Thursday, May 9, 2013

From Critic to Ally

From Critic to Ally
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

In my last article, “ABCD and Dirty Coffee Filters” (Jan. ‘98) I mentioned that we need to turn our internal critic “into an ally, like a friendly coach or manager who will work with us instead of against us”. I realized, by the comments I got that I might as well have been telling you to sprout wings and fly. “How do you turn the critic into an ally? . . . All I get from my critic is a constant stream of verbal abuse - it’s as far from a friendly manager as I can get.” 
I am going to attempt to outline the steps that I use to help my clients work with their critic to sort out a cooperative, more productive relationship. (I urge you to work with a therapist to do this, because if the critical part feels threatened it may become even more extreme in its negative behavior.)  Before we can change our relationship with the critic, we have to stop wanting to get rid of it. I ask the client to imagine what would happen if the critic ceased to be, if there were absolutely no criticisms in her head. The first reaction is usually a feeling of relief, freedom, or lightness. My next question is “What would go haywire if your critic were gone?” “I would be a slug. I’d never amount to anything. I would be rude and not care about others” are common answers. By establishing that we need our critic, and are not going to get rid of it, our critic will not feel threatened and will be more likely to cooperate with us. 
So our first step is to quiet down and listen to the critic in a non-judgmental, impartial way. When I suggest this my clients often look very surprised! “You want me to listen to the critic?!” That’s exactly what they have not wanted to do for a long time. I work with the premise that all of our parts have a positive intention for us: deep down inside all of our parts really want something good for us. But, often the ways they act out these positive intentions cause negative outcomes. By listening and trying to uncover the critic’s positive intention for us, we are attempting to change the relationship we have with our critic.
After listening to the critic, I instruct my client to ask the critic what it is trying to accomplish for her (the client). I have my client imitate the critic’s voice and inflection. At first, the critic’s voice is harsh and loud, “I have to keep harping on her over and over so she won’t screw up so much.” (Sound familiar?) I will repeatedly ask, “But what are you trying to do for her?” I usually will get a pattern of answers like, “I don’t want her to make so many mistakes ......I’m trying to make her more productive.......I’m trying to help her become a better person......I just want her to be happy.” With each progressive question and answer the critic’s voice usually becomes softer, gentler, and more nurturing. I explain to the client that it wasn’t what the critic was trying to say that felt so bad, it was how it was saying it. Often our critic spoke to us in this manner because it was how we were spoken to when we were younger, it was the only way the critic learned how to speak to us. It continued to speak to us in this way, because often we wouldn’t listen to it when it spoke to us in any other way. Over time it adapted a more and more extremely negative voice in order to get our attention.
When we have uncovered the critic’s positive intention, to be happy, then I ask the client if she wants that too. Almost always, the answer is yes. That’s when I suggest to both the client and her critic that they work together to accomplish their common goal, rather than continue to fight each other. “What you’re doing isn’t working, so why not try something different?” 
We try to approach it as a “Science Experiment”, for an amount of time, and if it doesn’t work, she and the critic can always go back to their old pattern. Sometimes when it doesn’t feel so permanent, it seems easier to try something new.
We set up an agreement between the client and the critic: the critic is to speak to the client in the soft, gentler, nurturing voice and the client will listen and consider what the critic has said. If the critic slips and speaks in the loud and harsh manner, the client is to gently remind the critic of their agreement. If the client doesn’t listen to the critic when it is soft, gentle and nurturing, it is allowed to “call her on it”.
The critic needs to learn to use language that is rational, rather than the distorted thinking patterns that can be so abusive. I recommend reading Feeling Good by David Burns. By practicing daily the exercises in the book, speaking to yourself in a calm and rational manner will become second nature over time. 
Imagine, a new, productive, and cooperative relationship with your critic. Your critic would be like a manager urging you to move forward in your life, and you would feel like you were making progress towards your life’s goals. You would be able to go about your life doing the best you could without constantly running yourself down about not being “perfect”. If you did slip up, the critic would gently reprimand you in a way that would enhance learning from your mistake, so you would be less likely to repeat it. Your fear of making mistakes would be almost non-existent. The critic would feel less harried and more satisfied because real progress would be made. You can do it! Keep working at it! You’re worth it!

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