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  • Writer's pictureZenho Chad Bennett

Freeing the Inner Critic: Notes from a Field Expert

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

As an expert from the field (Enneagram 1, the Perfectionist), I 'm happy to report that freeing the inner critic is indeed a worthwhile endeavor. Of course, the endeavor itself is likely the problem.

If you are interested in self-healing or enlightenment, you’ve likely taken up some strategies to be good to yourself and to work with the inner critic kindly. We know it’s a hard one. At the very least you’ve already realized that the way you treat yourself with your inner rhetoric is far worse than you would treat anybody else for similar transgressions or flaws. Some version of the harsh self-improvement machine has infiltrated how we think, how we eat, how we shit, how we rest, how we achieve and even how God will respond to such a terrible person on judgment day.

The trouble is that if the inner critic is not clarified and understood, it is likely that the critic itself is taking up these practices to be nice to yourself, to eat salad, and even to take up spiritual practice. The critic is basically the whole of what drives a course of psychotherapy. Alas, it seems the critic is never satisfied even if the agenda items on its list are well intended. Why is it that in spite of knowing what is good for us, we don’t do it? Well, one reason is that the critic seems to be wanting to fix us and we don’t really like being fixed. So you take up all this advice to be kind to yourself as a way to “fix the fixer” and then you wanna fix that, like fractals of inner criticism running throughout the echo chambers of the universe. No wonder we are so violent.

In gestalt therapy there’s a model called “top dog and under dog” used to address inner conflicts of all sorts. For our purposes, what we call the inner critic is usually the top dog. It’s the part that we are most aware of, it is most dominant and more developed. It’s some version of the parent inside of us. The underdog, or the least developed aspect in a conflict, is usually the audience that’s listening to the critic. It’s the part being criticized and it’s a version of the child inside us.

In this exercise, perhaps best done by following the instructions in the video above, we’re going to explore both the top dog and under dog aspects of what we call the inner critic. The best part of the exercise is that I’m not going to ask you to fix a thing! Here are the steps for your reference in brief though the video guides you through them as well.

1) Reflect on the top dog. Take a first person perspective on the inner critic, the tyrant, the driver, the critical parent, the super ego, the judgmental God… whatever you call it… and let it speak its world view. Write down what it sees, what it wants, what its function is. What is it most critical about?

2) Reflect on the underdog. This is often more difficult. Take the perspective of the audience of the critic, the part that is being beat up on. Write down what it sees, what it wants, what its function is. How does it respond to this “tyrrany of shoulds”? Feeling the vulnerability of this under dog is a good step.

Note: Take your time with all of these steps. The goal of the exercise at each step is to clarify and include something, not get rid of anything. Notice which of the worldviews (top dog or under dog) you are able to step into more easily. The point is to make each side more available to awareness, not to choose sides. I recommend being thorough with clarifying both sides of the conflict before moving on. Why? Because it may be that the critic is currently activated and wants to “get through this exercise” so that we will finally “get rid of the critic!” Watch your mind stream closely throughout the exercise.

3) If both side are clear, you should be able to hold both of them together in awareness. Now you can experience the whole of the conflict between the parts and, while this is uncomfortable, it is very useful to clarify the felt sense of the conflict. Hold your attention steady on the energy between the parts and experience this deep conflict within you. Notice also, that there is a third part (a 3rd person perspective) that is watching the conflict as well as the two parts. We’ll return to that 3rd part later but for now, just notice it as a separate perspective.

Let that go and take a breath! Give yourself some space and credit for deepening your insight into the conflict itself. It is now clear there are two parts to what you call the inner critic and now you have a better sense of their individual perspectives and their relationship.

4) Next let’s revisit the top dog. This time get a sense of its perspective and ask it again what it really wants for (your name). Write this down. Then, go a step further and imagine what it would be like if all the things on the critic’s list were manifested. Right now, visualize yourself as completely perfected from the critic’s point of view. What does the critic experience? What does it feel like? It will likely be some kind of satisfaction, rest, well-being. Write down your own words and realize that the deepest intent of the critic is indeed good in some basic and irreducible way.

5) Next let’s revisit the under dog in much the same way. Get a sense of its perspective and ask it again what it really wants for (your name). Write that down. What would it be like if its perspective were finally seen and heard? What would it experience if it were no longer criticized but instead experienced on its own terms. Perhaps sadness, fear, anger or weakness might be held without judgment. What would be experienced then? Write down your own words and realize that the deepest intent of the wounded child is indeed good in some basic and irreducible way.

6) Finally, hold the whole conflict in awareness again. Notice any way the conflict is different this time around. Take in what has been clarified. And now be aware of the 3rd person perspective which is watching the relationship between the top dog and under dog. What wisdom or advice or perspective does this 3rd part have for each of the other parts? What insights arise and how might this 3rd part advise the other parts to move forward within the conflict or to resolve it completely? Write this down.

Great work. And a final opportunity for you. It may well be that what you have written down in step 6, quickly gets picked up by the top dog adds it to his list! Sneaky devil! But… here’s your opportunity. Celebrate! You have just watched the top dog arise from a 3rd person perspective. Great news, take that in. The alternative is to criticize the critic and enter that fractal universe of criticizing even the critic of the critic. But no way! Not this time! You saw the loop which means you further clarified it. You see the trap more clearly and that there is no way out of the trap from within the trap.

What to do? Well I only see one option. Nothing! Leave it completely alone. If the critic arises let it do so. If the victim child arises let it do so. This may break your heart open. And what a relief. You can not fix you because you don’t need fixing!

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