Most of us have mean inner critics that when we dig deep enough, have benevolent functions, good intentions, that kind of thing (check out this article on protective functions of inner critics for more on this).
But some people have critics that go beyond mean, and have no good intentions; they’re out to kill.
In this article (about a year overdue, sorry), I’m going to describe this kind of inner critic, where they come from, and what kind of processes are contained within them.
Two warnings before you read on.
Some people may find this article triggers painful issues or memories, and makes them aware of inner dynamics that are distressing.
While I’m careful not be overly explicit in the article, if you’re not in a relatively grounded place or with good supports and you think you may get distressed beyond what is good or manageable for you, maybe just bookmark the article for a better time.
The second warning is, don’t try this at home.
In many of my articles I share ideas, processes, or tools that you can use to work on yourself by yourself, but not this time. I don’t share any tools for working on killer critics, just awareness about them.
Working with this kind of inner critic should only be done with a therapist trained in trauma therapy because the potential for re-abuse is high when working with this critic. So don’t try it yourself, and if you see a therapist, make sure they are trauma trained and super pro-active about safety.
Where do killer critics come from?
While our more benevolent critics are constructed from the dynamics in our families of origin and socio-cultural messages of what is acceptable, likeable, and safe ways of being in the world, killer critics are usually internalised representations of experiences of abuse, trauma or deep shame, in particular experiences that have been invalidated, minimised or disbelieved by others.
When someone experiences a traumatic event, the extent to which they will suffer is greatly influenced by how those around them respond, witness, and hold the person in the aftermath of the trauma.
If the event is acknowledged fully, compassion shown, responsibility attributed accurately (if required: in no-fault traumatic accidents it’s important to reinforce ‘no fault’, but in abuse contexts, abusers are fully responsible for their actions, not the victims) healing and growth can happen more readily and won’t necessarily constellate an internal killer critic.
But all too often, especially after experiencing abuse, the depth of hurt and suffering is denied and or minimised by others (“it wasn’t that bad; others have had it worse; you got off lightly”) and so we can question our own suffering and come to believe that we’re being unreasonable, oversensitive or weak (and thus we are shamed).
People are also told well-meaning rubbish like, “put it behind you”; “don’t focus on it, it will bring your vibration down”; “you’re holding onto the past”; “it happened x number of years ago, it’s not actually happening now, it’s all in your mind”. Again, these minimise experiences and invalidate people’s unique and normal reactions to trauma.
In the context of abuse, this minimising often comes from the perpetrator themselves, along with blaming the victim for provoking or inviting the abuse, or not being vigilant enough about their own protection (i.e. being drunk in public, walking alone at night etc).
All of these can contribute to an internalisation of the one who abuses and minimises.
A slight digression (but important I promise)
This dynamic of minimising suffering doesn’t only happen in response to severe traumatic experiences; loving, kind parents do it every day (although this wouldn’t tend to create a killer critic, but certainly a tendency to ignore your own suffering).
It plays out in little moments like when a small child falls over and a parent picks them up and says “you’re ok, it’s just a little scrape, no need for tears, off you go”.
The intent to encourage resilience is good, but the strategy misaligned.
Deep resilience requires us to be highly sensitive to our own suffering, not to ignore it.
We often think to be strong we need to be less sensitive, to develop a thick skin, but actually, we need to be more sensitive and more self-loving.
Over time, when parents repeatedly fail to actually ask the child their experience, to connect with their momentary suffering, support them to be with it, ask them what they need, the child will internalise this stoic response and learn to ignore their own feelings.
In itself, this is unlikely to construct a killer inner critic, but it can make people more vulnerable to minimising future traumatic or abusive events and thereby constructing these killer dynamics.
Check out this facebook live video I recorded called Why Its Important to be a Victim if you want to explore this more.
How do killer critics manifest?
Like all inner critics, killer critics can be experienced in a variety of ways.
When they manifest as inner dialogue they tend to be extreme and nasty, and sometimes encourage people to kill themselves. I’m not going to get too explicit here because the kinds of things killer critics say to people in their internal dialogue can be traumatising to read, but they tend to be extremely negative and globalised statements about worth, value, lovability etc are common.
When experienced as body symptoms, debilitating migraines are a common killer critic manifestation. Cancers and any life-threatening diseases, when worked on psychologically, can also reveal killer critic dynamics. For an amazing personal account of working with a killer critic though the experience of migraine, check out the thesis Out of the Matrix by Liz Scott.
Via synchronicity, inner experiences of killer critics can be reflected in outer experiences of life-threatening accidents or attempts on our life (this is not a causal relationship of course, having killer inner critics doesn’t mean you attract attempts on your life, it is just about how we can work with outer events as symbolically meaningful for inner dynamics).
The feeling tone or atmosphere with killer critics is often nasty and can make us feel scared, paranoid, hyper-vigilant, and deeply depressed, whereas other kinds of critics might make us feel incompetent, flat, shy, nervous etc.
As a side note, many people use substances to find temporary relief from inner critics, although not only killer critics.
Impacts of killer critics
Inner criticism of any kind impacts on all areas of our life; health, career, and relationships.
Killer critics are no different, except the impacts are often worse. The level of suffering can be more extreme and therefore the unconscious and unhealthy behaviours used to find relief (for example over eating/under eating, substance misuse, and unhealthy relationships (some of these showing a slow-suicidality) engaged in more often and to greater degrees. Therefore, the overall wellbeing impacts of killer inner critics can be expected to be greater than other kinds of critics.
Additionally, killer critics pose a further danger in that many people who experience suicidality experience inner dialogues that encourage suicide, coming from these killer critics.
What lies within the killer critic?
There are commonly two processes that emerge from working with these killer critics. It doesn’t tend to be an either or though, working with them over time, most people will experience and work with both processes and different times/stages of the work.
The first process is about power.
The killer critic is a powerful role, but its power is our own power, turned against us. One direction of work involves wrestling and fighting with this critic to steal this power back and direct it into life in a way that’s positive, constructive, and useful.
In this way, we regain access to the power that was severed by the traumatic event, and often access even greater personal power than we had before the event.
The second process is about death.
The other direction killer critic work can go is towards death. Not literally, but psychologically. A psychological death is a process whereby you transcend or detach from your everyday identity, sense of centrality, responsibility, and importance in your own life.
Often it leads people to connect with a greater sense of self, feeling at one with the universe, connecting to that which directs their life at a deeper level. In this way, it’s a deeply spiritual process, but it’s also a process of personal power because our capacity to experience transcendent states and healthy detachment contributes to our overall sense of personal power (check out this one pager on Personal Power to find out more about different kinds of power).
It’s a long-term process
It’s important to mention that this work takes time. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to walk into a therapist’s office and straight away start working directly with this killer critic.
Despite our impatience, willingness or longing for relief and healing, our psyches are highly self-protective and don’t tend to reveal their full depths until we have tried and tested our therapists over a long period of time (often several years).
There is also usually significant work to do on inner protection before working directly with the critic is safe, so this is often the first priority of therapy work and an essential part of the work. Safety and protection are the missing parts in every abuse dynamic or traumatic event, so bringing them back and grounded them well in the psyche is the central part of the recovery and growth process.
There are also times in our life that this kind of deep work is perfect, and other times it might be best put on hold. Space and support in your life that enables you to process past trauma is an important part of ensuring it is not a damaging process.
Why can’t you work on this by yourself?
You can do what you want of course. But I don’t actually think it’s possible to do this work on your own, and it’s certainly not safe.
Killer critics are strong, and so the work needs equally strong facilitation, boundaries, and awareness to ensure you don’t get re-abused or re-traumatised by this inner figure; and I just don’t think this can be done alone.
Additionally, one of the very common impacts of abuse and trauma is a loss of relationship and connection to others and humanity as a whole; so these things should be worked through with the help of others as this collaboration and connection is part of the healing process.
As with all critic work, it’s not a passive process whereby simple awareness is enough. Just noticing inner criticism is like watching someone getting bullied and doing nothing about it. It’s painful, disempowering, and makes us complicit with the bully, which magnifies the pain and shame of the one being bullied.
Inner critic work, and especially killer critic is abuse/trauma work and should be treated as such.
Where to next?
If you think you have one of these killer critics but you don’t want to or aren’t ready to work with it, you don’t have to. You might find something like Kristin Neff’s self-compassion exercises really helpful to learn to hold yourself with the tough feelings.
If you think you might be ready to work on it, give me a call. I might be the right person to help, and I might not. If it’s not me, I can recommend you to some other great trauma-trained therapists (across Australia and internationally) who might just be the right fit (check out my Ultimate Guide to Finding the Right Therapist if you are currently therapist-hunting).
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