Child. Connect with the Inner Child and just listen to what unmet needs it's trying to tell you about.
2. Visualisation exercise.
Take some time in solitude and peace and remind yourself of your earliest memories, or perhaps a time when you were criticised and how you felt then. The more emotionally charged that moment is, the closer it is to your true Inner Child.
How did your child feel then?
If you experienced criticism or being told you're not good enough, how did it feel?
Connect with it and visualise your Inner Child.
What does your Inner Child look like?
How old is the child?
What else do you notice?
And most importantly: What does your Inner Child need?
If you listen closely enough, you will discover that it has a lot to tell you. Pay particular attention to its needs, as this reveals profound needs we haven't brought into our conscious mind yet.
3. Regular conversations
Connecting with the Inner Child is not the end of the healing journey, but the beginning. Start a dialogue with it. You probably call your mother/father/siblings, family or best friends on a regular basis. Why not extend the same care and affection to the Inner Chid? Speak to it on your way to work, or while you get dressed every morning, or before you fall asleep, just as you would someone you care about. Ask your Inner Child about how it feels, what it needs and how you can support it.
Exercise: once you've connected with your Inner Child and feel comfortable with your inner dialogue, you can alternate between voices depending on what you need at the time. For example, your Inner Child might need care and affection. Other times, your Inner Child feels looked after - in those situations you might want to give him or her specific "instructions", such as:
"Today, I want you to let me worry about the grown-up stuff, and I want you to be playful"
"If anything happens today, the grown-up in me will be responsible to handle any issues. I'd like you, my Inner Child, to just be curious today"
"Today I am by your side every step of the way and I will shift my focus inwards and make sure you feel loved and cared for"
4. Learn to see the signs.
By connecting with your Inner Child, you come to understand your innermost fears and needs. When you were a child and perhaps put down or criticised by someone in your life, how did that feel? Chances are that those very same feelings are still being triggered now in adulthood. By naming those emotions, you will be able to recognise when they get triggered.
The next time you feel helpless or worthless (or whatever other emotion was triggered in you), recognise that your Inner Child is asking for attention. It feels scared and needs to feel protected, much like you did all those years ago.
And because the grown-up you is much wiser and more experienced than the child in you, the child doesn't have to carry the burden of the fears and worries - instead, you can learn to switch these worries to the Adult in you and let the Child do what it's there to do: play, explore, be curious and have fun.
Want to learn more about healing your Inner Child?
Here are some useful resources for further reading or learning about your Inner Child:
- Read about the Transactional Analysis coaching and therapy method in this book
- Read The Chimp Paradox, a great book putting complex concepts in simple terms
- Or watch this guided meditation on Youtube:
If you're interested in being joined by a life coach on the journey of healing your Inner Child and Inner Critic, find out more about me and my coaching.