Managing The Inner Critic
~ Pete Walker
In guiding clients to develop their ability to manage emotional flashbacks, my most common intervention involves helping them to deconstruct the alarmist tendencies of the inner critic. This is essential, as Donald Kalshed explains in The Inner World of Trauma, because the inner critic grows rampantly in traumatized children, and because the inner critic not only exacerbates flashbacks, but eventually grows into a psychic agency that initiates them. Continuous abuse and neglect force the child's inner critic (superego) to overdevelop perfectionism and hypervigilance. The perfectionism of Complex PTSD puts the child's every thought, word or action on trial and judges her as fatally flawed if any of them are not 100-percent faultless.
Perfectionism then devolves into the child's obsessive attempt to root out real or imagined defects and to achieve unsurpassable excellence in an effort to win a modicum of safety and comforting attachment.
The hypervigilance of Complex PTSD is an overaroused sympathetic nervous system fixation on endangerment that comes from long-term childhood exposure to real danger. In an effort to recognize, predict and avoid danger, hypervigilance develops in a traumatized child as an incessant, on-guard scanning of both the real environment and, most especially, the imagined upcoming environment. Hypervigilance typically devolves into intense performance anxiety on every level of self-expression, and perfectionism festers into a virulent inner voice that manifests as self-hate, self-disgust and self-abandonment at every turn.
When the child with Complex PTSD eventually comes of age and launches from the traumatizing family, she is so dominated by feelings of danger, shame and abandonment that she is often unaware that adulthood now offers many new resources for achieving internal and external safety and healthy connection with others. She is unaware that a huge part of her identity is subsumed in the inner critic—the proxy of her dysfunctional caregivers—and that she has had scarce room to develop a healthy self with an accompanying healthy ego.
This scenario arises frequently in my practice: A client, in the midst of reporting some inconsequential miscue of the previous week, suddenly launches into a catastrophizing tale of her life deteriorating into a cascading series of disasters. She is flashing back to the danger-ridden times of her childhood, and her distress sounds something like this: "My boss looked at me funny when I came back from my bathroom break this morning and I know he thinks I'm stupid and lazy and is going to fire me. I just know I won't be able to get another job. My boyfriend will think I'm a loser and leave me. I'll get sick from the stress, and with no money to pay my medical insurance and rent, I'll soon be a bag lady on the street."
Teaching such clients to recognize when they have polarized into inner-critic catastrophizing, and modeling to them how to resist it with thought stopping and thought substitution, are essential steps in managing flashbacks. In this case I reminded my client of the many times we had previously caught the inner critic laundry-listing every conceivable way a difficult situation could spiral into disaster, and I invited her to use thought stopping to refuse to indulge this process. I suggested that she visualize a stop sign and say "no" to the critic each time it tried to scare or demean her. I reminded her that she had learned to catastrophize from her parents, who noticed her in such a predominantly negative and intimidating way. I also reinvoked the thought substitution process we had practiced on numerous occasions, encouraging her to remember and focus on all the positive things she knew about herself.
Finally, I reminded her of all the positive experiences she had actually had with her boss, and I listed the essential qualities and accomplishments we were working to integrate into her self-image: her intelligence, integrity, resilience, kindness, and many successes at work and school.