Inner Criticism from the Process Oriented Psychotherapy Point of View


Mgr. Sylvia Ondrisova, Mgr. Slavka Menkynova



The term “inner critic” or self criticism is not used very often in psychotherapeutic language. Emotions such as “guilt”, “shame”, “self doubting”, “self-hatred”, “feelings of inferiority”, or “low self-esteem” are rather discussed. Inner criticism then refers to precedent processes or events of these feelings.


Process oriented author S. Straub (1990) prefers the term of inner criticism or self criticism, since it’s more related to the client’s specific situation, their direct experience and description (and it’s exact according to the client’s behavior.) It is not therefore based on the therapist’s interpretation. Process theory considers the inner critic as the part of us or the inner person (personified part in us) that criticizes us, judges us, and so holds a negative construct of itself (A “dream figure” in process theory terminology).


Self criticism on any level is the problem of most of the clients joining psychotherapy (to resolve their relationship and physical difficulties). Individual reactions to inner critic process are varied: sudden change of mood, loss of energy, aggression, depression or “befogging”, loss of vigilance. Many clients, however, do not realize their self-criticism. They are so well used to their inner atmosphere that they can’t distinguish processes leading to it, or being a part of it. While behind the mentioned changes of the client’s states we look for the inner critic’s attack and experienced observer identifies it using diverse verbal as well as non verbal signals. The following work with inner criticism depends mostly on the specific psychotherapeutic approach.



Table 1: Parallel concepts of inner criticism phenomena



“superego”, or “ego ideal”


“feeling of inferiority”


“parental ego state”


“self esteem” as the central  



“top dog” and “under dog”


“negative, automatic   

  patterns of thinking”


Although these approaches differ in the rank assigned to the inner criticism, in general they agree on the fact that the self-criticism is formed by learned introjected behavior and thinking patterns from the past whose authors are parents or wider social surrounding. The methods are different but the aim is the same; to overcome the inner criticism. Such an approach can be negative and critical, since it prescribes a better and healthier mode of existence. Therefore, it maintains the critical pattern of thinking.


Process oriented psychotherapy’s tribute to this area is the effort to use the dynamics of criticizing for the client’s own development.



Probably everyone has had to deal with some kind of critic, either inner or external. The good news is that process work considers the critics (despots, tyrants and even their milder forms) extremely important and effective aspects of our personal growth and our awareness’s development.


How do we really react to the criticism? Often it comes with unease, thus we try to avoid the critics; either we ignore it or try to lighten or repress it in another way. This doesn’t weaken the inner critic, nor does it make him disappear. Quite the contrary, in order to get to the consciousness he becomes more radical, menacing and seems more destructive. Its commentaries are very vague, hurting and mostly false (e.g.; “you can’t do anything properly, so no one can love you”, “you’re the stupidest person in the world” and so on). While with inner critic it works like in the Frog Prince story. In order to turn him into a beautiful prince we first have to kiss and love him. If we want to get the real message, we must welcome him, handle his critiques and make him more specific. After we integrate him, a lot of energy, wisdom and creativity is free. The critic may be transformed into our counselor, ally or a caring and trusting friend who is especially interested in us. He becomes the porter of much useful information for our future life and our relations.


Process work in general applies the finalistic point of view and looks for meaningful information in what’s happening. And the same works for the inner critic. The bases of this approach are: Observing signals and defying the structure of the process, realization of which communicative channels the criticism uses and whether the client is identified with the process.



The process structure


a) The channel structure


In POP we work with 6 kinds of communication channels. The inner critic is not just verbal oriented (“what a fool I am”, “I messed it up”) or limited to inner commentaries (audio channel).


In the visual channel, the client may feel being observed, or have a dream.


In the moving channel he appears through spontaneous gestures and moves (flapping on one’s leg or unconscious tapping) or moves coming from outside.


The proprioreceptive channel may bring information about body symptom (often headaches) or feeling heavy, being pushed down.


Relationships are channels for our inner experiences as well. The inner critic can be projected on someone else, regardless of their true opinion.


In the world channel POP works with, groups may provoke our repressed inner critics. Straub says it might be one of the reasons we sometimes don’t feel comfortable in a group.


The last two channels’ critics we realize more often, because it’s harder to forget about relationship troubles than about a bad dream.


b) Primary, Secondary Aspects of the critic


The inner critic is mostly behind the identity borders; a secondary figure, the porter of new behavior pattern (e.g. “You never do anything right”). There’s a border between the primary identity and the secondary process, represented by a figure opposing some behavior ( e.g. “You can’t leave work, what would your family say”). This border figure is not experienced as a part of primary identity (pict.1). Primary or secondary aspects of the critic must be examined in each individual case. For example, the voice tone brings information about how close the inner critic is to the primary identity. If the client speaks critically about themselves with a hard and accusing voice, the critic is closer to the identity than if the voice is quiet and full of suffering.


Picture 1: The Inner Critic



Mostly conscious

Actual Identity



Against new behavior pattern



Mostly unconscious

A new, unacceptable behavior pattern. 



The Figure Unfolding


The structure of the process shows where to expect new information. Supporting the signals emitted by the secondary figure, we are helping the client to realize the figure and represent it in adding the other channels. That might be not enough; the inner critic is always accompanied by a victim- the criticized one. In order to make the critic show in a more specific way, we need to work with both parts, enhance their mutual communication. Otherwise, the non-represented figure would show up in a different field. (Here it comes back to the importance of structure defying- primary or secondary aspects of the inner critic).


If, for instance, a therapist supports just the primary victim role while the critic is secondary, the criticism tends to get stronger and show up somewhere else. Often in the therapist, who thus, according to the field theory, doesn’t give the client a chance to get into the role of the critic and to its energy.


If we work with a primary critic client, we can meet resistance while we’re encouraging the client to make a change according to the critic.  These people try to change and work all the time, and it’s relaxation that’s missing in their lives. That is usually the secondary process creating the resistance.


Work with critic border figures is important too. While supporting behavior (experience) behind the border before working on the figure being opposed, it might show up later as reproaches or feelings of guilt or shame.


Finally a short case study from Mindell’s therapeutic practice: it illustrates a critic coming up in the moving channel first and the work on it brought a change in the therapy.


The client repeatedly bent backwards, claiming terrible tension in the back. On the client’s request, Mindell pushed the hurting point (which represents two figures; one that pushes and another that fights the pressure). The client still bent backwards and pushed against the pressure until he switched the channels to visual one. He saw someone standing behind him and poking his back, blaming him for not being honest and not expressing everything what’s inside. Then, the client started to talk about things he held for himself a long time (Mindell, 1992).


Discovering our inner critics and dealing with them has a meaning for our own inner balance but also determines our ability to handle outside criticism. The goal of process work is not to get rid of inner criticism, it might not be possible, but to try to reach an inner attitude which allows us (our clients) to be flexible and to trust our own experiences, and thus, to enlarge the borders of our awareness.




Straub S.: Stalking your inner critic. Unpublished manuscript, Zurich, 1990 (the main source for this article).


Mindell A.: Telo a sny (en. Working with the Dreaming Body), Stimul, Bratislava, 1992.


Translation: Lenka Abrahamova, September 2006