Befriending the Inner Critic

Slack line in the natureSession Details - August 29th - Discussion around Paul Gilbert's work on the evolutionary context of self-criticism, the threat protection system and how we can foster compassionate self-correction and motivation.

As with so many of the practices in the MSC program, working with the inner critic is a practice of creating balance. Creatively engaging with our tricky brain - the one that has evolved to have a velcro like attraction to potential threat. When it comes to the inner critic fostering a sense of balance / equanimity involves getting familiar with our inner compassion - the part of us that is supportive, encouraging, caring and motivates with the balance of wisdom and compassion. The next step it to strengthen this compassionate self, developing an inner resource of strength, wisdom and compassionate motivation. We practiced this via activating the bodies calming system and then writing a compassionate letter. Research has found that this practice alone increases our self-compassion. 

We discussed Paul Gilbert's work on the evolutionary context of the threat protection system and the link between perceived social threat and the origins of self-criticism. 

Social threat is a major danger to humans. Self-criticism which can potentially have multiple origins – abuse, neglect, bullying, competitive relationships, trying to win approval – all of which are linked to feeling ‘socially unsafe’, therefore a real threat.
Our inner critical voice activates the threat system.

Threat protection systems
• All living things have evolved threat-detection and protection systems.
• Stimuli impinging on organisms must be checked out for potential threat.
• Mammalian defenses include a menu of emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, disgust), behaviors (e.g., fight, flight, freeze, submission) and cognitive biases (e.g. ‘better safe than sorry’, ‘jumping to conclusions’).
• Threat protection systems have evolved to be attuned to certain kinds of threats and operate a better safe than sorry policy.
• Sensitivity and response to specific threats are the result of an interaction between genes and learning.
• Response options within the threat protection system can conflict, creating confusion.
• Brain states choreographed from the threat protection system can bias other processing systems.
• Over- and underdevelopment of sensitivities in threat protection underpin many psychopathologies
(The Threat protection system notes come from: Advances in psychiatric treatment (2009), vol. 15, 199–208 doi: 10.1192/apt.bp.107.005264 – Introducing Compassion Focused Therapy – Paul Gilbert)

Inner criticism as self-correction:
Desire to punish and condemn
Backward looking
Linked to disappointment and focusing on deficits
Emotions are anger, frustration, anxiety, contempt
Consider critical teacher with a child who is struggling

Compassionate as self-correction
Desire to improve - at one’s best
Forward looking
Linked to building on the positives and abilities
Validation of set back and encouragement
Consider compassionate teacher with a child who is struggling

Guides to compassionate letter writing: Strengthening the compassion part of you can be done via regularly practicing writing a compassionate letter to yourself. This is part of the MSC program. 

The point is not just to focus on difficult feelings but to help you reflect on your feelings and thoughts, be open with them, and develop a compassionate and balanced way of working with them. The letters is not about advice or telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. It is not the advice you need, but the support to act on it.

It expresses concern and genuine caring.
It is sensitive to your distress and needs.
It is sympathetic and responds emotionally to your distress.
It helps you to face your feelings and become more tolerant of them.
It helps you become more understanding and reflective of your feelings, difficulties and dilemmas.
It is non-judgmental/non-condemning.
A genuine sense of warmth, understanding and caring permeates the whole letter.
It helps you think about the behavior you may need to adopt in order to get better.


Comments from participants

“I have found mindfulness a key to coping." 

“Learning to be still and kind to myself." 

“Tina, you create a safe, warm, kind and comfortable environment."

“I could not think of a better way to start my week." 

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