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Making Friends With Your Inner Critic

When I was in my late teens, I desperately tried to understand why I thought and felt as I did. I struggled with panic attacks, probably the result of the many traumas I had as a child. We know the traumas that happen in early childhood often result in core beliefs within the child and later that adult. The common messages a child develops as core beliefs are: “I was born bad,”  “I have no worth,”  “It was my fault that these things happened,”  “I should have known how to behave,”  “I’m always going to be this way.”

Back then I was fortunate to find a powerful book, Scripts People Live: Transactional Analysis of Life Scripts by Claude Steiner, based on theories developed by Eric Berne, that allowed me to understand what was happening in my inner world.

Steiner explained that a person’s inner world consists of three main ego states: Parent, Adult, and Child. The Parent ego state consists of a Nurturing Parent and a Critical Parent, the Adult ego state (I always think of Spock on the TV series Star Trek who only was interested in logic and facts as an example of this state), and three Child Ego States, the Natural Child, an Adapted Child who has been trained to behave properly, and a Little Professor, who is a kind of schemer.

If you want to know more you can check out the book Born to Win by Jongward and James. Note too that in the 1980’s Richard Schwartz developed a very similar model called Internal Family Systems and did not credit Eric Berne for the original concept. This information helped me appreciate it was my Critical Parent who seemed to constantly tell me I was bad, stupid, lazy, incompetent, and basically a failure. I began to realize I did not deserve to be attacked by this inner ego state that caused me so much stress and pain.

As I was making these discoveries, a very dear friend of mine came up with an image we both thought was very useful in understanding our inner processes.  She found the transactional information helpful in explaining how we had conversations in our minds. She said it was like we have a giant conference table in our minds with all these characters sitting around it, discussing, debating and sometimes arguing about how we were to think and behave. In some ways this is like the images in the excellent movie “Inside Out” that shows several characters in the heroine’s mind – Joy, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust – who live in her mind directing her thoughts and actions.

Of the characters sitting around this conference table, it was the harsh, often mean Critical Parent that I realized was dominating my thought processes and increasing my stress levels. The process of becoming more aware allowed me to at least understand that I did not have to believe what that Critical Parent was whispering, or at times shouting in my mind.

My invitation to you: you can access your power to recognize that you may have an inner critic who perpetuates toxic messages that put you down and reinforces the beliefs Jane Stevens identified as typical for those who experienced significant traumas in childhood. This can empower you to appreciate that you can decide when you do not deserve inner criticisms. You can appreciate that there are times we all need to hold ourselves accountable and our inner Critical Parent can help us maintain our moral compass, considering whether or not a criticism is reasonable, healthy, and helpful.  

I think Mr. Rogers said it well:

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. If you had significant childhood trauma, did it cause you to develop one or more of the core beliefs Jane Stevens referred to? If so, how has having these inner beliefs impacted your life as a child and even now as an adult?
  2. Does the image of a conference table around which your various ego states discuss how you are to think, believe and behave resonate with you? Notice how it makes you feel, any sensations it creates, any images, memories it evokes.
  3. What can you do to help yourself quiet that inner Critical Parent, even as you recognize that we all at times need a healthy inner voice that criticizes us in order to help us maintain our moral compass?

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