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Trauma

Silencing Our Inner Critic After Attachment Trauma

How to overcome three common inner critic messages.

Key points

  • One of the most common after-effects of childhood attachment trauma is the development of a harsh inner critic.
  • At the root of self-hate and self-neglect are conditioned beliefs that one isn't good enough to be loved or cared for.
  • Feelings of self-hate and self-neglect can generalize to self-sabotaging behavior where trauma enactment is likely.
Source: kflour/Unsplash
Source: kflour/Unsplash

One of the most common after-effects of childhood attachment trauma is the development of a harsh inner critic that replaces a person’s inner voice. By nature, we are hardwired to connect with others, which teaches us how to love and respect ourselves.

However, attachment trauma from abuse, neglect, abandonment, or invalidation forces a child to adapt to punitive environments where their sense of self becomes compromised. Instead of feeling connection and safety with those in their life, they learn survival mode. Instead of learning self-love and self-advocacy from a healthy upbringing, they forgo accepting themselves in exchange for compulsively trying to become what they believe their caregivers will want.

What Is Our Inner Critic?

Anyone can develop negative feelings towards their choices or behavior, especially in vulnerable moments. However, what separates negative feelings from a cruel inner critic is a sense of worthlessness at its core message. Negative feelings based on making a poor choice relate to guilt, whereas the messages connected to an inner critic relate to shame.

Thus, negative feelings associated with guilt may include a person saying, “I made a mistake,” whereas the message received from shame may include, “I am a mistake.”

3 Common Inner Critic Messages and How To Overcome Them

1. Comparisons

Children are not hardwired to compare themselves to others. This learned behavior results from socialization—including, among other things, constant nagging, minimizing, dismissiveness, and invalidation from demanding or even abusive parents.

For example, if a parent is high in narcissism and values image over their child’s emotional health, they may nitpick the child for bringing home a “B” on a test while shaming the child that they should have done better. Or they may compare their child’s weight or looks to the child’s friends by devaluing them in front of others.

When the child grows into an adult, they may wrongly believe that they are not “good enough” and may make mental comparisons on everything from what car others drive compared to themselves, to what degree they have, to how they look—which keeps them “stuck” in a perpetual loop of comparing themselves to others.

Overcoming comparisons: It’s important that a person learn to identify their emotional “triggers” to help minimize falling down a rabbit hole of comparing themselves to others. Once these are recognized, it can become easier to work through them without comparing them.

For example, if you notice that you tend to begin comparing yourself to your friends’ achievements, it’s important to notice this as a potential “trigger.” Then, you can counteract it by reminding yourself of your own accomplishments as worthy and valid, albeit different from your friend’s accomplishments.

2. All-or-nothing thinking

Shame is the breeding ground for all-or-nothing thinking and behavior. Children who grow up being conditioned to wrongly believe their value hinges on their accomplishments or how good they make their parents look are subliminally learning the foundation for all-or-nothing thinking.

For example, if a child scores at the top of their class, their parents may dote on them as “the best.” This conditioning can breed a slippery slope of unspoken expectations or conditions of worth, where the child is only shown attention or acceptance when performing to their caregivers’ expectations.

As adults, they may learn to associate their worthiness with their success (“all” thinking), or their inner critic may take center stage if they don’t live up to their own expectations they have set for themselves (“nothing” thinking). All-or-nothing thinking leads to a person’s behavior being aligned with these kinds of cognitive distortions where they “either” perform excessively “or” don’t bother trying at all.

Overcoming all-or-nothing thinking: Learning to express fewer all-or-nothing thoughts is important for helping overcome this pattern. Common expressions include using words like “all,” “nothing,” “always,” “never,” and “everything.”

It’s also important to begin relabeling these types of all-or-nothing thoughts as they surface to reduce these distortions. For example, “never” or “always” can be changed to “sometimes,” which is more inclusive and less absolute in its approach.

3. Self-hate/self-neglect

Children raised in families with traumatizing parents are also being raised to believe that they have no value or worth. As a result, many turn their caregivers’ abuse onto themselves in the form of self-hatred and self-neglect.

As adults, this pattern may generalize to self-sabotaging behavior where trauma enactment is likely. For example, a person may be unconsciously attracted to narcissistic or predatory types that negatively reinforce these toxic inner critic messages based on self-hate and self-neglect.

Overcoming self-hate/self-neglect: At the root of self-hate and self-neglect are conditioned beliefs that they aren’t good enough to be loved or cared for. Healing from this pattern typically includes learning to observe the inner critic's message from the outside, looking in. When a person changes their perspective on how they “hear” the message, it can become easier to take steps to challenge the inner critic and call it out on its toxic messages.

References

Gunnarsson, N.V. (2021). The self-perpetuating cycle of shame and self-injury. Humanity & Society, 45(3), 313-333.

Walker, P. (2014). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure: Lafayette.

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