Beating the Inner Critic: Defusing and Parting Out

Lucian* was struggling. He was close to dropping out of university and was having difficulty with his job. Fatigue was the main reason. “I watch YouTube every night. It’s hard to stop. As soon as I turn my phone off, I start to think about how useless I am. I end up feeling horrible and have to check my phone again.”

Just as our heart can’t stop beating and our lungs can’t stop breathing, our brain cannot help but think. We can distract ourselves (like Lucian and his YouTube) or we can blot our consciousness out (through drugs or alcohol), but the thought generating mind never ceases.

Many, perhaps most, people have an Inner Critic. The Critic is an internal voice which comments on and critiques our behaviour and our personality as a whole.

Most people feel distressed when the Critic is present. The Critic can make us feel anxious (“I’m heading for a disaster”), Guilty (“I really stuffed that up”), Sad (“No one will ever really love me”), or Ashamed (Lucian’s specialty – “I’m worthless”).

It is hard to cope with an Inner Critic. The most common strategy for dealing with the Critic is avoidance. We can distract from the Critic. We can blot it out with alcohol. But the Critic will be there waiting for us once the avoidance strategy is over:

“At night I think about all of the time I wasted during the day. Sometimes I just repeat “you f***ed up” again and again. I spend time on my phone to stop thinking, but then I just feel terrible about wasting so much time when I should be sleeping”.

Cognitive Defusion

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a different way for coping with self-critical thoughts: Cognitive Defusion. This is the practice of becoming less fused (attached) to your thoughts. Seeing thoughts for their character, not their content.

When our mind produces a thought, it is hard not to buy into the thought. We act as if the thought is a real thing. And we feel as if it’s telling us something real. But a thought is not something real – it is just a product of the mind.

A simple (but incredibly effective) technique for defusing from your critical thoughts is to rephrase them with the words: “I’m having the thought that…” at the start.

For example, “I’m useless”, becomes “I’m having the thought that I’m useless”.

“No one will ever really love me”, becomes “I’m having the thought that no one will ever really love me”.

This phrasing gives a distance between the content of the thought and the emotional response they elicit. You stop buying into the thought as something either true or false and start to observe the thought as simply a consequence of the thinking mind.

Parting Out

Schema Therapy encourages us to see our personality as a group of parts or modes. One of these parts might be an Inner Critic. Labelling your self-critical thoughts as the Inner Critic can empower defusion.

For example, instead of saying “I’m having the thought that I’m useless”, you might say “My Inner Critic is telling me I’m useless”. By personifying the Inner Critic, it becomes easier to defuse from the content of the thought. This technique is called “parting out”.

Lucian learnt to see his Inner Critic for what it is. “I’m now sitting with the thoughts. Sometimes I just say: ‘thanks Critic!’ in a cheeky voice. It’s harder than distracting, but it’s working – I’m getting stronger at tolerating the thoughts and I’m getting more sleep”.

 

* Names and key details changed.

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