The Internal Blame Game: How You’re at War with Yourself

Having a shaming inner critic and an angry outer critic can sabotage your life.

Posted May 30, 2018

Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

This piece is meant to shine new light on the expression: “You are your own worst enemy.” It’s a rather different take on the kind of self-sabotage that unfortunately so many of us are prone to. It’s about what we do to try to feel better about ourselves (or at least not worse). And the self-disparaging emotion we’re desperately striving to escape is shame—the emotion tied to the fundamental belief that we’re just not good enough: defective, incompetent, worthless, hopeless, and not wanted or desired. (And who wouldn’t want to do everything possible to drown out such hateful thoughts?)

To live out your life plagued by gnawing self-doubts is, frankly, intolerable. So whether we bear only a little shame, or it’s so dominant that we might we described as having a “shame-based identity” (as John Bradshaw, linking it to childhood abuse, called it three decades ago), we’ll develop potent defenses to keep it at bay.

To Freud, almost all human defenses are designed to hide, whether from ourselves or others, this negatively distorted sense of self. Curiously, the two self-protective mechanisms I’ll focus on here are diametrically opposed. Yet, paradoxically, they can be viewed as perfectly complementing one another.

On the one hand, we have the “inner critic”—the derogatory voice inside you that’s always on your case, blaming you for your deficiencies, whether real or imagined. On the other hand, we have what I’ll call the “outer critic,” regularly provoking your criticism—or anger—toward others, so (however deviously) you can get back at those originally responsible for your emotional suffering.

Although it’s generally unconscious, in this scenario you’re busy putting not yourself down but others, vigilantly searching for ways to find fault with them—as, seemingly, your original caretakers did with you. In addition, you denigrate others in an ongoing endeavor to build yourself up. Otherwise, you vaguely sense, you could fall further down that dark, gloomy pit of self-repudiation, which, misguidedly, your inner critic dug deep for you.

Immunity to Others Through Attacking Yourself

Let’s initially center on your “inner critic,” the part that’s unrelenting in its harsh judgments of you. Its negative evaluations reinforce messages you received (or thought you received) from highly critical parents. And even though it could have been your overall environment—including your extended family, neighbors, peers, schools, or religious affiliation—that contributed to your so doubting your basic worth, most likely your self-image deficits derived primarily from your parents, whose expectations and standards were either highly unrealistic or blatantly unfair.

Regrettably, your parents simply lacked the ability to grasp that as a child you (1) possessed limited ability to control your impulses, (2) weren’t yet able to fully comprehend the family rules, which may not have been consistent or adequately explained, or (3) were trying to assert your wants and needs, which (in your childhood innocence) you couldn’t realize threatened or antagonized your parents.

As a result of all these misunderstandings and misperceptions, your blaming caretakers—regardless of whether they intended to—transmitted the message that you should be ashamed of yourself. (And in fact, parents do frequently employ this so derogatory phrase when they’re frustrated with their children.) Consequently, as a powerless, defenseless child trying as best you could to fit in and be accepted by your family, you couldn’t help but "take on" such a humiliating directive and, however unconsciously, make it an intrinsic part of your identity.

Feeling obliged to incorporate an inner critic in line with the outer critics you perceived your parents as being toward you, you adopted a self-denying, self-betraying life script As an anxious, apprehensive child, you weren’t in a position to take exception to their (supposed) negative verdict. Instead, feeling obliged to do whatever you could to strengthen your uncertain bond with them, you felt compelled to join them in their negative appraisal—to conclude on your own that, as you were, you weren’t good enough. But simultaneous with that grim self-evaluation (from what psychoanalysts might call your tyrannical superego), you also needed to look for ways to counter this extremely unflattering assessment. Or at least somehow ameliorate it so that it didn’t leave you in everlasting despair.

Jay Earley, a prominent Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist, wrote a book on this subject entitled Freedom From Your Inner Critic: A Self-Therapy Approach (2013). Cognizant of the essentially paradoxical orientation that IFS takes toward self-defeating behaviors generally, he describes one’s inner critic as “attacking you to protect you.”

And just how does it accomplish this perverse objective? Simply by warning you (at times stridently) that you’ll fail unless you enlist the help of its closely connected “inner taskmaster,” which makes you work really, really hard so you can succeed and avoid feeling criticized by your parents—now firmly ensconced in your skull and incessantly wagging their (internalized) heads at you. (And here see my related PT post, “Do You Have an Inner Taskmaster? How Can You Tell?”, 2017.) As mean, even nasty, as this slave-driving part of you can be—deriding you as inept, stupid, or lazy—it still aims to motivate you to put forth your best effort, so you’ll better belong and be approved of, and thereby avoid being doomed to re-experience the psychic pain of inferiority that so burdened you as a child.

Additionally, in line with the IFS model, you also have an (awkwardly termed) “inner underminer.” And that’s the protective part that, conflicting sharply with your taskmaster, urges you not  to attempt anything to safeguard you from the disappointment of failure. Here the woefully discouraging—and confidence-eroding—message you’re getting is that since, almost certainly, you'll not succeed if you try something new or difficult, it’s safest to exit the playing field entirely.

Of course, such premature forfeiture only guarantees the “felt failure” of not giving yourself the opportunity to transcend your present limits. But inasmuch as almost all the protective parts, or sub-personalities, in your “internal family system” are juveniles (since, typically, they originated when you were still a child), that adverse outcome isn’t anything they’re capable of apprehending.

As crazy as it may seem, your underminer might also seek to protect you from succeeding if that outcome might possibly anger one of the parents residing inside your head. For they may actually have competed with you when you were young and made you feel guilty if you defeated them—say, in a game of scrabble, chess, or tennis. If your victory threatened your unstable bond with them (’cause they actually seemed to resent you for it), your triumph would have been short-lived and essentially feel like another failure (and so crucial to avoid in the future).

Similar to your inner critic, both your inner taskmaster and -underminer labor to soften the pain perpetrated on you mainly by insensitive or abusive parenting. But because they’re both so adamant in making you feel inadequate, they can only sabotage your more authentic ideals and long-term goals. (And note here my PT post: “Self-Sabotage as Passive Aggression Toward the Self,” 2011.)

Immunity to Others by Attacking Them

Rather than inwards, your angry “outer” critic redirects your deep-rooted sense of shame toward others. For too many of us it’s our single, most dominant protector, and it functions in opposition to your inner critic. You might even say it’s "at war" with this self-castigating judge because its way of helping you camouflage feelings of shame is to get you to criticize not yourself but others—in order not only to help you feel superior to them, but also to immunize you from the invalidation you’d experience if they criticized you.

Contrary to the inner critic, the outer critic believes attacking others is the right way to assist you in feeling less vulnerable with them. Nonetheless, at times it can work in conjunction with the inner critic by espousing the idea: “I’m not okay . . . but neither are you!" In any case, it’s best viewed as serving the identical purpose of safeguarding you from residual feelings of inferiority (and for a more expansive portrayal of how this unconscious stratagem operates, see my complementary “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear”).

In short, you’re hiding your shame by projecting it onto others. As has often been observed, what you can’t accept in yourself you’re apt to attribute to what’s outside yourself. And admittedly, such a psychological ploy does enable you to maintain a certain distance from old painful doubts about your inherent worth or capability.

Your outer critic, then, addresses your underlying anxieties by giving you the message that you’re actually above others. Rather than comparing yourself negatively to them (as would your inner critic), you assert—and sometimes with great vehemence—your supremacy over them. You rank yourself as having more authority, or more beauty, intelligence, wisdom—or whatever advantage might accrue from putting others down.

It’s hardly surprising that this way of perceiving others is routinely associated with narcissism. For whenever narcissists feel criticized (thus threatening their insecurely clung-to position of superiority and entitlement), they can fly into a rage (as in, "the best defense is a good offense"—and here, see yet another of my closely related posts: “The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . .”)

The many negative repercussions of anger hardly need elaboration here. By now ample literature exists elucidating how anger compromises work performance, harms physical health and, especially, damages—or even destroys—intimate relationships. True, in the moment it can make you feel more powerful (primarily because it activates the “attack chemical” of adrenaline). But finally, it’s a false power and leads you to feel all the more powerless.

So How Do We Best Deal With These Two Ultimately Self-Sabotaging Critics?

This is a complicated matter, which I can only begin to describe here.  For you can’t, through some heroic act of will, just ostracize your two shaming critics—both the one who blames you and the other who blames everybody else. Not that you wouldn’t like to since, though they may mean well, they still prevent you from living in accord with your (and not others’) deepest values, as well as bar you from attaining any sort of happiness, contentment, or inner tranquility.

Because these negatively judgmental voices constitute two of your (many) sub-personalities and—at least in the IFS model—can never be outright banished, you need, ironically, to “befriend” them: to show them compassion and let them know you appreciate and respect all their efforts in safeguarding your vulnerability. But, too, you must help them understand the substantial collateral damage which, in their immature, narrow-minded focus, they’ve inflicted on you.

Fixated in the roles they volunteered for in childhood, these parts are insufficiently aware that their primitive “shame solutions” left you little room to develop your resources, and so rectify your impaired self-image. To prompt these protective parts to be willing to listen to what you need to impart to them—for initially they’re likely to feel threatened by, or antagonistic toward, you—you’ll first need to gain their trust and confidence. Only then will they agree to step back and finally relax their erroneously compulsive efforts on your behalf. And that’s when your Self—the long suppressed essence of your being that is non-reactive, and so never damaged by the negative influences you were subject to earlier—can take on the leadership role it was originally designed for.

Liberated from these interfering parts, the Self can begin to heal your badly wounded child parts, which your various “protectors” have so zealously tried to keep exiled. And the message Self offers these sad, scared, and shamed inner children is that they’re unconditionally loved and acceptable—completely okay as they are. And that they no longer have to worry, or feel guilty, about not being perfect.

In this transformative healing process, you “triumph” over—or rather, moderate—your critical parts. And not by fighting them but making them feel safe enough to alter their original function (which, typically, has left them exhausted anyway!). Jay Earley (2013), for instance, talks about extrapolating the healthy part of your inner critic and making it your “internal mentor,” who will help you stay out of trouble but without leaving you depressed, stifling your creativity, or compromising your confidence in your ability to succeed.

Highly effective methods for accomplishing this integrative goal are delineated specifically for the layperson in several books, articles, interviews, and lectures by various writers, foremost among them Richard Schwartz, the founder of IFS.

Here are Schwartz’s two main self-help books and one key article:

Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model (Trailheads, 2001),

You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For (Trailheads, 2008), and

“Using Internal Family Systems to Reduce Self-Criticism.” (PsychotherapyNetworker.com, 09//11/2015).

Earley has also written substantially on the possibilities of IFS for self-healing, his key contribution being Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy, 2nd ed. (2009).

If, ultimately, you’re to give your Self (as opposed to others) sole authority to assess your fundamental worth, your many protective (but non-nurturing) parts need to be convinced of the advantages of surrendering their inappropriately-held, and often contradictory, pseudo-leadership roles. And once you discover how to successfully reach them, you’ll be surprised at their willingness to—at last—let you take charge of the intricate “system” that is you.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.