How to Tame a Pitiless Inner Critic – Free Ebook

A terrible problem that afflicts many
of us is that we are almost permanently anxious,

self-critical, self-hating and afflicted by
a sense that we don’t deserve to exist.

We are definitely not good enough. Ever.

Psychology points us to a part of the
mind termed our conscience, a faculty that

keeps an eye on how well we are doing in relation
to duty, to the demands of the world and to

the regulation of our desires and appetites.
Our conscience monitors how much effort we

are putting into our work, our ratio of relaxed
rest to anxious labour. It’s our conscience

that tells us when we’ve probably done enough
gaming, dating or eating.

However useful this function may sound,
for many of us, our conscience has grown very

unbalanced. Rather than occasionally gently
nudging us towards virtue, it is permanently

screaming, denigrating and attacking us for
perceived failings: it tells us that nothing

we do is ever good enough, that we have no
right to take a holiday let alone an afternoon

off, that we have no business relaxing or
enjoying ourselves – and that the worst is

coming to us because of our sinful nature.
Anxiety and self-contempt are our default


It was Freud’s simple but brilliant
insight that our conscience is formed out

of the residue of the voices of our parents,
in particular (usually) of our fathers. Freud

called the conscience the ‘superego’,
and proposed that this faculty continues to

speak within our minds as our father figures
once spoke to us.

For the lucky ones among us, we had reasonable
father figures and therefore our consciences

are broadly benign. If we fail today, we can
try again next time. If we’re unpopular,

we can be valuable anyway. We deserve a rest.
Sex is allowed. Treats are part of life. We

can do nothing for a while. We’re OK as
we are. But for others among us, our conscience
rehearses the worst lines of punitive parental

archetypes. When things go wrong, we swiftly
conclude that it might be better if we killed


One of the steps we can take towards greater
mental health is to realise, properly realise,

that this drama is going on inside us. It
sounds strange to say, given the significance,

but usually, we have no clue; the self-criticism
has become too familiar to be noticeable,

it’s just how things are and who we are.
We can’t draw a distinction between the

fierce inner critic and any other part of

A crucial first move is therefore to learn
to put some distance between ourselves and

our conscience. We should see our conscience
as a character. We should tell ourselves:

I have a punishing inner critic and it’s
very unfair to me, it’s even trying to kill

me. It is speaking to me, within me, but it
isn’t all I am: it’s someone I sucked

in from childhood and might learn to expel
from my mind in time.

We can then start to question the critic.
Is it really fair to say that our lives are

wholly worthless? We’ve messed up for sure,
but do we really deserve no compassion and

no forgiveness? Is nothing about us in any
way good? Would we ever think of treating

a friend (or even an enemy) the way we’re
treating ourselves?

We had no choice about who we had to
listen to when we were little, but we do now

have agency. We can retrain our minds, by
getting better spotting how they were indoctrinated

in the first place. We have picked up some
extremely cruel and questionable habits. No

one needs to be hounded by a sense that they
are excrement; this feeling has a past and

it doesn’t have to be the future.

To retrain ourselves, we need other people:
people who can love us and fill our minds

with other kinder perspectives. We need to
dare to lean on them (not an easy move for

people who feel undeserving in the first place)
and ask for their help in taming the nasty

sound-track inside. We should stop trying
to be brave about the inner attacks we host.

We might explicitly say to others: ‘you
are here to help me with my inner critic,

and to give me new perspectives on my self-punishment
and despair.’ We should at times get incensed

that we have to live with such a critic, and
question why our first impulse is so often

to forgive the critic and the parental figure
who inspired it and blame ourselves for our


We need to feel sorry for ourselves and
annoyed with those who didn’t know how to

show us tenderness. Of course, we occasionally
need to upbraid ourselves and try harder;

but the real achievement is to know how to
remain gently and generously on our own side.

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