You know you have an internal critic when your therapist tells you that you have an “Integrated Self” and a “Critical Self.”
Yep, that’s right. When I went back to counseling in February 2018 (you know, after seeing three other counselors who hadn’t been able to help) to continue dealing with the crushing realities of a sexual pain disorder I’d faced since July 2011, I realized I had an even bigger problem with self-criticism than I thought I did.
Thankfully, this therapist was a game-changer. As we built trust, she helped me notice the differences in how I would speak when I was in a healthier, integrated mind-space versus how I would speak about myself when shame, fear, and self-protection were ignited.
Initially, I came to counseling because I wanted a formula, a guarantee on how to “fix” myself. I figured after I conquered my issues, then I would feel less critical of myself. She told me I had the process backwards. She told me that I would continue to wrestle deeply with shame unless I learned how to love myself now, even if I couldn’t fix it or things never got better.
If I could offer that kind of unconditional love to myself now, then the knots of shame all bundled up inside me could begin to unravel—and there could actually be hope of improvement.
What those improvements would be, she didn’t know, but the shame and criticism and contempt I held for myself were so crushing it would be nearly impossible to move forward as I was.
I truly didn’t know what to do with that. I realized that, even on a basic level, I struggled to be kind to myself when I made mistakes or to let myself rest when my body was experiencing chronic pain from my autoimmune disease. Somehow, in this area where I felt like I had failed most deeply—where I experienced the sharpest shame—I was supposed to figure out how to offer myself kindness instead of criticism?
Thankfully, my counselor entered this space with me and knew that my Critical Self escalated when she felt unsafe or too exposed, when she felt the shame alive in her body and didn’t know how to cope. My counselor would say, “Nicole, your Critical Voice is dominating this conversation. She seems pretty loud and worked up, so what does she need? What kindness does she need from you?”
At first, I would get angry when she would point it out (really, I felt exposed, feeling like I had somehow failed), which just exacerbated the problem. I was so used to being critical of myself . . . but to have someone else see it . . . that shame that was stored up in my body simply unleashed. Thankfully, my therapist created a safe place to contain, feel, and process it all.
Slowly, I learned how to recognize what my body felt like when my Critical Self was in control. Through an incredible, challenging treatment called EMDR, I was able to de-escalate some of the trauma that had lived in my body and mind. I could honor my Critical Self and the role she played to protect me, while also showing up for my Integrated Self now, as I became more whole. I could have compassion for my Critical Self; I could offer myself care instead of contempt: not just about sex or the limitations of my body or the boundaries I needed to feel safe, but also in how I showed up in the world when I made a mistake or was feeling vulnerable.
My sweet best friend (coincidentally another Red Tent sister, Allison Johnson) told me a few years ago: “You are harder on yourself than almost anyone I know. I found this song, and I think your heart needs it.” I wept when I first heard it and still get a little teary-eyed from time to time.
These lyrics especially feel as though they throw the emergency break on my heart; they cause me to pause and take notice: “I know it’s hard to hear it when that anger in your spirit / is pointed like an arrow at your chest . . . How does it end when the war that you’re in is just you against you against you?” I hope this song will be soul medicine for anyone else who struggles with their Critical Self.
Nicole Clifton is a Phoenix-native, a voracious reader, an Enneagram 8, a passionate advocate against injustice, and committed to being a life-long learner. Her educational background is in psychology and was a Resident Director at Grand Canyon University for 8 years. As aa RD, she loved mentoring and getting to engage with college students about a variety of topics such as embracing diversity, LGBTQ awareness, healthy relationships & boundaries, sex trafficking, body image, forgiveness, and the power of vulnerability & owning our stories. Nicole and her husband have been married for 8 years and are figuring out how to chase their dreams together. Read more about Nicole here or watch her TEDx talk here.