NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Self Blame and the Internal Critic: Overcoming the Tyranny of "Shoulds" You Impose on Yourself

Many people have such a strong internal critic that they feel overwhelmed by that self blaming part of themselves.  The internal critic imposes so many "shoulds" that it becomes emotionally and physically exhausting.

Self Blame and the Internal Critic

For many people, this internal critic is so strong that it stops them from even starting a new endeavor because they know in advance that they'll be overwhelmed by self criticism.  It feels safer to just stick with what's familiar than risk the tyranny of "shoulds" they impose on themselves.

The Internal Critic Can Show Up in Any Area of Your Life
For some people, the internal critic comes up in specific areas, like their physical appearance.

For those people, just looking in the mirror can be emotionally painful as the internal critic criticizes their physical appearance, often in very distorting ways.

For other people, the internal critic comes up, not just in specific areas, but in most areas of their life, no matter what they're doing.

Parts Work Combined with the Mind-Body Connection in Therapy to Overcome the Internal Critic
Parts work in therapy has many different names, including ego state therapy, internal family systems, and so on.

Parts work combined with the mind-body connection can be a very effective way to overcome the internal critic.

Self Blame and the Internal Critic

Using parts work and mind-body therapy, like Somatic Experiencing, the therapist can help facilitate the identification of the different internal aspects of self (or parts) that are affecting the client, including the internal critic.

Parts work is non-pathologizing, so that all the parts are recognized as having a good intention of wanting to preserve the self, but the parts might be going about it in a skewed way.

Here's an example of a client struggling with a strong internal critic and how a combination of parts work and mind-body therapy helped.  As always, this is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed:

When Nina came to therapy, she was nearly paralyzed by self blame.  In almost every situation in her life, she had self blaming thoughts like, "You should have done it this way instead of that way" or "You shouldn't try that--you're just going to fail."

Before she could embark on any new endeavor, like a new job or a new project, she had to do battle with all her negative thoughts.  It was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting.

Nina was aware that she grew up in a home where both of her parents were highly critical of her and of themselves. So, she knew she internalized this critical part of herself from an early age.  But just knowing this wasn't enough to change it, which is often the case with problems like this.

Helping Nina to get into a relaxed state, I asked her to recall a memory when she felt the internal critic as being especially strong.

Nina remembered how she felt when she moved to NYC from her small hometown in the Midwest to attend college in NY.

She remembered being plagued with negative thoughts about how she would never make it in NY, including the thought, "You should stay home and go to the local college.  You'll never measure up to the other students in NYC."

We continued to work with this self blaming part to try to understand what its intention was.

Before I go on, I should explain that looking at the internal critic this way is a symbolic way of making it come alive in an accessible way.

Rather than just thinking about the thoughts, we explored the internal critic almost as if it was a person.  After a while, Nina was also able to identify where she sensed the internal critic in her body, including a tightening in her throat and in her stomach.

Using parts work and the mind-body connection (i.e., identifying where the feeling is sensed in the body) helped Nina to continue to explore the feeling more deeply.

After a while, what she discovered was that the internal critic really did have a good intention, which was to keep her from getting hurt.  So, for instance, when it told her that she should stay home instead of moving to NYC to attend college, this part held a lot of fear and its intention was to keep Nina safe.

The problem was that, even though the internal critic's intention was good, the way it expressed itself was critical and damaging.  So, we worked towards helping that part to be more balanced in its expression.

With practice, instead of being critical, Nina learned to soften this part's expression so that it could evaluate in a more balanced way instead of being critical.

Of course, this takes a lot of work because the internal critic doesn't develop overnight and it takes a while to change.

As Nina became more aware when the internal critic was operating, she asked herself, "What's the intention of this part?  What is it trying to do?"

By looking at the internal critic in this way, Nina learned that there were times when the internal critic had something of value to express but, as mentioned before, it was expressing it in a skewed way.  Nina could stand back and look at her negative thoughts (the internal critic) and use her judgment to assess when to pay attention and when to gently put the thought aside.

Doing Parts Work and Mind-Body Psychotherapy
Parts work combined with mind-body psychotherapy is a gentle process.  We're never trying to squelch or get rid of a part.  Instead, we're recognizing that the part usually has a good intention, but there's a distortion involved and the part needs to be modified in a way so that it's more balanced.

Parts work helps with many different aspects of yourself.  It can be an angry part, a sad part, a fearful part, and so on.

Parts work combined with mind-body psychotherapy helps you to recognize how many different aspects of yourself are involved in you, and how the different parts can manifest at various times and in different ways.

It also helps to explain why you might feel many different feelings at the same time.  Before you recognize that you have many different aspects of self, this can be confusing.

Mind-body psychotherapy and parts work work well together in combination in dealing with difficult parts.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you feel overwhelmed by self blame that comes from a harsh internal critic, you could benefit from working with a therapist who does parts work and mind-body psychotherapy, like Somatic Experiencing.

If you work through the issues involved with your internal critic, it's possible to feel a heavy burden being lifted from you and you'll feel freer to live your life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.